A soldier’s journey from Pine Ridge to Afghanistan to Nebraska
ANDREW STEWART / For the Lincoln Journal Star
Tom Brewer always knew he wouldn’t stay on the reservation.
Every day after school, the Lakota boy and his brothers would go hunting, carrying .22 bolt-action rifles.
He learned how to live off the land, learned how to live poor. It was a question of survival.
Growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in one of the country’s poorest counties, Brewer witnessed men die at 30, broken and defeated by alcohol, or fighting in the 1973 AIM uprising at Wounded Knee. Men wouldn’t leave the house unarmed, Brewer said. Shootings from the highway popped in the distance.
Violence was a reality they lived with most days.
“It’s hard to change how you see the world when that’s all you know,” Brewer said.
Before he left the reservation at 17, that world changed him. It taught Brewer how to be a leader in the Army and at home, but most importantly, it taught him how to stay alive. For the 49-year-old lieutenant colonel, the military was his only option.
Afghanistan — 2003
The convoy passed through the bone yard, a deserted plain of destroyed army vehicles left behind by the Soviet Army.
The full moon illuminated the shortcut to Kabul along the Ghar Mountain Pass. Then a green flash shot up from a tank repair building, a shell-like structure riddled with bullet holes.
The two U.S. Army vehicles pulled into a ditch behind the repair building. What started as two known attackers became 30 to 50 al-Qaida against six Americans.
Brewer ran across the field, closer to the enemy’s position, and found cover behind a pile of concrete. As he leaped over the concrete wall, he was barraged with incoming fire. He kept running, leading a stream of bullets.
As Brewer leaned out from behind his cover, a burst of bullets hit him in the chest. The impact shattered his ribs, but a protective plate kept him alive.
Shot through his left bicep as well, Brewer temporarily lost use of his arm. He could do nothing but hold off the enemy with what little ammunition remained.
Pine Ridge — late 1960s
Most days after school, Brewer and his brothers would spend their time at the rifle range near the family homestead. At school, he served as the state president of Future Farmers of America, played basketball and ran track. But he spent most of his time outdoors.
The family’s two-story white house, which belonged to Brewer’s maternal grandfather, was within walking distance of the range. He perfected his marksmanship.
An owl had been killing the family’s chickens and guineas, so early one morning Brewer hauled his .22 in search of the predator.
He fired one shot. The owl flew away, but when Brewer found it the next day, the bird was dead with a missing leg. Brewer tells the story with a certain pride.
His father wasn’t there to do it, Brewer said, so he took it upon himself to get the job done.
“There wasn’t that positive influence for kids to say, ‘Hey, I want to be like that,’” Brewer said.
“There was a lot of pressure not to do dumb stuff.”
Meeteetse, Wyo. — 1967
There wasn’t any warning. Neither mom nor dad fought in front of the kids. Brewer’s younger brother, Jeff, said they didn’t know anything was wrong. All he remembers was his parents telling them they were getting divorced.
Dad, a gruff, middle-aged veteran with a patch over his left eye, a consequence of his time in the military, took the six kids down to the ranch to explain.
It was late summer, and the sun was setting on the eastern ridge of the Rocky Mountains.
Later that night, Brewer’s aunt, his mother’s twin sister, pulled up in the driveway with a U-Haul. They packed up their stuff and left for Pine Ridge.
“At the time it was really hard to understand,” Jeff Brewer said. “I wanted to find someone to blame.”
Brewer’s mother, Alice, now 76, said she and her husband just weren’t compatible.
“It got to where (their father) would stay away from home,” she said. Then she adds with a laugh, “His cookin’ was never the best, either.”
Brewer spent most of his time as a child negotiating time between Wyoming and the reservation. He would live with his dad during the summer, where he would ride horses, hunt and fish.
Afghanistan — 2002
When he was selected to go to Afghanistan in 2002, Brewer was in Lincoln serving as the Nebraska Counter Drug Task Force Commander, as well as a husband of 18 years and father of two.
His mission: train special operations forces.
He and his troops turned the Northern Alliance, a group of “rough mountain people,” as Brewer describes them, into the Afghan National Army.
“You can’t help but have respect for them but feel a little inadequate at the same time,” Brewer said.
But like Brewer, they were willing to learn, and “they’ve become a great army.”
Brewer has been active in the military for 30 years. He was one of the first members of the Nebraska National Guard to receive a Purple Heart since World War II, said Lt. Col. Bob Vrana, and the only Native recipient in Nebraska.
Murdock, Neb. — 2003
When Kelli Brewer, 45, first learned of her husband’s injuries, she heard about them from Brewer himself — a phone call in the middle of the night.
He sounded calm and collected; that’s how she knew he was OK. Yet, Kelli said she’s not afraid of the knock on the door. She said this comes from a spiritual peace and a trust in her husband’s ability. It’s a compromise the couple has learned to live by.
“Sometimes your relationships are healthier when you let the other half take charge,” Brewer said. “Compromise is the only way you can survive.”
Kelli said, “His being gone … made me a stronger individual.”
Tom and Kelli Brewer were married on Nov. 24, 1984. Kelli, a Chief Warrant Officer 3, has never been deployed overseas but works in the Lincoln office as a technical expert.
Their son Travis, 17, is a senior at Elmwood-Murdock High School. Kalee, 15, is a freshman.
Kalee loves to tell the story of the time her dad brought home two bearskins from a hunting trip in Canada. He stored them in the freezer, which then broke down and stunk up the garage. Brewer also taught her to shoot, better than him, he said.
Brewer sees himself in her. She goes to camp in summers near Pine Ridge, learning about wigwams and Native traditions. The two also enjoy going to movies and eating sushi on an impromptu Saturday night outing or attending Travis’ basketball games.
Murdock — 2008
They stand three in a row. With their jet black hair and dark complexions, the family resemblance is unmistakable.
Brewer, all of 6 feet, 3 inches, stands on the left, his wife, Kelli, on the right. Their son, Travis, in the middle, towers over them. He leans over and whispers something into his mother’s ear. Kelli smiles.
The parents stand at ease in front of a full gymnasium at Elmwood-Murdock High School, waiting for the announcer to finish the pre-game roll call of senior basketball players and their parents.
Before the boys file into the locker room, Brewer grabs Travis by the arm to whisper a few words. Travis coolly shrugs his father away. Yet Brewer, a man who’s made 10 trips to both Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan during the past five years, knows when not to take no for an answer.
Just this past month, Brewer was one of two candidates for adjutant general. Had he received the position, he would have been the highest-ranking officer in Nebraska. This isn’t the first time Brewer has been passed on a promotion, he said. But still he hasn’t given up.
Now, he says, it’s just a matter of waiting.
Afghanistan — 2003
Lying behind rubble in a barren landscape, he was determined to make it out alive.
After suffering several other shots to his chest, as well as a piece of shrapnel imbedded above his right eye, Brewer was out of heavy ammunition and started using his pistol. A bullet stung his right calf as he attempted to run, an injury evident today by a slight limp.
He crawled along the rocky terrain, propelling himself forward with his unharmed arm and leg, found cover and waited.
He knew he could survive his injuries; he’d had to survive before. Then a shadow approached him. Out of ammunition, Brewer prepared himself for hand-to-hand combat, something he and his brothers would practice all the time on the reservation.
He reached for his knife, but as the figure came into the light, Brewer realized it was Kajiman Limbu, a British soldier of the Gurkha regiment.
He had come to Brewer’s rescue.
Pine Ridge — early 1970s
The family was headed to bed when it heard a knock. Alice Brewer opened the door, turned on the yard light and recognized the FBI agents standing in front of her.
They had been staying at the hotel where she worked.
Alice’s children hovered in the background. She asked the visitors what they needed. They wanted to borrow any spare rifles the family might have.
“All we had was a .22 rifle,” Alice said.
But even if she had what they wanted, Alice said she’s not sure she would have given it to them. She said she saw the men pack up a collection of firearms from the hotel earlier that morning.
“They were just kinda scoutin’ out the country,” Alice said.
She watched the men return to their car before shuffling the kids to bed.
“He wasn’t scared,” Alice said. “Tom was never scared.”
Andrew Stewart of Ashland is a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, majoring in film studies and news editorial. He wrote this story for a magazine journalism class. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.