Thursday, March 10, 2005

Airman Brian Kolfage has great attitude despite huge losses

Airman Brian Kolfage has great attitude despite huge losses
By TARA COPP
Scripps Howard News Service
March 10, 2005

WASHINGTON - Senior Airman Brian Kolfage is one of the most seriously wounded soldiers to date to survive the war in Iraq.

Kolfage is one of three soldiers in Iraq who are triple amputees, and he was almost a quadruple amputee. A watch on his left hand stopped shrapnel from completely severing his left wrist and doctors were able to reattach his left thumb.

In a split second Sept. 11, 2004, Kolfage lost half his body to a mortar. He was getting a soda on the base in Balad when his legs were blown off, one at the hipbone and one at the upper thigh. His right hand was severed at the forearm.

He was not supposed to survive.

But he did. And now he's ready for everyone else to move on, too.

Since the attack, Kolfage, 23, has married. A platinum and diamond band glitters on his ring finger after a private wedding last fall at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Back in September, Kolfage regained consciousness a few days after the attack. His girlfriend of five years, Nikki Grounds, 20, had already flown up from Texas to be by his side. The pair had been living together in San Angelo, where Kolfage was assigned to the 17th Security Forces Squadron at Goodfellow Air Force Base. When he woke up, Kolfage asked her to marry him. And as soon as Grounds was sure it wasn't just the medication talking, she said yes.

He's still at Walter Reed, but thanks to modern technology, he has a set of prosthetic limbs. And he hasn't lost his attitude.

The warm-weather kid in him bucks at Washington's non-stop snow. So this week he and his wife went tanning and they frosted the tips of Kolfage's blond hair. As for the attitude, Kolfage has a hospital full of new targets.

"Don't fall," he teases a fellow one-legged soldier, who's on crutches in the elevator.

"You take up enough room?" the soldier asks, nodding to Kolfage's high-tech wheelchair as he hobbles through the elevator doors.

It takes a sense of humor. Kolfage can do almost everything he used to do, but sometimes limbs fly off.

He and Walter Reed therapist Laura Friedman pull on elastic bands to strengthen his triceps. He starts sweating through the reps when "Snap!" Like a slingshot his arm goes flying across the Life Fitness weight machine.

That's not all. "The last time I walked, my leg fell off," he says.

But Kolfage is more than determined. "If you're going to put a photo in the paper, get one of me standing up," he says.

The notoriety of Kolfage's injuries has led many politicians, celebrities and celebrity journalists to visit. He has spent time with Adam Sandler and got to hold the Boston Red Sox World Series trophy. And he has met President Bush twice, the second meeting lasting 20 minutes.

He has been on television several times, and this weekend Greta Van Susteren is coming through with Fox News for a war anniversary piece. Pictures of a lot of his last six months are on his new Web site, www.briankolfage.org, where he is raising money to buy a house and a special van.

His wife, Nikki Grounds, is pretty sick of the media. Even as Kolfage gets set in his legs, Geraldo Rivera is 10 feet away interviewing another injured soldier. On the day of Kolfage's and Grounds' wedding, The Washington Post was covering another amputee's vows at Walter Reed. But the Texas pair wanted to say their vows in private.

"She's over it," Kolfage says. "She's ready for us to get out of here and go home."

As it looks now, home will be in Phoenix. Kolfage is lining up a civilian job at Luke Air Force Base and both are scanning real estate Web sites for a house. Grounds is looking at classes at the University of Arizona where she might pursue physical therapy. Kolfage is curious about college too but doesn't know what he would study.

If he pursued physical therapy, he would have volumes of personal experience. He learned how to use his new hand through "Otto Bock" software. Kolfage had sensors attached to his remaining forearm and learned to manipulate his muscles to make an on-screen wrist turn and clasp.

After his arm had healed, it was fitted for three prosthetics: The robotic-like clasp he wears today, another one that looks like a human hand and a third that is a hook.

Physical therapist Laura Friedman has worked with Kolfage since the day he arrived.

"Even then we do everything we can to get muscle movement, massaging muscle, getting him to sit up," she says with a clear appreciation of her patient. "He has incredible balance. He's wonderful."

It takes patience, and it took 16 surgeries to get him walking. The first time Kolfage got legs, he was strapped to a hospital bed that slowly rotated him into a vertical position. Half-size legs were placed underneath him. They were starter legs, no joints and not a whole lot of height.

"I was like this tall," he smirks and gestures toward the floor.

Now he has joints, hydraulic "knees" that read his muscle movements and slowly bend, lift and move forward. They aren't his final set; Kolfage is still working toward longer legs that will return him to his old 6-foot frame.

The fidgety soul in him survived. In occupational therapy he juggles a constantly ringing cell phone, while painting and fiddling with his arm.

He says nothing is hard except maybe his Red Abercrombie track jacket. He's not about to change his style but his arm pincers can't isolate the zipper.

"This is the worst," he says. "The zipper's so light. This, zipping my red jacket, is the hardest."

"Snaps, man, get snaps next time," said Capt. Ed Donnelly, who was passing by in his wheelchair after losing his leg in a motorcycle accident.

Kolfage and Grounds should be on their way home by mid-summer, nearly a year after he first arrived at the hospital unconscious and barely alive. They would like a real wedding ceremony, one where Kolfage is determined to stand with his bride. But first they both just want to get out of here.

1 Comments:

At 3:08 AM, Blogger Robert said...

We make the street lights change...you know how it is...I've heard about your luck, We've been together a lot and done some shit...I thought you were dead. You haven't contacted me. Sorry for doing it so late, but I would love to talk to you and Washington wife. Your moke friend. Contact me...at robertclarkkelly@gmail.com.

 

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