TUCSON – It’s a weekday afternoon when Brian Kolfage pulls into the parking lot at the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture.
Immediately, it’s clear Kolfage isn’t your typical student.
At 30, he’s older than most undergraduates studying architecture. His gait isn’t like that of his fellow students. And he’s missing his right hand.
Kolfage is in the third year of a rigorous five-year program, and classmates and faculty say they are amazed by his work.
“Brian was right-handed, and he not only had to learn to write with his left hand, but he had to learn to draw with his left hand. And he’s impeccable,” said Siri Trumble, an adjunct lecturer who was Kolfage’s first architecture teacher at UA. “He quickly emerged as one of the top draftsmen.”
Kolfage’s story is one of persistence: He overcame mighty obstacles to pursue a challenging degree while learning to walk again and use a prosthetic right hand.
What pushes him, Kolfage said, is his recognition that he still has the ability to pursue his dreams.
He said that hit home while recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He saw other military personnel who had suffered brain injuries in combat and who no longer remembered their spouses or families.
“When I saw that, it clicked in my head,” said Kolfage, who was awarded a Purple Heart. “Your limbs are not a necessity, but your brain is. I was motivated to move on. I was happy that wasn’t me.”
‘I wanted to go’
Kolfage said he never was supposed to be in Iraq the day he lost his limbs.
While he was stationed in Kuwait in 2004, the Air Force sought volunteers to work at Iraq’s Balad Air Base.
Kolfage, a competitive man who grew up playing hockey in Michigan, desperately wanted to go, despite the base being the target of insurgent attacks.
He wasn’t, however, picked for the mission. He was furious.
Kolfage said he even tried scaring a fellow airman out of going, hoping to take his spot. Ironically, Kolfage told him he would get his legs blown off if he took such a dangerous assignment.
As fate would have it, the man Kolfage tried to spook did back out at the last minute — and Kolfage got the job as an air-cargo inspector.
“I didn’t want to sit in Kuwait and do nothing,” Kolfage said. “I was ecstatic. I wanted to go.”
The day was blistering hot, nearly 120 degrees, when Kolfage awoke in the early afternoon of Sept. 11, 2004, following a graveyard shift at Balad.
Military intelligence had warned the base there could be trouble. It was the third anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.
Kolfage had seen rockets land on the runway and near the base. But Kolfage, 6-foot-2, trim and well-built, tried to make it like any other day by working out before returning to work.
When he got up, Kolfage was thirsty. So he threw on his size 11.5 Adidas shoes, a pair of Abercrombie surf shorts, a T-shirt and a white baseball cap, then walked about 20 feet from his tent to grab a cold bottle of water.
Suddenly, Kolfage said, what sounded like a loud turbine engine whizzed by his head and a woman directly in front of him began to scream as if someone had been killed.
A 107-millimeter mortar shell landed nearby, nearly liquefying his two legs and slicing his right arm, near the wrist, and left thumb. He was bleeding profusely.
“I was laying on the ground, unconscious, for the first 30 seconds. Then I was trying to figure out what had happened. I tried standing up, but nothing was working at all,” Kolfage said. “I thought I was dreaming.”
Medicine Kolfage took in Iraq to fight malaria often gave him vivid dreams. He was thinking he was in the midst of another.
But this was a real, living nightmare.
Colleagues on the base rushed to save him, trying to stanch the bleeding by stuffing towels near his pelvis where his legs should have been attached.
He was in surgery for more than eight hours, going through nearly 21 pints of blood. After being stabilized, he was put on a C-17 aircraft retrofitted as an air hospital and flown to Germany.
His parents were contacted and told to get to the U.S. military’s medical center in Germany immediately.
“No one was optimistic,” Kolfage said. “They were planning for the worst.”
Settling in Tucson
Yet on the way to Germany — where wounded U.S. troops are routinely stabilized before being transferred home — Kolfage unexpectedly began to do better. The plane refueled and went on to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Kolfage was taken to nearby Walter Reed National Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
From September 2004 to February 2005, Kolfage underwent 16 surgeries, including 13 in his first two months at the hospital.
Many were to wash out the limbs and remove sand and metal in his body, Kolfage said. One of the surgeries was to replace his left thumb, and it required doctors to remove bone from his right hip.
Though his body was healing, Kolfage said physical therapy was difficult.
Learning to write with his left hand was challenging, and he had trouble with his prosthetic legs because they wouldn’t properly attach. Walking was painful.
Feeling he was ready to move on, Kolfage left Walter Reed in July 2005, settling in Tucson two months later.
He said he came to southern Arizona for two reasons: He’d liked the area when passing through Tucson for two days before he was deployed to the Middle East, and the Air Force offered him a civilian job at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base — a job that he held until returning to college.
Once in Tucson, Kolfage started being treated by Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, a company that gained fame for its development of a prosthetic tail for Winter, a dolphin featured in the movie “Dolphin Tale.”
Hanger started Kolfage on “stubbies,” short prosthetic legs that allowed him to gain his balance and relearn to walk. Slowly, the stubbies were expanded, and the company used a special silicone gel initially developed for the dolphin to help make Kolfage’s prosthetic limbs more comfortable after being attached. Today, Kolfage stands about 5 feet 10 on his prosthetic legs.
“He’s extraordinary. What I am most impressed with in Brian is, I have never heard him complain about his situation,” said Jeff White, a Hanger prosthetist/ orthotist who has worked with Kolfage for more than five years. “No matter how good prosthetic technology is, if he wasn’t driven, there’s nothing we could do for him. He’s willing to work hard.”
In the same way that Kolfage never gave up on life when he lost his legs and hand, he also never gave up on the idea of falling in love again after his first marriage soured.
After moving to Tucson, Kolfage began to court Ashley Goetz, whom he knew when he first enlisted at age 19 and was stationed in San Angelo, Texas.
He had tried to date her at the time, when she worked as a hostess at a Chili’s restaurant, but she turned him down. She said she had a boyfriend, and her dad wouldn’t let her date a military man when she was still in high school.
Through Facebook, Kolfage contacted Goetz in 2009, after his first marriage had ended. They started communicating. As their friendship grew, he invited her to Tucson.
Goetz, who knew Kolfage was injured, said she accepted the invitation because she figured it would be fun to come to Arizona.
The fun trip turned into a romance, and the couple married May 28, 2011.
“I had a big crush on her when I was living in Texas. I would joke to others that she probably was the girl who got away,” Kolfage said. “Marrying her is a dream come true.”
Ashley, 26, said her husband is the same guy she met when they were younger.
“It was an instant connection,” she said when they reunited. “I always had a crush on him and thought he was cute.”
Not giving up
The couple say they eventually want to start a family, and Kolfage plans to attend graduate school after earning his architecture degree.
Kolfage, who attended President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in January as a guest of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, occasionally returns to Walter Reed to visit soldiers and their families.
His message: Don’t give up.
“I tell them they will be able to work, and there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Kolfage said. “Your life begins again. It becomes a new normal.”