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You can’t help but notice Brian Kolfage Jr.’s prostheses when you meet him. He has three of them — two legs and an arm. But then you see the stuff that really matters — his warm smile, his soothing voice, his positive spirit.
“I don’t let all the little stuff bother me,” said Kolfage, a fourth-year architecture student at the University of Arizona.
A former senior airman and Iraq War veteran, Kolfage lost his limbs in a rocket attack Sept. 11, 2004. It’s a somber anniversary for the U.S. and the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but Kolfage has a different take on that date.
“It’s when I celebrate that I’m still alive,” he said.
Kolfage was in Kuwait for his second Middle East tour. He wanted to be closer to the fight, so he volunteered for forward duty in Iraq and was sent to Balad. A couple of weeks later, after working a night shift, he awoke at midday. He stepped outside his tent to get water and walked a few steps.
A 107mm rocket shell landed 3 feet away. His buddies found him face down and turned him over.
His right hand was all but severed. His legs were gone. But he was conscious. Thirty-six hours later, he was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
The war, at the time, was still relatively young. Kolfage was one of the first severely wounded troops. By most standards, he was in horrible shape. He underwent 16 surgeries and months of intensive physical therapy.
In April 2005, he retired from the Air Force but was still in rehab at Walter Reed. Several months later, the Air Force, which has paid for his medical care and education, offered him a civilian job. Although he was born in Michigan and grew up in Hawaii, he picked Tucson, Ariz.
He began working at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., in January 2006 as a civilian employee and stayed for two years. He wanted to start something new, so he began studying architecture.
This semester at the University of Arizona, Kolfage entered a national architecture competition. The goal is to design a 180,000-square-foot building made of engineered wood for a live-and-work space in New York City.
The project seemed challenging, and he likes that. He works on it and other projects primarily on his laptop computer. Sometimes he uses a pencil to sketch preliminary ideas.
His project mentor, architect and assistant professor Chris Trumble, calls Kolfage “an excellent manual draftsman.” He spends about 12 hours a week in the architecture college lab classroom. Combined with his other classes and nightly homework, school “is pretty much a full-time job.”
In the months after the mortar tore off his right hand, Kolfage learned to use his left. Every action had to be relearned, starting with buttoning a shirt.
His severe injuries and recovery have given him another perspective on life: He is deeply grateful he has complete use of his brain and his heart.
“Before I was injured, I probably would not have been this appreciative,” he said. “Life is fragile.”
He credits his family, doctors, nurses, therapists and counselors for his recovery and his positive outlook. He also is grateful to Ashley Goetz Kolfage, his wife of nearly two years.
“Ashley appreciates me for me and accepts me for who I am.”
They met in San Angelo, Texas, her hometown, while Kolfage was stationed there before he lost his limbs. After he moved to Tucson, he contacted her in San Angelo. That eventually led them down the aisle.
“He’s pretty independent,” said Ashley, 27, who teaches second grade.
She humbly deflects credit for her husband’s outlook on life. It’s all him, she said.
“Once you look past his injuries and get to know him, he’s a regular guy,” she said.
Their regular life will soon include an addition. The couple recently learned that they’re expecting their first child.
In the years since his near-fatal injury and his release from Walter Reed, Kolfage has returned to the hospital several times. But not as a patient - he counsels fellow injured veterans.
He listens to their pain and anger. He shares his experience.
And he tells them he is grateful to be living.
“There were guys with severe head wounds and guys whose bodies were in worse shape than mine. You have to put things in perspective.”