Brian Kolfage Motivational Veteran Speaker


Starting from Scratch: Technology is Only Part of Learning to be an Architect

(Arizona Alumni) Eight years ago, on Sept. 11, 2004, a 107mm insurgent rocket sailed into our camp in Iraq. It was during my second deployment to the Middle East and my fourth year of active duty.

I’d worked all night and returned to my tent for some sleep. At 1 p.m., I woke up thirsty and decided to get some cold water. I made it about 20 feet from my tent before I heard a turbine sound. Moments later, my friends found me lying face down — with my feet pointing up. I had been hit directly. I became fully conscious after they rolled me over, and I remember every gruesome detail.

In seconds, I knew I was badly injured. I didn’t know yet that I would be left without my legs, but I knew my dominant right hand was gone. I would learn later that I had received some of the most serious injuries ever seen for an American survivor of a military attack.

In the months ahead, I would have to set aside my dreams of playing college hockey, doing more serious surfing in Hawai’i, perhaps joining the FBI. At age 22, I faced the prospect of relearning many things — but I still had my sound mind and a good left arm. And I decided, almost immediately, that I was grateful for what I had. I had more, much more, than many other wounded military fighters had coming home.

At first, few of the doctors or nurses expected I would live, let alone walk. I became officially the most severely injured airman to survive in any war.

After a year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I landed at Davis-Monthan as a security officer. Here in Tucson, working with Hanger Prosthetics, I learned to be fully mobile. The doctors said I was the first human with that level of amputation to walk regularly unassisted.

I went on to snowboard and water ski with the help of prosthetics. I could even drive after three months. Now I get around Tucson in a Range Rover with custom hand controls. My wife likes to tell people that my prosthetic right arm is so sensitive I can pick up a potato chip without breaking it.

At 26, I decided to take up architecture at the UA. I’d been talking to a friend who was studying architecture when I discovered the challenge that would eventually draw me out of my routine civilian job and off to the UA campus. But there were challenges to be overcome: among other things, I would have to learn to draw with my left hand.

I had never really drawn much or done much art growing up. I was worried that there was no way I could keep up with the other students, who not only had their dominant hands but were pretty skilled. I wasn’t sure if I had what it took.

Every single assignment the first year was hand drawing. I wound up spending 8 to 10 hours a day practicing skills that younger freshmen took for granted. After a few weeks I was one of the top students. I could handle the hardest assignment they threw at us — like, take a plastic water bottle, crumple it up, and draw it in pencil, to perfection, using shading and lines to show it as a 3-D object.

I scored a 4.0 GPA in my first year at the UA. I also received the Purple Heart Medal and, after my second year, I won a Pat Tillman national scholarship, named for the NFL player who joined the U.S. Army and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

I joined then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on her Veterans’ Advisory Council. I took a number of VA issues to her office on behalf of other veterans and myself.

You could say I have a lot of connections. I’ve been through the system, and vets look out for each other.

Injured veterans are crazy, in a good way. We have a different sense of life in general. We’ve seen some crazy stuff over there. We can take a step back and appreciate things. We slow down and observe a lot more, which gives us a better understanding of things in general — and gives me an eye for the detail required in architecture.

I hope to one day enter graduate study in architecture and planning at Harvard. I hear it’s one of the best, so why not?

Things do take me more time, so I have to be more patient. But everything seems to be possible. You just have to think about a different way of getting to that end point.

And, during Memorial Day weekend, 2011, I married my sweetheart, Ashley Goetz.

Good things keep happening.


Leave a Reply
Senior Airman Brian Kolfage

A heroic story of survial

Brian Kolfage is handed an American flag from his daughter at the NYC veterans day parade- 2014

Brian Kolfage is handed an American flag from his daughter at the NYC veterans day parade- 2014

Brian is NOT available for speaking engagements at this time, please check back later.   

Brian Kolfage isn’t just the most severely wounded US Airman to survive his wounds, he’s a motivational speaker who inspires Americans to a greater success, with a powerful message of being resilient in the face of adversity.  If you’re looking for a veteran speaker, allow Brian to be the warrior who not only motivates your group but will inspire them to be better people in their daily life.

Brian Kolfage endured a life-changing event that would have sent someone of lesser spirit into a downward spiral. But for this former SF Airman turned Architect life is about looking forward to what you can do, not what you cannot.

Then Senior Airman Kolfage was on his second deployment for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004. On September 11, 2004 after working a night shift at Balad Air Base, Iraq, he awoke in the afternoon, left his tent to get some water and walked no more than 25 feet when the airbase came under a rocket attack. It would be the last time he would walk on the legs he was born with. A 107mm rocket shell exploded about three feet from Airman Kolfage. He was thrown several feet in the air and landed against a wall of sandbags, still conscious, and began calling for help.

Airman Kolfage’s best friend was thrown from his bed during the attack. He heard the screams and rushed outside to find his friend bloody, mangled, and clinging to life. The Airman and a medic rushed to help Airman Kolfage, who was struggling to breathe with only one lung after the other had collapsed. Brian’s friend desperately tried to divert his attention from the seriousness of his injuries, but calmly, Airman Kolfage assured him that he already knew the extent of his wounds, and that he just wanted to go home to his family.

Despite suffering multiple amputations and the looming possibility of death, Airman Kolfage still maintained incredible strength and courage throughout his recovery. The fact that no one with his level of amputation has ever been able to walk independently didn’t discourage him. With undiminished spirit, he still saw opportunities and worked with feverish determination through his physical therapy program, gaining strength and balance every day.

Incredibly, Brian walked out of Walter Reed only 11 months after being injured; this is unheard of. Till this day he is still the most severely wounded Airman to survive any war. After leaving the hospital he immediately continued his service to the Air Force, and was assigned to Davis Monthan AFB 355 SFS as the base security manager. Brian furthered his service to the community by proudly accepting to be on Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s Veterans Advisory Committee. He provided crucial inside information to help the congresswoman make vital decisions which helped veterans nationally. He was invited by the Congresswoman to be her special guest at the 2012 Presidential State of The Union Address when she resigned. Brian continues to work for his local congressman on the veterans advisory committee.

Brian is a now 2014 graduate from the University of Arizona’s School of Architecture, where he rose among the ranks to the top of his class. He never let the daunting tasks of learning to draw without his dominant right hand affect his ability to perform. With persistence and determination he has beat the odds that were stacked against him and recently was awarded one of the most prestigious military scholarship’s, the Pat Tillman Scholar award. Brian continues to embrace a positive attitude as he makes great strides, both literally and figuratively, in learning how to walk with his prosthetics.

Brian and his wife continue to make trips back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit with newly wounded vets, his insight and ability to connect with the veterans gives them new hope for their future. In 2014 Brian was bestowed the most honorable award that a wounded warrior can receive, the George C. Lang Award for Courage, not only for his fearlessness, but his selflessness actions of taking care of other wounded veterans who were in need of mentoring