Injured Airman finds support in Palace HART

Brian G. Kolfage, personnel security clerk assigned to the 355th Security Forces Squadron, was severely wounded while deployed to Balad, Iraq, in 2004. Mr. Kolfage was awarded the Purple Heart for his injuries. (Coutesy photo)

Brian G. Kolfage, personnel security clerk assigned to the 355th Security Forces Squadron, was severely wounded while deployed to Balad, Iraq, in 2004. Mr. Kolfage was awarded the Purple Heart for his injuries. (Coutesy photo)

DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz -- "To this day, I'm still the most severely injured service person to survive since Vietnam," he says with a smile on his face. Brian G. Kolfage, a personnel security clerk assigned to the 355th Security Forces Squadron, was severely wounded while deployed to Balad, Iraq, in 2004. At that time, Senior Airman Kolfage was on his second deployment of his four-year career, looking forward to returning to his homestation, Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas.

"I walked out of my tent on Sept.11, 2004, and was going to go and get a bottle of water (before I went to the gym)," Mr. Kolfage said. "I got about 20 feet and that's when a mortar landed about 2 feet away from me. Almost instantly, my legs and right hand blew right off. I was fully conscious, but I didn't really know what happened. I was trying to stand up and trying to figure out what was happening. I thought I was dreaming."

Within seconds the sirens began to go off and those around were trying to help him. "I was trying to look at my wounds, but my friend put his hands in front of my face so I wouldn't see," he said. "I didn't know it was that bad. I saw my hand and it was completely severed off and I saw my thumb on my left hand just hanging off. I was laying there. People were screaming. They were stuffing towels and stuff inside my wounds, I guess. A couple of other people were doing self aid buddy care. About
two minutes went by and the Air Force had their ambulance there. That's really when the pain started to kick in. I was yelling at the medic to put me to sleep or put me on pain killers and they were like, 'No, no ... we can't.' I guess it was because I didn't have much blood left and if they gave me something, they said I would have just died. Pretty much all my blood was on the ground. I was in the ambulance for maybe a whole minute. The hospital for that whole area in Iraq was in Balad, so I was real lucky. I was right there. They carted me to the front door on their little stretcher and everyone was just looking at me like, 'This guy's going to die.' I knew it wasn't good when I saw the doctors looking at me. They had that look like, 'This dude's not going to make it.'"

He requested to be put to sleep and this time the medical team complied. Two days later he woke up at Walter Reed Medical Center, Md. "I don't remember the whole trip," he said. "When I was asleep, that's when they did all of the surgeries. They amputated my hand, my legs, stabilized me and cut open my stomach to make sure I didn't have any internal injuries.

While on the road to recovery, Mr. Kolfage was hospitalized for almost a year. "I had to have 15 additional surgeries while I was there," he said. "I've had to go through a lot of rehab, as I'm sure you'd imagine. I've been walking a little bit (with prosthetics). I've had some problems with that, but I've overcome them now. And I have other prosthetics. It just takes time."

As he recovered and was released from the hospital, he had to go on with his life and decide what to do for a living. That's where Palace HART (Helping Airmen Recover Together) came in. The Palace HART liaison came to help make his decision a reality. "It's a program that, basically, if you get injured, they'll take care of all the dirty work," he said. "You don't have to worry about anything, like getting a job.

They coordinate pretty much everything. I learned about it, once I got here to D-M. They took care of helping me to get a job, pretty much all my paperwork and they wrote my resume. They also helped work with the Veterans Affairs people to get disability. They asked me where I wanted to go and I told them here. I got here and that was it." He said that Palace HART relieved some of the stress he would have otherwise dealt with.

"It was just so easy to transition," he said. "I was under enough stress when all of this was going on. I had a lot on my mind and they took care of everything." He said the program helped him transition back into "normal life" again. "It allowed me to be more independent at first, you know, getting back into having a normal life, instead of sitting at home all day, like I could have," he said. "In the long run, I think it helped me a lot, because if I didn't have a job in the military, then I guess I would have been chillin'. I can't do that, I'm too young, I have to stay busy."

The road to recovery has and will continue to be a long one, and Mr. Kolfage says he couldn't have done it alone.

"The Air Force helped me greatly with funds and assistance with my family and taking care of all the logistics," he said. "And I couldn't have done this without my wife, Nikki, period. It wouldn't have been this easy. I mean, she took care of me in the hospital, doing what the nurses do. It was hard enough doing it with her, I couldn't imagine doing it without her."

Even though he is still not fully healed, he finds a way to smile.

"Right now I have prosthetic legs," he said. "They start real short, at 4 foot 7 inches and every month they add a few inches to your legs. By the time I'm done, in November, I'll be about 5 foot, 10 inches. I used to be 6 feet 2 inches, but it's all good." Even though Mr. Kolfage will never be the same again, he maintains a positive attitude. "Many people have asked me how bad I want my legs back," he said.

"After seeing and experiencing all these horrific, life-changing situations I would not want them back. I would not be the person I am today and know what I know now, if this never happened to me.

"Your limbs are not a necessity to function and live normal in society. You just have to be very creative and patient and you will learn new ways to overcome obstacles and eventually you will be able to do everything you have done before. It may sound cliché but, if you put your mind to it, you can do anything you want."

And for many other injured veterans, Palace HART is helping ensure they can accomplish their goals as well. For more information about the program call the Family Support Center at 228-6047.