Col. Thomas Brewer is currently going through a series of surgeries after surviving a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack in the Kabul region of Afghanistan in December of 2011. At the time of the attack, Brewer had already received a Purple Heart for being shot multiple times in 2003 in The Bone Yard battle in Afghanistan, where he successfully led a handful of men to victory despite being hopelessly outnumbered. Though many have taken their shots at him, Brewer has shown he’s a hard man to kill.
Brewer is a member of the Lakota Sioux Tribe who grew up by the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The combination of needing to find a way to pay for college and his interest in the military led him to join the Nebraska Army National Guard in 1977. He joined the Army after he graduated college. He started in the infantry, but ended up flying a Cobra gunship, which he continued to do all the way through Desert Storm.
After achieving the rank of Major, Brewer became an armor officer and ran an M1 tank in the cavalry squadron. While it was an adjustment from zipping through the skies in a Cobra to rolling on the ground in a tank, he felt it was good for diversity. “As you go up in a military career and you have to plan operations, and it’s a lot easier to plan it after you’ve been there and done it. In the Calvary if you’re infantry, armor, and aviation qualified you’re a rare guy to have around.”
The battle where Brewer was shot on October 12, 2003 is documented in James F. Christ’s book “The Bone Yard (Afghanistan War Series),” which was the nickname of the area where the events took place; an abandoned three-story building surrounded by a field of discarded Soviet tanks in Afghanistan.
The battle started at 1 a.m. on October 12. Brewer and four other National Guardsmen who were training Afghan troops to be soldiers were taking a shortcut to their camp when they were fired at from the building. Brewer took a forward position, but was cut off from the rest of his team once he realized they were out gunned; what they expected to be a two-man hit-and-run team turned out to be a sizable force.
“We were outnumbered with no QRF (Quick Reaction Force,)” Brewer said. “The more rounds I got hit with, the more difficult it got to operate.”
Brewer was shot in his left arm, and he is a left-handed shooter. He had to shoot with his right hand, but then he took shrapnel to his right eye, so he had to awkwardly use his left eye to shoot with his right arm. Two of the enemy came up on him and he shot them dead. Thirty-five minutes into the battle he ran out of ammunition and picked up the AK-47s the two enemy soldiers had been carrying. Because of the unique flash of the AK-47, he drew fire from his own men because they thought he was the enemy.
Brewer was shot twice in his armor; the impact broke a couple of his ribs. At first the broken ribs did not bother him much, but he took another bullet that missed his plate, opened up a gash across his ribs, and punctured his lung; that’s when he started having trouble breathing. Another round hit the concrete wall he was behind, near his head, and the concrete pocked the side of his head.
“So you’re pretty well messed up at that point,” Brewer said. “The combination of running out of blood, ammunition and bright ideas forced me about 45 minutes into it to look at options. That’s when I told them to put down as much fire as they could and then I would try to get across, about 125 meters of open area, and make it to the friendly lines.”
Brewer was shot in the leg halfway into his run and he fell on his chin. A dark figure ran up to him. Brewer pulled his pistol and tried to shoot him, but luckily the safety was on. The dark figure was a Nepalese Royal Gurkha soldier, Sgt. Kajiman Limbu of the British Army, who had arrived with the internal QRF to help Brewer’s team.
“It’s kind of a bad deal if you shoot the guy that comes to help you,” Brewer said, “but he didn’t have a radio, so I didn’t know he was coming. He was not a very big guy, he was all of about 130 pounds, and with gear I was around 275 pounds, but he flipped me over his shoulder, threw me over a stone fence, and then he jumped over himself. I was really impressed.”
Limbu treated Brewer’s wounds in the chaos of the battle, and then the two of them were able to crawl back to where the other soldiers were stationed. Brewer could no longer fight, so he coordinated the operation until backup came.
After healing up from his wounds, Brewer was assigned to work with the National Guard on counter drug missions domestically. On August 30, 2005 he was selected to Command Task Force LAV (Light Armor Vehicles) in response to Hurricane Katrina, which had devastated New Orleans the night before.
“When we landed there were no military forces on the ground except for the handful that were assigned there; we had very little guidance,” Brewer noted. “It was a shocker, because a lot of us thought we’d seen a lot of death and destruction in Afghanistan, but to go down there and see that was an eye-opener; that was right here on our own soil. When we got in there was a lot of looting and a lot of shooting; a lot of activity. As a matter of fact they had shut down all helicopter flights around New Orleans for a couple of nights there because they were shooting at the helicopters.”
Brewer’s team did rescue missions during the day and kept the peace at night. “For the first 10 days my guys didn’t sleep much at all, we lived on Red Bulls and MREs (field rations). There was just too much work to do, but you try to stay positive, in the sense that you are doing good things, but there was the point where I couldn’t push them anymore and we had to slow down a little bit.”
On December 16, 2011, back in Afghanistan, Brewer was severely wounded while changing a tire on his vehicle when it was hit with an RPG.
Brewer and one other man were on a highly traveled route when they had a flat tire next to an abandoned factory. Brewer changed the tire while the other man was on security. He describes the night as “eerily quiet.”
“There was absolutely no warning before that rocket screamed in and hit. The right side of me was shredded, my head was hurting, and my eyes wouldn’t focus; I was coughing up blood and trying to figure out what just happened.”
Brewer tried to return fire, but he only had one man with him and he didn’t know how many of the enemy there were, so he yelled to get the vehicle moving, and they retreated, all in the dark because turning on their headlights would have given the enemy something to target. A second RPG barely missed them as they made their getaway.
Brewer ended up with a lot more damage to his body from the attack than he did when he was shot at the Bone Yard. The RPG damaged his side, literally, from head to toe, and the blast twisted his upper torso; he had to have back surgery from the injury.
At the moment, Brewer doesn’t have any feeling in his left leg, but his doctor reassured him that it will come back, but recovery could take 6 months. He is about to have surgery on his foot, which will require removing shrapnel and fusing bone together using bone that they take from his hip.
Like most people who lead an active life, Brewer can’t relax knowing there is still a mission to be accomplished. “I look at it more as just getting the job done. As much as I enjoy time home with the family, I also know that this mission is important because the clock is ticking. If we don’t get Afghanistan on its feet and moving forward and ready to take over operations, we may very well have spent all the blood and sweat and money on this war for naught.”