'I lost my limbs, but I still have my mind:' Airman honored in Hawaii puts things in perspective
By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: March 17, 2018
Brian Kolfage was athletic, and depended on his legs to be so.
Living on Oahu from about the seventh grade, the 1999 Kaimuki High graduate surfed all the time. On the mainland he had played hockey. In the Air Force he was a senior airman working in security forces.
Sept. 11, 2004, the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, changed all that.
He was two weeks into his second deployment to Iraq. As he walked from his tent at Balad Air Base to get some water, he heard a turbine noise. A 107 mm rocket exploded feet from him, severing his right hand and taking both his legs.
"I was real athletic. I surfed all the time. My legs meant everything to me," Kolfage said. "If someone had told me, 'You are going to lose your legs,' before this happened, I'd have said, 'I'd rather be dead.'"
But he isn't dead. And nearly 14 years later the retired airman still surfs. And scuba-dives. And is married to the pretty girl at Chili's in Texas who wouldn't date him when he was a cocky 19-year-old – and still had all his limbs.
On Friday he was recognized and honored by the state House with a resolution for his service and sacrifice.
"The state of Hawaii never said thank you to him. We say thank you to a lot of people, but we've missed him. So it was time to rectify that," said state Rep. Bob McDermott (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point).
Kolfage, 36, who lives in Destin, Fla., with his wife, Ashley, and kids Paris, 4, and Beckham, 2, still comes back to Hawaii once or twice a year because he likes it so much here.
He is one of the most severely wounded airmen to have survived the war.
All these years later he's still not quite sure how he made it through his ordeal, but he somehow fought through it, walking out of Walter Reed Army Medical Center 11 months later.
He studied architecture at the University of Arizona, was a motivational speaker and now is co-founder of the Military Grade Coffee Co. and focused on his family.
"(My kids) don't really get everything. They see daddy with no legs and no arm, and they don't understand it," Kolfage said before a reception at the state Capitol. "They come to events like this, and they are starting to get it. And just for me it's being able to instill in them what life and all this stuff is about – how to live a good, positive life."
That journey began when he was at Walter Reed. University of Hawaii graduate and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in Iraq to a rocket-propelled grenade, was there at the same time, he said.
One of the things that helped Kolfage was realizing what he still had. Other wounded service members with brain injuries had all their limbs but not their minds.
"There were guys, completely normal, they look like you, nothing wrong, but they couldn't remember any of their family," he said. "They couldn't function. They couldn't eat. They were mentally disabled for life."
That's when he put things in perspective.
"I realized, OK, I lost my limbs but I still have my mind. I can still function," he said.
He didn't think he could surf again – until he tried.
"When I put myself out there and tried these different things – like scuba diving and surfing – I realized I could do them again," Kolfage said. "I just did them a different way."
The scuba certification came in about 2012 with help from David Livingston, a past president of the Navy League Honolulu Council.
Livingston, a scuba instructor, set up Kolfage with an underwater propulsion vehicle he could operate with his left hand. Kolfage then got to dive with some Navy SEALs on a neighbor island.
Perhaps the best part of Kolfage's climb back up is that he got the girl who is now his wife.
Ashley Goetz was a hostess at Chili's in San Angelo, Texas, before Kolfage ever deployed to Iraq.
"He was the Air Force guy your parents always said ... 'Do not mess with the military,'" Ashley said. "So he would come in. He would try to get my number, and I said no at the time because my parents always told me to."
They hung out with the same people and did become friends.
Ashley lost track of Kolfage until he contacted her a couple years after being wounded. She eventually met him.
"As soon as we met back up ... I saw that he was still the same guy and actually didn't even realize his injuries," she said. "He still was talking. He was still the same Air Force guy that you would think of."
They married in 2011.
"I told my friends ... 'I'm going to marry that girl one day,'" Kolfage said. "And then I got injured. And a couple of years later, we reconnected. I always tell everyone the joke that I had to get blown up to get her."
The couple plans to take the kids surfing at Baby Queens, where they will push them out on some gentle waves.
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