WASHINGTON – Just hours before the State of the Union address Tuesday, Brian Kolfage was in Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ office, reflecting on the determination and perseverance of the congresswoman.
“She’s a tough woman,” Kolfage said of Giffords, whose recovery from a 2011 shooting captivated the nation. “I know she’ll overcome it (her injuries) and she’ll be stronger.”
But before Giffords inspired the nation, Kolfage – who lost both legs and an arm in a 2004 mortar attack in Iraq – inspired her.
“The congresswoman knows now on a personal basis what it takes (to struggle with injury). She can relate to him in a new way now,” said Rob Barber, Giffords’ district director.
That inspiration is one reason Giffords invited Kolfage, who had been a member of her veterans advisory council, to be her guest for the State of the Union this week. He attended in his Air Force uniform and wheelchair, his wife at his side.
Like Giffords, Kolfage’s recovery has surprised and inspired many who thought he would not recover from his injuries. After the explosion that claimed both of his legs and part of his right arm, he was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where doctors struggled to figure out appropriate treatment, he said.
“It seemed like I was there for a year wasting a lot of time,” he said Tuesday. “They never had anyone who was as seriously injured as I was at the time. They didn’t know what to do with me.”
His perspective changed after watching another service member, who had sustained a head injury, struggle to remember the family members sitting next to him.
“When I saw that, it just made me feel like my limbs can be replaced and I have my head, so I put it all behind me at that point,” Kolfage said. “I was just happy to be alive and have a working mind.”
After a year at Walter Reed, Kolfage moved to Tucson, where he started working as a base security manager at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Slowly, he began to rebuild his life, eventually enrolling in the University of Arizona’s architecture school.
Kolfage, 30, plans to graduate in 2014 and has his sights set on graduate school at Harvard, a dream he can consider thanks to a post-9/11 GI Bill that Giffords pushed.
The last time Kolfage talked to Giffords before this week was on Jan. 7, 2011 – the day before she was shot in the head in the Tucson shooting spree – to invite her to his May wedding.
A day later, Kolfage and then-fiancee Ashley were driving back from Texas when they heard about Giffords’ shooting on the radio.
“It was surreal to think that happened to someone so nice and generous,” he said.
While he was honored to be Giffords’ guest at the State of the Union, he said he was surprised to get the call from Barber.
“I’m not really sure why she chose me,” Kolfage said. “She could have picked so many people – all the people who saved her life.
“If I was in her shoes, I probably would have brought the people that saved my life. It just shows the type of person she is.”
But Barber said the decision was an easy one for Giffords.
“The first name she came up with was Brian,” he said. “He represents so much of what the congresswoman has fought for during her time in Congress.”
Barber, who was also wounded in the Tucson shooting, remembers the first time he and Giffords met Kolfage at a trauma center in Tucson three years ago.
“We were just absolutely astounded when we met him,” Barber said. “His attitude, his positive view of the world despite the fact that he’s lost three limbs. It was just extraordinary and inspiring.”
Barber said Kolfage represents many of the things Giffords has fought for in Congress: He is a veteran, he is using the GI Bill for his education and he is a daily reminder of the power of optimism.
“She also wanted to be able to illustrate to the world that … treatment is available” for veterans, Barber said.
When Barber first called last week, Kolfage didn’t know what to think.
“I thought about it and I was like, ‘Wow, this is a really important event,’” he said.
But the opportunity to see Giffords was what made coming to the nation’s capital special, Kolfage said.
“The most important thing tonight is seeing Gabby,” Kolfage said. His wife, Ashley, had brought her flowers.
As they waited for her Tuesday, Kolfage recalled Giffords asking how he dealt with his injuries and recovery, before she became the victim of a shooting.
“I told her you have to put things in perspective,” he said. “There’s always a worse case and if you can just realize that and be happy you’re alive you can conquer pretty much anything.
“Hopefully she remembered that.”