Master Sgt. Chuck Roberts
What doesn’t kill me only makes me that
Based on this personal philosophy
tragically acquired in Iraq, Brian Kolfage Jr., could be
considered a pillar of strength.
A mortar attack left the senior airman without
legs and a right arm. Doctors told him he “wasn’t
supposed to live -- but I did,” said Airman Kolfage,
who has been surviving and thriving the past several
months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in
During that time, he’s gotten married, learned to
walk and is leaning toward a future that includes a
business degree and a government job somewhere
out West. Those who know the outgoing 23-year-old,
say nothing can stand in his way.
Laura Friedman, his physical therapist, .rst met
Airman Kolfage in the intensive care unit at Walter
Reed soon after his three-day medevac journey from
Balad Air Base in northern Iraq last September. Even
though he was so disabled that the former security
policeman couldn’t sit up on his own, he struck up a
conversation about college and other future plans.
“He’s a forward thinker,” Ms. Friedman said. “He
doesn’t dwell on what he doesn’t have, but instead
focuses on what he does have, and he works with
that. He’s going to do well for himself no matter what
he does. If he can get through this, he can get through
There was nothing out of the ordinary about his
life to prepare him for what lay ahead. His formative
years were spent as a “beach rat” sur.ng and hanging
out in Honolulu, where he met Nikki Grounds, who
became his girlfriend, and later his wife.
Her father was reassigned to Fort Sam Houston,
Texas, and Airman Kolfage soon followed. He
had tried college for
a semester with an
interest in marine
biology, but said he
lacked focus and joined
the Air Force with the
intent of .nishing his
degree while in the
school, he was assigned
to Goodfellow Air Force
Base, Texas, where
his .rst day on the job
as a gate guard was
Sept. 11, 2001. It was
exactly three years later
when he exited his tent
quarters at Balad. It was
early afternoon, and
he had just awakened
after working the night
shift as an inspector
for the Department of
luggage and packages
leaving the base.
He had deployed
to Kuwait a few weeks
prior, but volunteered
for the job in Iraq because he was “pretty
excited to be part of something .rsthand. I like to be
where the action is,” said Airman Kolfage, who was
on his second Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment.
Balad had come under mortar attack almost
daily during the short time he’d been there. He was
walking through tent city to the morale tent for some
water when a 107 mm mortar shell landed about .ve
feet away, knocking him nearly six feet through the
air. He landed face-.rst onto a wall of sandbags, but
No thoughts of death
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“You won’t think about death. I didn’t. I just wanted
to go home and be with Nikki. I wasn’t scared. I
was angry that it was me and not knowing what was
going to happen to me. I was lying on rocks. I took a
look around and saw bloody body parts everywhere
-- muscle and skin. It made me more furious.”
His good friend and tent mate, Senior Airman
Valentin Cortez, was thrown from his bed and could
hear debris raining down from the mortar blast that
shredded tents in the immediate area of its impact.
Airman Cortez called out to his friend, but heard only
yelling and screaming from outside.
With mortar shells still falling close by, Airman
Cortez rushed outside and saw, through a cloud of
dust in the air, a body lying on the ground. When he
realized who it was, he knelt down beside his friend
and feared he was dead until he suddenly gasped for
air. As Airman Cortez and others treated his injuries,
which included a collapsed lung, Airman Cortez said
he tried to divert his friend’s attention from seeing the
extent of his wounds.
“However, he looked at me, and in a calm and
collected voice, he said, ‘Man I already know. Just get
me home to Nikki,’” Airman Cortez said in a written
statement about the incident.
Rushed to hospital
Airman Kolfage was rushed to the base hospital
where his three limbs were amputated. During
surgery, a call went out for blood and within minutes,
dozens of people rushed to the hospital. It was to
be the .rst of 16 painful surgeries, most of them to
remove shrapnel and debris. Even today, shrapnel
and debris still emerge as small, sand-sized particles
that can be squeezed from his body like a blister.
About three days later, he arrived at Walter Reed.
Nikki arrived soon after and has remained at his
bedside since. It was in his hospital room where they
were married in a private ceremony.
“It’s tough by yourself,” Airman Kolfage said. “I
couldn’t have done it without her.”
It’s been tough enough even with her. It took three
weeks before he could sit up on his own. However,
becoming adept with his prosthetic right hand came
quickly, because his left hand was in a cast, and
he was forced to use his prosthetic arm exclusively.
To condition his body for what was ahead, such as
prosthetic legs, required up to six hours of physical
therapy .ve days a week, much of it devoted to
strength and balance.
He makes a physical therapist’s job an easy one,
said Ms. Friedman, describing Airman Kolfage as an
independently minded hard worker who excels at
adapting and problem solving. She said his sense of
humor and positive attitude are equally important.
Some of her patients are angry at their situations;
others set limits within their minds.
“I knew it would be harder if I fought it,” Airman
Kolfage said during a telephone interview while
accompanying Nikki at a nail salon across the street
from Walter Reed. “It’s not really that bad. You just
have to learn to do everything all over again.”
© 2005 Airman. All rights reserved.