Col. Tom Brewer eager for one last tour

Feb 17 2013
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eager-for-one-last-tourBy Matthew Hansen WORLD-HERALD COLUMNIST The Omaha World-Herald

He has a bulky cast on his rebuilt right foot, blurred vision in his right eye and dulled hearing in his right ear.

One morning last year, he woke up paralyzed from the waist down. Another day he went blind while trimming trees.

On yet another day — this one soon after the blast — the pain in his back grew so intense that, for the first time in his long and almost mythical military career, Col. Tom Brewer briefly wondered if he’d die.

The revered military leader now taking his right hand off his crutch to greet me has lived roughly half of the past 10 years at his home in Murdock, Neb.

He has lived in Afghanistan and fought the war in Afghanistan for the other five years.

“I’ve invested a decade in this mission,” he says. “And I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about that country splitting right down the middle in a civil war.”

It is oh-so-tempting to stop right here, to use Brewer, 54, as a metaphor for the United States, bloodied and half-blind, limping to the finish line of the Afghan war.

Tempting, until Brewer says what he says next.

“I’m going to wait until I’m mentally and physically ready, until I can pass all the tests. And then I want to go back to Afghanistan. One more tour. One more thing where I can look back and say, ‘Hey, I made a difference.’”
Col. Tom Brewer’s story is the story of the Afghan war both good and bad, a heroic struggle against corruption, marked by painful progress and also marred by maddening mistakes.

Brewer describes it as a seesaw teetering in the middle. On one side sits small but measurable success. On the other, complete and abject failure. He’s still not sure which side of the seesaw will go up and which down.

He is sure, though, that he’d like to be a part of the continued struggle.

He is sure that Dec. 16, 2011, shouldn’t be his final memory from the 1,600-odd days he spent fighting the Afghan war.

That night, Brewer and an agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration were driving an up-armored vehicle on a well-traveled road in the northern part of Kabul, the capital.

Brewer remembers feeling hopeful as he rode shotgun. His counter-narcotics mission to blunt the manufacture and export of black tar heroin out of Afghanistan was finally showing signs of progress. Particularly in western Afghanistan, Afghan police were busting up drug labs and intercepting shipments before they reached the border.

The vehicle jolted and stopped, jerking Brewer from his happy thoughts. A jagged piece of metal in the road had shredded one of the tires. Brewer climbed out and jacked up the vehicle. He tightened the last bolt on the spare tire and began working on a busted brake line.

Then the world spun. He couldn’t see or hear. He found himself groping in the darkness, dizzy and disoriented, not sure where he was, who he was, not sure of anything.

A brief moment of clarity: Brewer realized a rocket-propelled grenade had slammed into the back bumper. He half-staggered, half-crawled back into the vehicle. The DEA agent floored it. They sped away.

Shrapnel from the blast had pierced Tom Brewer’s skull, punctured his eye, cut his face and body and shredded ligaments in his right foot. He had a bulging disc and a pinched nerve in his back and a fractured thumb from the fall.

He had no hearing in his right ear. He had a mild traumatic brain injury.

Two days later, doctors deemed his injuries non-life-threatening, pumped him full of painkillers and bought him a ticket: commercial flight to Omaha. He staggered onto the plane, aided by a military escort officer and as heavily bandaged as a mummy.

For the first time in Col. Tom Brewer’s life, an airline upgraded him to first class.

“I think if you look scary enough, they must do that for you,” he says.

Before we go any further, know this about Col. Brewer: Put a hurdle in front of him, and he won’t jump it.

He will pick it up, snap it over his knee, and toss the mangled object aside as he continues on his way.

He grew up in abject poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation before joining the Nebraska National Guard at 18 to get out.

He has run 39 marathons. He has tracked and killed a rampaging wild boar with a hunting knife. He has won international sharpshooting competitions. He has risen to the rank of colonel despite an unwillingness to glad-hand and an inability to sugarcoat his opinions.

Don’t believe me? See how much this sounds like your average colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

“The more you know, the more difficult it is not to be disappointed in how we have managed the (Afghan) war,” Brewer says. “Most of the mistakes made weren’t Afghan mistakes, they were our mistakes.”

Brewer also forced his way into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina — making himself one of the first military officers in the flooded city — and led troops as they rescued more than a thousand residents stranded on rooftops and in nursing homes.

He survived a 2004 ambush in the lawless border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaida operatives shot him six times, breaking Brewer’s ribs and causing him to bite off a chunk of his tongue. In return, he shot and killed or wounded a dozen al-Qaida soldiers and was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

And on six separate occasions he has voluntarily deployed to Afghanistan. He has taken on the sort of missions, like narcotics and border security, that push him from the safety of the base into the most dangerous areas of a dangerous country.

Here’s the craziest part: He has loved it.

“I’ve seen the border (of Afghanistan) with every neighboring country. I have stood at the farthest point that Alexander the Great conquered. I have seen the Great Wall where it ends. I’ve seen more than 100 men have seen.”

But none of that — not all of that put together — prepared Brewer for what awaited him in 2012.

This time, the enemy wasn’t a flood or a rampaging wild boar or a gang of terrorists. This time, it was himself.

He spent much of the winter inside his home in Murdock, the drapes shut, living in a painkiller haze. He couldn’t move easily because of an emergency back operation to relieve the bulging disc and the pinched nerve — the pinched nerve that had rendered him briefly unable to use his legs.

He wouldn’t talk to friends on the phone much because he didn’t want them to hear his slurred speech and shake their heads at his dulled mind.

His back started to heal in the spring, so he weened himself off OxyContin and had surgery on his damaged right hand. In the physical therapy that followed, he had to relearn to use his thumb.

As spring turned to summer, he prepared for surgery on his foot, where shrapnel had sliced through several tendons.

He prepared for the foot surgery until one day, while trimming trees, his right eye simply stopped working — “like somebody had turned off a light switch.”

After steroid treatments, sight in that eye gradually started to return this past fall, and doctors now expect it to reach 20-20 with a contact lens.

The delayed foot surgery took place on Halloween. Brewer’s running gait will be permanently affected, he says, but he still hopes to run marathon No. 40 with a foot rebuilt out of synthetic bone, fused joints and giant staples.

The entire year has seemed like a never-ending appointment at Lincoln’s Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital.

Physical therapy. Occupational therapy. Therapy for memory loss. And, yes, regular meetings with a psychologist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder.

At first Brewer “fought and clawed” the PTSD diagnosis and the sessions, he said, but over time, a funny thing happened. He stopped fighting and clawing. He started talking, and listening.

“It’s kind of that way to take your issues, the ones you’ve been rolling up for years, and share them.”

It’s been more than a year since the world spun, and Brewer is now close enough to back-to-normal that he’s begun to contemplate both his own future and the future of his second home.

On one side of the seesaw there is the blatant corruption by Afghans deeply entrenched in the government, military and police force.

There is the American waste: a multimillion-dollar border crossing built in a rural area that no Afghans cross through; entire rooms filled with advanced U.S. radio equipment and new computers that the Afghans can’t use because 90 percent of their soldiers can’t read.

There is the gnawing sense that none of it will matter when the U.S. military leaves in 2014.

“We’ve wasted years cutting through corrupt (Afghan) leaders to find the younger guys actually interested in building the country. And now we may simply be too late with the timetable we have.”

On the other side … what about the new Afghan police colonel, the one who saw police shaking down motorists at Kabul’s main city gate and halted what had been an epidemic of extortion?

What about that quick-strike Afghan military unit going toe-to-toe with drug runners in the west?

What about the Afghan police and army, which are slowly but surely improving?

And what of the hundreds of village elders and regular people in every corner of Afghanistan that Col. Tom Brewer has come to know?

He can’t just give up because the 2014 troop pullout looms. He can’t quit struggling just because it’s hard.

“I have actually gotten to feel the Afghan people, to know them,” he says. “I have actually gotten to see the great potential for their ultimate success.”

Col. Tom Brewer shakes my hand and crutches his way back to his car, having convinced me of only one thing.

The United States might succeed. It might fail.

But no matter what, Nebraska’s most battle-tested soldier is going to try to sit on the seesaw that is Afghanistan one more time. And it’s going to take a very, very large boar to stop him.

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