On this episode of Veteran Led, John sits down with retired Colonel and Nebraska State Senator Tom Brewer to discuss the lessons in leadership he learned throughout his career. Tom recounts The Boneyard, a battle in which he was shot six times yet managed to overcome incredible adversity. Listen now to hear how Tom’s experiences in the military have shaped him into the successful leader he is today. Click here to watch the full interview.
John Berry: Welcome to Veteran Led. I’m joined today with Senator and Colonel (Retired), Tom Brewer. I want to tell you a little bit about his past. Give you a brief bio. This is not all inclusive, but these are some of the highlights. Colonel Brewer served as both an Infantry officer and an attack helicopter pilot. He retired as a colonel in the reserve component after 36 years of total service, including two tours in Kyrgyzstan and six in Afghanistan. He was shot six times in 2003 and blown up by an RPG in 2011. He’s a recipient of two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and the Secretary of Defense Medal of Freedom, as well as the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Ranger Tab, and several other awards. His combat experience in Afghanistan is documented in a book called “The Bone Yard,” written by James Christ. Colonel Brewer Led a response team following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. His team rescued more than 600 civilians. Brewer was elected in 2016 and was the first Native American to serve in the Nebraska Legislature and was re-elected in 2020. Senator Brewer Led a contingent of state lawmakers to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and conducted five humanitarian missions to Ukraine, three before the war started and two afterwards.
John Berry: Recently Senator Brewer received the Chief Standing Bear Prize for courage, which was October of 2023, and his children and relatives serve in the military today. I’m honored to have you here, Colonel Brewer. And before we get started, I want to tell you a story I heard from someone who knows you well. And I was asking him about your leadership. And he said, you know, there are three types of officers. There are the officers who only care about their careers. They are the careerists. These are the Blue Falcons. Then there are those who will do what’s right for their soldiers. But they would rather beg forgiveness than ask permission. And then there is Tom Brewer, who puts the team first, puts people first, puts the mission always, and exercises an unapologetic belligerence when it comes to taking care of his men. I’m honored to have you here. Thanks so much for being on the show, Colonel Brewer.
Tom Brewer: John, thanks for having me. I’m honored to be here.
John Berry: So, I want to start at the beginning. And you grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and became quite a marksman. Tell us what growing up was like.
Tom Brewer: Well, it’s kind of a survival drill course. When your father’s an Airborne Ranger, you. You are required to learn to double time, not run. You have to learn survival skills. Because if you don’t, you don’t survive. He stressed to us the need to not miss because we were poor, and ammunition was at a premium. And then of course, you learned how to skin animals and find ways of making money, whether you’re crushing aluminum cans or tanning hides. So, I mean, it was probably a good experience for someone who was going to grow up and be in the military.
John Berry: Now, I heard a story when you came back from Afghanistan in 2003, and this is, of course, “The Bone Yard,” was written about your experience. But I heard you give a speech and you spoke specifically about the basic soldiering skills. And you said, you know, I learned to be a good marksman, and that saved my life. And the basic soldiering skills that we learn can save our lives. And you just kept going back to the basics, and I really this is why I wanted you to be on the show so bad, because the Veteran Led, I believe that veterans know the basics to be successful, and you’ve embodied that not just in your military career, but your post military political career, your humanitarian career. And so, I’m really excited to talk about that. So, you grew up on the reservation. You learn some skills. Your father’s an Airborne Ranger. So, I take it by the time you’re 18, you didn’t even have a choice.
Tom Brewer: I would say that if there was anybody who ever walked the earth that didn’t have much of a choice about what he was going to do, it’d be me. Because my father was a very blunt and saying, I don’t have the money to send you to college. The only thing I can do to prepare you for life is to be there and sign the paperwork and make sure that you are Airborne and Ranger qualified. After you do that, your life is yours, but I believe that will give you a path ahead. And so that may be a harsh life for some, but I think for me it really did a great job of setting a course ahead. The stressing of marksmanship become a factor later in life because as I became a better shooter in the military, I was invited to try out for the ‘96 Olympics, went to Atlanta on the US Olympic team on the military side, and was an alternate, not a primary. But it instilled this understanding of the importance of it. I had a chance to meet with Gary Anderson. And if you’re not familiar with Gary, he’s a two time Olympic champion from Nebraska, little town of Axtell, and he was running the Olympics at Wolf Creek there. And he took me under his wing and coached and mentored me and stressed marksmanship and taught fundamentals I had never heard. And then I used them to build teams for Nebraska, because when I became the marksmanship coordinator of Nebraska, we were 49th out of 50 states and the 99th.
John Berry: 49th, being almost the worst.
Tom Brewer: Well, one way from the worst. So, within two years, we were National Champions. And then, you know, this was in the in the 90s when the football team was winning, and we were winning. And, you know, it was kind of a nice place to be. And it ultimately led to me being selected as the director of marksmanship at Little Rock and training the whole nation in marksmanship. So, you know, it’s funny how small things like just being able to shoot accurately to survive became this passion and skill that helped you through life.
John Berry: And actually, you just told me where we’re sucking down a lot of coffee today because where were you yesterday?
Tom Brewer: Shooting a long range competition in Missouri.
John Berry: And you got to be, what, about 65 years old and you’re still competing?
Tom Brewer: I actually won the World Championship three years ago at 62, so I’m slowing down. I’ll freely admit that. But sometimes we’re shooting. It’s about understanding winds. It’s understanding about conditions. And sometimes being old works to your advantage, not your disadvantage.
John Berry: Now, now, speaking of that and shooting, understanding that you know the infantryman is the rifleman, how did you transition or why to becoming an attack helicopter pilot?
Tom Brewer: Well, I wish I had some great story about how I was, you know, I a genius and was able to do great on the fast test, the flight aptitude test. But what happened was in the early 80s, the Army was hurting for helicopter pilots, and so they came to one of us. And back then there was no allowance for poor eyesight. You either were a 20/20 or you didn’t get to fly. Well, I was blessed to have 20/20 vision and back then you kept your branch. Originally there was no aviation branch. So, they said, why don’t you transition, become a helicopter pilot. You can still keep your branch as Infantry. And I said, well, okay. And so, I was in a room, and they said, what? What would you like to fly? Well, the options were the Chinook, which was the flying school bus, didn’t want that. The Huey, which was the small bus and then the Cobra. And so, the Cobra gave you a 20 millimeter cannon, 2.75 rockets and TOW missiles. Not a hard decision. Plus, it flew faster than the rest of them. So, I became a Cobra pilot. I truly enjoyed it. But what happens in aviation is your true pilots are the warrant officers. They’re the ones who do the majority of the flying. And as a commissioned officer, as you work up to staff assignments, you either fly a lot and are good or you don’t fly that much and you’re dangerous. And I did not want to be the cause of my death. I wanted I wanted to have a fair shot at surviving this military career, and I could see how my skill sets not only endangered me, but the other person if I didn’t get enough flight time, and that was just becoming physically impossible. So, I made the decision, you know, to leave aviation and go back to just regular staff assignments and duties as you normally have, because I felt that at that point, I really had served my value in the aviation community.
John Berry: And that is how you ended up with a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, even though you went from Aviation back to Infantry. I want to talk to you a little bit about that right here. I have the book “The Bone Yard,” written by James F Christ. This is the book about your experience, you know. I like the book for several reasons. I like the way it starts and ends with this general officer telling you that you don’t need any more firepower than your 9 mil. Now, let me tell you about a mistake I made, and I talked about an earlier podcast, 2005. I was in Iraq. It was Christmas. Presents were coming in. I had soldiers across many FOBs. I’m sure you know the experience and you want to check in on your team, deliver the presents, make sure the holiday is going well because depression and those things can set in. And I got a sergeant major to come with me and we just we just hopped on a Chinook and flew out to this FOB, and we just assumed, okay, we’ll get we’ll get a flight out of here. Right. No problem. And the next stop was Fallujah.
John Berry: Well, we stop at the FOB with the presents with our nine mils, because we didn’t want to carry a lot. We had to carry presents. Well, of course, there was no flight out, and we had to take a convoy to Fallujah. And the Marine lieutenant who I hitched a ride with is like, where are your weapons? And I showed him the 9 mm pistols, and he laughed and handed us some AK-47s. And we and we and we got through Fallujah. But my point is, you showed up and you said, Sir, we need weapons. We’re in Afghanistan. We’re training ANA the Afghan National Army, and you’re the embedded training team. And so, you’re out training with the Afghans during the day, traveling back to your base at night at in this book 0100 and they’re telling you don’t need weapons. And so, you obviously put up a fight and get the weapons and then the bone yard happens. So please tell us about the bone yard. I’ve read the story. I’ve heard your speech, but in your own words, the audience, I think will love to hear your version of what happened.
Tom Brewer: Well, you did a great setup. So here we are. It is it is early in the war. We are training the very first Kandaks. Kandaks, the battalions of the Afghan National Army. And we’re struggling because some of the folks that have been put in charge were plucked out of the Pentagon and were absolutely clueless about what we really needed. So we worked through that, and we were able to do that partially because of a lot of the captured weapons from caves and stops along the way that we had of vehicles that had been as smuggled items as they were trying to bring in. And the problem was, if we were out doing operations and they caught us as US carrying AK-47S, we had a couple of generals in particular that just really become unpleasant. And it was so ridiculous because if we were in a fight, the ammunition that our troops were carrying, the Afghans then was interchangeable. They were reliable weapons. And with a little bit of training, they’re fairly accurate for the ranges that we dealt with. And so, as time went on and I got more and more discouraged, I said, okay, fine. So, we literally ordered all the parts to build an AR-15 and then modified them once we were in a country and built weapons over there to issue. Now they weren’t they weren’t weapons that were seal numbered, and they weren’t on the books. And that may sound like a ridiculous way of doing it, but it turned out that on the evening of 12th October 2003, as we were returning from the Pakistani border after doing ops with a Kandak, so imagine this, we train a Kandak up one of the Afghan battalions. We take them out and they engage the Taliban. And what we did is, is through that process started to judge leadership; who was a natural that understood how to lead men under fire and who didn’t? Because some of the early processes there, they simply did it by tribal affiliation. And that didn’t correlate to any leadership skills, especially in combat.
John Berry: Like you’re born an officer, you’re born a leader was how the Afghans looked at it.
Tom Brewer: Or you knew somebody who was appointing someone to a position. And just because of who you know, not what you know. So, we changed that. We said, no, that’s not how this is going to work. So, we’d had a good day and we had figured out some NCO positions and, and things were really working nice. And it was it was a beautiful evening actually. We’re coming back. And we went through this place called “the bone yard.” So, the bone yard and envisioned this, hundreds of destroyed Soviet tanks and armored personnel carriers are in this area, this relatively small. And I think what happened is after several battles, they drugged these in. So, there was just kind of a congregation of these.
John Berry: A junkyard of.
Tom Brewer: Junkyards. That’s it. That’s a good way to look at it. Well, the Afghans were kind of superstitious about the place because there were still skeletons in some of these. So they didn’t really go anywhere near it.
John Berry: And when you say skeletons, you mean human remains, not skeletons of vehicles. Yeah. So, human remains still in the old Russian vehicles.
Tom Brewer: Right. So, the Afghans didn’t want to go there. So, what did the Americans do? We built a road through the middle of it. Well, evidently the Taliban weren’t as concerned about, you know, skeletons in these vehicles because they set up to launch into the city of Kabul, which wasn’t far from the bone yard, some of these Katyusha rockets, and they were setting those up to fire them in the middle of the night, as we just happened through there. And they didn’t expect anyone to be coming through. They engaged us. There was only six of us, two vehicles and what they did, my thought process at the time is, okay, there’s two, because that’s all we saw at one time. A guy with an RPG and a guy with an AK. So, it seemed like good odds. Six of us, two of them. And I thought, you know, if we don’t deal with this, the next convoy to come through may not have the luck of being missed by that first shot. So, we’re going to close with and destroy the enemy. That’s kind of what we got paid to do over there.
John Berry: That’s the number one job skill the Infantry, to close with and destroy the enemy.
Tom Brewer: So, we actually pulled in behind destroyed T-55 tank. I broke us into two teams an A team and a B team. We moved forward. I said, listen, I will move to the flank where there is a WADI that lets them escape to the Jalalabad Road and cut that off. You guys stay here. It’s open desert behind him. We’ll call the QRF. We’ll hold them in place, so they get there. Then we’ll close with. They’ll either give up or pay the consequences.
John Berry: Now at that time, the QRF, the Quick Reaction Force, is 10th Mountain Division.
Tom Brewer: It is the 10th Mountain Division. Okay, just as a passing note, the commander of the regiment that was there of the 10th Mountain Division was a guy named Mark Milley, who just retired as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. His boss, and the guy who signed both my Purple Hearts was a guy by the name of Lloyd Austin, who was currently the Secretary of Defense. So, on the night of the bone yard, the two in the sequence of the chain of command ended up sticking around for a while. And so anyway, that just kind of a trivia, but neither of them was the one who had made the decision to not allow us to have the weapons. That was a one-star. And again, he worked at and just was kind of a pain and everyone’s side because he just did not understand how to train soldiers or fight wars. But that’s okay. The Army has a bad habit putting people like that in leadership.
John Berry: He was he was a bureaucrat. And bureaucrats absolutely hate heroism. And so, what are they ever. And, you know, one of the things on the Veteran Led podcast is we take away a lot of the great things we learned from the military, but we also learn from the stupid stuff. And as you said, the Afghans had AK-47s. They had 7.62 rounds and had one of them been shot. And because you’re training in the compounds in open areas where you are subject to enemy fire, that that can happen. And this general song, you don’t need more than a 9-mil and you understand there are snipers out there, there’s RPGs, there are people who want to kill you. There are people who are not happy. You are training their adversary. And so, you’re doing everything you can. And there’s general officers saying, well, we really don’t think that you need that weapon or that protection, but even the stupidity around the AK-47s, I’m like, if you just think about simplicity, right? If you run a business, you understand, you have to, you know, recycle things, you have to reuse things. And if something happens to your weapon system or something happens to an Afghan soldier and you’re under attack, there are going to be AK-47s on the ground and there are going to be there’s going to be 7.62 magazines full. And the fact that you weren’t allowed to carry one is just complete and sheer stupidity. So anyway, so I, I can only imagine your frustration and look everybody that served this listening this knows the level of stupidity. We’ve all seen big Army stupidity. But here it is, the one-star, the bureaucrat who’s off somewhere safe, telling you on the ground, Colonel Brewer, I don’t think you should have weapons. I think you’re safe. And that’s the only reason. Why don’t you come down here with your 9-mil and help me? Right.
Tom Brewer: Well, and probably the thing that that struck me as the most challenging of the after action part of this was, they were going to give me a letter of reprimand, because I had failed to properly prepare my men for this engagement, that they were without the proper weapons. So, I told them, I said, now that’s not true. I tried to and I was denied this, and I attached the letter, fortunately, that I had gotten back from them denying it. And for some reason the letter of reprimand went away. And they went to the Bronze Star instead. But the point being that that night we were limited in our resources because what happened was the QRF had gone to Bagram to pick up supplies. And of course, there’s always a backup to a QRF. And the backup was the Germans. So, when we got the information, they weren’t available, we go to the backup, the Germans and the Germans are like, listen, I’d love to help you, but we need permission from our Minister of Defense in Germany. Well, this is in the middle of the night, and the Minister is not available. So, they couldn’t come, so we had to internally build a QRF from soldiers near the Pakistani border past a place called Pul-e-Charkhi. And internally they came to the rescue. So, it was it was ourselves building this QRF.
Tom Brewer: But again, they weren’t as equipped as well as they should have been because of the rules. But they did bring AK-47s, and that was part of what they used to suppress the enemy until the real QRF could get there. And we were able to make this work out to our advantage. But, you know, sometimes you get frustrated because the obvious right answer isn’t the answer. That the leadership, you know, allows you to execute. And that’s where people get killed and things happen. And I always thought that, you know, if I was ever to be in a position of authority where I could make sure those kind of things didn’t happen, that was that was one of my goals of my career. So, you know, going back and forth to Afghanistan on all those tours, I was always very careful to make sure, you know, that the men always had what they needed, especially body armor and weapons. And beyond that, you’re a little bit at the mercy of the government and what what’s available. But it was it was something that I just kept going back to and as you know, time went on and I was able to go to other places like the Ukraine, it was valuable and coaching and mentoring other leaders.
John Berry: And that’s an important lesson. I think as a leader, sometimes we want to set rules and we don’t always think through how those rules, the secondary and tertiary effects affect our teams. So let me take I took you out of the fight. Sorry for the detour, but there’s a lot of leadership lessons there. I wanted to I wanted to pull out. All right. So now at this point, you’ve decided to close with and destroy the enemy. There’s two, you see, two enemy combatants. You know that if you don’t take them out, somebody’s going, they’re going to be back. You think there’s two? That’s what you saw two at the time. And so, you’ve decided that, okay, this is you know, this is something that we need. We need to take care of. Otherwise, other soldiers, other Marines, other individuals in Afghanistan could be harmed. And they know we’re coming through this road. If they try to ambush us, they’re going to try to ambush someone else. So, you engage, you try to get a hold of the QRF. There’s no QRF. You divide your as you said, you divide your team into the Alpha team and Bravo team, and you start to maneuver around. Now what happens?
Tom Brewer: Well, it was my plan, so I thought it was a good plan. But as it developed there were some glitches there. So, the Alpha team, they laid down a base of fire. I moved to the flank along a wall, a short wall about as tall as this table. And I told the other two, I said, here’s, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to jump over this wall. We’re going to move about 100 yards to a large pile of concrete. I said, we’re going to get behind the concrete that will cut off their exit route, and we’ll just simply hold them at bay until we could get the QRF. What I didn’t realize, first off, understand it was without all my team members. We had several from the Pentagon that were there to evaluate the training, and those were the two I got. And as I jumped over the wall and took off the guy next to me, his vest hooked on some rebar that was sticking out. And so, when he went to go, he couldn’t go well, because he didn’t go. The other guy didn’t go. So, what happened is it was a solo sprint, and I was a distance runner in college, but become somewhat of a sprinter because it just was a few dashes into this that they opened up from the building. And that was the realization was that there wasn’t two. There was a much larger number there.
Tom Brewer: I think in the end we counted 70 plus that it either killed, wounded or captured. So, we misjudged that a little bit. But when I got to this giant pile of concrete, then I was there by myself. So the situation was, I couldn’t get back without probably being in a lot of risk. I still needed the mission of keeping them from escaping. Didn’t realize the QRF was going to be delayed, so it seemed like that mission was simply a relatively short one. The distance from Camp Phoenix to where we were was a matter of maybe 15 to 20 minutes. So I said, I’ll lay down the base of fire. We’ll just continue the mission as planned. And, you know, we drive on. And the firefight started, and it continued. And this went on for about 15 minutes. It was during that period that they came back and said, oh, the QRF isn’t there, but we’re going to the backup. Well, the enemy started figuring out that we might want to get out of here. This this could turn bad for us. And so they started in bunches of 5 or 6, rushing toward my position or toward this WADI, this opening there was in the hillside there. And so I was engaging them. And I was going back to your original point. The beauty of this was I had I didn’t have night vision, but I had a Trijicon sight that had the illuminated V or Chevron, and it was a very effective.
Tom Brewer: As they stepped out in the silhouette came invisible. Just shoot center of mass and they’d drop and you’d work on the next one. And so there wasn’t any issue there, except that at about the 30 minute spot, I noticed that I had shot up two magazines. Now I had six, so I had had more to go. But when they came back and said that the Germans weren’t going to be available, I started thinking this through that, that this could be a long evening, and I probably needed to pace myself a little bit on this shooting. Now, I also had a 9 mm, and I had I always carried more ammunition than I needed to, and some people made fun of me before, not after. So I thought, well, you know, we’ll still be fine. But what they did then and started running larger groups, and it was during that that I was shot the first time and it actually hit the concrete and then ricocheted and came right along my brow line and opened up the side of my head. And I’m trying to self-treat with what’s called QuickClot. Now QuickClot back then looked like broken eggshells. And when you put it on, it instantly burned and it almost sizzled like it was, it was early before they really defined it as well as it is now.
Tom Brewer: And so I was a little shocked that my, you know, how the effect it had, and I was a little bit of a distraction in the middle of some pretty busy work, but it quit. It turned into kind of like a jello on your skin and stopped the bleeding. That’s all good. The problem was, is they rushed the next time a guy was able to get essentially from me to you away and stitched me with an AK at not point blank range, but near point blank range. Two of them went into the vest. One went into my left lung. I was able to successfully engage him back and he didn’t have body armor, so that’s a win. The problem is a bullet hitting a SAPI plate at close range. It doesn’t penetrate the plate, but it takes and it pushes through fairly deep and then flexes back and breaks ribs. So now you have multiple broken ribs and a punctured lung. Your side of your head opened up, and you’re still in the middle of this fight that you probably want to continue, or else this isn’t going to work out real well for you. And so I had to regroup and call back and say, all right, here’s the situation. We need to figure out how to solve this quickly or this is going to be over. And that’s what my internal QRF came.
John Berry: Now, you hadn’t told anybody you’d been shot. At that point.
Tom Brewer: I didn’t think it was necessary. I was afraid I was worried that at this point, none of my guys had been wounded, and I didn’t want them because I knew some of them, as loyal as they were, they would have jumped over the wall and come running over to help and would probably resulted in them not surviving. And I didn’t want to be the cause of someone’s death because of my injuries. It was more important that we just continue the fight.
John Berry: Now let me let me ask you a question, though, because I want to I read this in the book that when you were initially engaging the enemy and they were coming out of everywhere, it was like shooting coyotes on the reservation, just, you know, real easy. You know, it’s just it’s natural for you. Now, we know that breathing is very important to marksmanship. Now you’ve got broken ribs. You’re having trouble breathing. How does that change the dynamic now of the firefight?
Tom Brewer: Well, your vision narrows as you have less oxygen and less blood, and it made everything more challenging. The problem was the rate that they were coming at me was exceeding my ability to engage and reload and engage. Now they were stacking up, you know, a number of folks there, but they had few options. They seen the base of fire coming from the forward position. They couldn’t go that way. They couldn’t go out in the desert. So I was it. And so on the next wave that came, I was shot in the chest again, and it was with a PKM, which is their kind of equivalent of our 240 or M60. That was a violent event because it literally picked me up, threw me back. I landed on the back of my head. It was only at that point that I realized that when I was sitting in the vehicle moving at night, I had a map out and was making some notes on the day, and I had taken off my helmet and set on the floorboard. And when it all happened, I never picked it up. So the first I realized I didn’t have my helmet on was when my head impacted the concrete behind me. That was a wakeup call, and when I focused, I was surrounded by enemy. It had blown the radio out of my hand.
Tom Brewer: And so they were engaging, shooting into the ground where the radio was thinking that’s where I was. Fortunately, it had blown about ten feet away from me, and but it also blown the rifle out of my hand when I was hit. But your pistol was strapped to your leg, so I just reached down and pulled it up and engaged only two of them that were near me. But what happened in the melee? They turned and literally shot each other, which is fine with me. I was good to go with this. And then actually, as they were laying there, I policed up some of their AKs because I could see that at the rate of fire that I was doing, I was down, I think two magazines left and that I’ll take an AK over nothing. And so the fight continued. It was back and forth and the only thing that became an issue. As I fired the last of my M16 rounds, I transitioned to the AK, and I did not tell my men that. Well, at night there’s a very distinct signature of the AK because it pulls kicks out this barrel, a ball of fire that that is unique compared to the M16. And when I did that, my guys thought that the enemy was there. So now I started taking fire from my guys, which was much more accurate fire from the enemy.
Tom Brewer: So I had to call over and I said, listen, I’m going to break a chem light. I’m going to drop this. If it’s behind the chem light, don’t shoot it. And so that’s how we continued the fight for a while. And the QRF internal QRF arrived. They did a great job of engaging the enemy, holding things and buying his time. But there was a point where I had been shot through the left arm, shot through the lung, had a chunk of my head gone and decided that I may want to get out of there because I was running out of blood and bullets and bright ideas, kind of all at the same time. So I said, listen, I got more firepower now you guys pour fire into that building, you buy me time and I’m coming back to you again. Did not want them to come to me. That would be what they would want to do. But the chances of them surviving that were very thin. At that point, I’d already been shot up, so it wasn’t like it was that big a deal for me to get any more shot up. At least I thought so in my sprint after I gave him the go, I had gone about 50 yards and was shot through my right calf. Well, if you’ve never been shot through your calf, what it does is basically take your leg and it throws it and in this case into your other leg, and then you go face down, kind of like you’re sliding into home plate.
Tom Brewer: And it takes a lot of the fight out of you because you’re already in less than great shape. And as I started to get my eyes to focus, because just like in Iraq, in Afghanistan, there’s this powdery dust, it’s like talcum powder. So it’s in your eyes. You’re trying to focus. And when you focus, there’s a gun barrel literally at your temple. And this dark figure standing there, and I still have my 9 mm 7 rounds left. That was that’s all I had left was that. And as I went to engage him, I realized that it was locked to the rear, that I was running and engaging them and had shot the last round. Well, fortunately, it was empty because the guy who was standing there did not know he was coming. It was a Gurkha soldier. Kajiman Limbu and Kajiman had jumped on one of the vehicles coming from the border to help, and he wasn’t on the same radio frequency as everyone else was. So he didn’t get to stay here and let the colonel come to us. He jumped the wall and came. Now this is a little guy.
John Berry: And the Gurkhas are British, part of the coalition?
Tom Brewer: Yes, they come from Nepal. They are some of the finest soldiers I’ve ever seen in my life. They’re very dedicated. And Kajiman’s case, he didn’t speak a lot of English because I remember hearing him say, boss, boss, boss. Well, that’s what they would. They didn’t distinguish lieutenant, captain, colonel as just boss. And it was a great sound to hear because I knew that it wasn’t the Taliban. And the Taliban wore a dark outfit like that. And what the British did is they treat the Gurkhas as, I don’t know, lesser than a British soldier. And so they got desert camouflage. The Gurkhas didn’t. They had the green. And so that’s at night. He appeared very dark. He dropped to one knee. So he weighs 135 lbs., 140 lbs. And he picked me up. So at that time, with all my IBA and all my stuff on probably 275 to 300 somewhere in there
John Berry: And you’re about six three.
Tom Brewer: Yep. And he threw me over my shoulder, over his shoulder and ran with me, chucked me over this short wall, jumped over the wall and immediately started triage from head to toe. And he is he is doing it as professional as any medical person would. And he’s putting a tourniquet on the arm, went back, did some work on the head and bandaged it. I mean, he’s doing it up right and put a seal on the lung. The fact that he had the equipment, the fact that he knew how to use the equipment was a great tribute to the British Army and to the Gurkhas themselves. And again, he wasn’t on the frequency, and it was only when I was laying there, they thought I was still somewhere out in the middle there, that I was able to get on the frequency and say, listen, I’m good. I’m going across the wall. Let’s just hold them. And then the QRF arrived and, and, you know, we went on from there, but Kajiman Limbu. I put him in for the Silver Star. It was downgraded to a, I think a Bronze Star with V, but in the British Army, they had put him in for the George’s Cross and I was notified about a year later that they had invited me to England to come. That the Queen would present the George’s Cross and went over. Kajiman’s father, who was a silversmith, had made me a kukri knife, and it has silver inlaid.
Tom Brewer: It was beautiful. And I told him, I said, listen, your son saved my life. I should not be taking this gift. I should be giving you one. He goes, no, no. He said, I’m so honored my son had a chance to serve with you, and this is my way of thanking you. And I felt small because of this. But at the ceremony, they announced that the last George’s Cross to be presented to a Gurkha soldier was for operations in Indonesia in the 60s. And they brought him up to introduce him. And it was Kajiman’s father. Wow. You know that talk about running in the family. I you know, I, I just and Kajiman went on to go to Sandhurst, became an officer which was unheard of. Gurkhas could be NCOs but not officers. And when I was back in Afghanistan in 2010, I went down to the Helmand province, and I visited him. He was a captain, infantry company commander, then of a Gurkha company, and he was the first Gurkha to command a Gurkha company. And I thought, you know what? Sometimes karma works in the positive way and in this case, in his case it did. And I was just so glad that things worked out for him because he was brave. He was he was a soldier. True. And so it was it was really an amazing thing to see what had been a limited future for a Gurkha soldier change because of his actions.
John Berry: And so, we see a parallel here, because you were the first Native American elected to the Nebraska State Legislature. So obviously a pioneer yourself, and we’ll get into that later. But I don’t want to I don’t want to disrupt the Bone Yard because it’s such an important story. So as you so, so, so you’ve been saved by Kajiman at this point. At some point, the QRF arrives and you’re relieved of command.
Tom Brewer: Well, I was it wasn’t it wasn’t easy, though. I we crawled along this wall back to where one of the vehicles were that had a base radio in it. And so I got in there. And so what I’m now is orchestrating the QRF’s. Because of cloud cover we couldn’t use air support, but we did have some problems where the German QRF finally got permission to come. The 10th Mountain QRF was coming, and they were coming from the opposite directions. And there was some confusion, and the American QRF actually engaged the, the German QRF. And so, you know, we wasn’t bad enough we were getting shot at from the Taliban, we’re also getting it from, from both our QRFs. So we had to make sure and deconflict some of that. But it all worked out in the end. They were able to surround the place they captured, you know, what was left. There was a handful that that did escape. But, you know, all in all, considering how that could have turned out, it turned out pretty well.
John Berry: And then you got eventually you got medical treatment and had an interesting ride back in the in the field ambulance.
Tom Brewer: Well, yes. So they finally came over and pulled me out and said, listen, you need to go get medical attention. You need to get off the radio because we don’t want you to bleed to death. And I said, well, probably a fair enough assessment there. So we went over to the ambulance. They had me stretched out in there, and it was the old Humvee cracker box ambulance, just the square box on the back, and they had cut off my pant leg and one sleeve and they were doing treatment. They’d taken the tourniquet off, and all of a sudden, a couple of bullets ripped through the ambulance high above us, and the two medics exited the ambulance and left the back doors open. And there’s the firefight was still ongoing and I thought, well, this kind of sucks. So I evacuated myself out of the back of the ambulance, went over, hid behind a destroyed tank with the others, and I told them, I said, listen, guys, when you leave, you need to take me with you. And they go, well, we never been under fire before. And I said, all right, well, just put that down in your AAR, that that’s not something you do leave the patient when you when you have to leave. So we come back. Well, these are two Spec 4s scared to death. First human being I think that actually live human being they ever worked on.
Tom Brewer: So they’re trying to put an IV in and they’re not having a lot of luck. And part of it was I was probably a little dehydrated. I was I lost blood, you know, if your body has enough happened to it, it is harder to find a vein. So after about the fourth time they stuck me, I said, listen guys, I’m running low on blood as it is. You need to hit a vein. Well I was joking, but they didn’t. You know, they’re working on a lieutenant colonel, and they’re scared to death. And I only made it worse. And he goes, well, do you care if we put it into your carotid artery in your neck? And I said, yeah, actually, I’d prefer you not do that one. Well, as you’ll see in a second why that was. So they finally got a vein and they put it in the IV is in. And they said, listen, we’re going to get you to the German hospital. It’s the closest hospital, and we got to get out of here. I’m like, I’m good with that. So they closed the back doors. There’s a partition, a small door between the front and the back, and they had dropped the windows because this was not an up armored Humvee. This was an old, old school stuff. And the passenger medic is actually has his rifle out the window. He’s not shooting, but he’s ready to if we need be, because what we didn’t know is how many others were in the general vicinity.
Tom Brewer: So in the process of them going down through the ditch and jumping back up on the road to head for the German hospital, the stretcher I’m on, they secured me to the stretcher, did a great job there. The problem is they didn’t secure the stretcher to the deck. So as they did that, it flipped the stretcher over and I landed face first on the floor, which wouldn’t have been all bad except in the process it pulled the IV tube out, but not the needle. They taped it on. And so now you have the needle in your vein, with nothing to stop the blood from just being pumped straight out because it was, you know, a pipeline out. And the longer we went and the more I bounced, I was trying to get their attention. But it’s hard when your face is against the bottom of a vehicle to yell very loud, especially when the vehicles are bouncing and you’re getting mashed every time that happens. And so when we got to the German hospital and he opened the back of it, I remember them saying, Holy cow, turn him over quick before someone sees him. Well, I was like, hey guys, I’m still alive here. So they rolled me over. They put the IV back in, and then they went to try and find the Germans.
Tom Brewer: Some reason no one bothered calling the hospital saying, hey, we got somebody inbound. Well, I got they unstrapped me when they when they redid the IV. And I’m sitting on the tailgate of this Humvee waiting. And I remember needing to use a bathroom and there was a porta potty right there. So I hobbled over there because, again, I’d been shot through the leg and of course, no more than got the door closed and I hear a whole bunch of German voices. Well, the Germans showed up and they can’t find me. Ambulance! And then the two kids that were there, the medics, they didn’t know where I went either, so there was a big to do. Well, I figured at that point I was in trouble anyway, so it didn’t matter. So took care of business, got back. Well, they take me in, and they do all the triage cleaned and most of everything the bullet travelled through. So it was more just kind of cleaning, dressing the wounds, some stitching or stapling. And I looked a little like Frankenstein between the head and the arm and everything else. But all in all, I’d come out of it pretty good. No major things other than the lung which they thought would heal fine. So the next morning they said, would you like to stay here in the German hospital or go to the American hospital? And I said, well, right now I’ve only had one guy that speaks English here, so why don’t we go to the German hospital? So they brought over what was called a Fuchs, and that was a wheeled ambulance that was armored.
Tom Brewer: Very impressed with it. So the German medics loaded me up and they zipped me over to Camp Phoenix. They rolled up to the back of Phoenix’s. What was it, TMC not really a hospital, but they had beds, and they had the ability to do treatment there. And there was a whole group of Americans waiting there, and they pulled up and they took the stretcher out. They said they have those stands that the stretcher sets on, hooked the IV bag up. Well, neither one of them spoke any English, so they jabbered something in German to the crowd. And the crowd’s like, okay, whatever. They get back in the vehicle, they screwed on out of there. And then everybody’s looking at me and they’re smoking a cigarette and I’m looking at them. And then all of a sudden, they put out their cigarettes and they all leave. So it wasn’t anybody from the TMC. It was people on a smoke break who had been on sick call. Well, I’m a little pissed over the deal. Plus, I’m high on morphine and decided, you know, if you guys don’t want to treat me, I’m going to breakfast. So I simply grabbed the IV bag, and I hobbled across the compound to the mess hall, and I looked a fright because I had dried blood, my eye sockets and stitches on my head and everything else.
Tom Brewer: And I get a tray and I hobble through the line there, and the Kellogg, Brown and Root guy looked at me and I said, I’d like some bacon. And he was so terrified. He took the tongs and took every bit of bacon that was in the container, put it on my plate and gave it to me. I didn’t really need that much. But I hobbled over, and I sat down, and I sat down at the table, and everybody at the table looked at me, and they picked up and left. Evidently, I looked frightful enough that they wasn’t going to do anything for the appetite. This one I found a little disturbing. But when I was done eating, it all of a sudden dawned on me that I couldn’t remember my tent number. And so think of this. This camp is a checkerboard of A through whatever and 1 through whatever. So you might be, you know, C-17, but I couldn’t remember my tent number. And I got discouraged. And the only thing that I knew was I just changed out the guard towers on the four corners of the from the old wooden towers to these new metal towers. And I knew that those were on the ground.
Tom Brewer: And there were there were cots in there for the guards to sleep. So I hobbled over there and set the IV bag on the shelf and went to sleep. Well, in the meantime, there was a guy by the name of Tommy Franks, just happened to be CENTCOM commander and decided, you know what? This major was wounded. First field grade officer to be wounded in in that area. And so I’m going to go present the Purple Heart. So he shows up at the German hospital and he’s got his photographer and his aide and all that. The Germans are like, Dossevi don’t know. He’s not here. So he shows up at Phoenix and he comes in, he goes, hey, I’m ready to, you know, pin this on. And they go, I haven’t seen him, don’t know nothing about it. So he starts making some calls and lighting people on fire going, hey, where the hell is Brewer? And I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. Well, no one did know. My, my, my soldiers didn’t know, none of the hospitals knew. And of course, the two kids they sent with me didn’t speak English, so they didn’t know how. They said we delivered him, but then the hospital said they didn’t get him. So in the meantime, I’m sleeping through all this. I have no idea what’s going on. I wake up hours later, it’s day, it’s dark out.
Tom Brewer: And now the morphine’s wore off and I’m hurting everywhere. It hurts to breathe. It hurts to set up. It hurts to move. I’m like, oh, okay, I’ve got, I’ve got to go find my. And now I could clearly think of what my tent number was. But I’m moving so slow and I’m shuffling like a little old man because I couldn’t raise my legs because one, one I’d been shot through. And so I stumbled across the camp, and I run into one of my company commanders as I’m coming in the tent and he goes, sir, where the hell have you been? And I said, I’ve been sleeping. And he goes, oh my God, the whole world’s looking for you. I said, well, listen, I’m tired. I’m going back to sleep. He goes, oh no, no, no, no, no, I got to take you to the hospital. And so he escorted me over and as soon as I got in, someone made a call and the MPs came and they put me in a room, and they stood there and guarded me. And I didn’t go anywhere until the general showed up. But yeah, it was it was kind of a bizarre experience for the treatment beyond getting wounded. But, you know, it was it was early in the war. They hadn’t had to deal with many casualties. You know, it was just you know, lessons learned. And the things that happened in war.
John Berry: Well, thank you so much for coming on here. You exemplify the warrior in uniform and the warrior outside the uniform, and you’ve given so much back to the community. And like me, I think you would agree that we receive so much when we serve that that it’s it makes no sense not to give back. And the more we give, the more we get. But I would ask you to leave us with your After Action Review. What are three things that you did that went really well, that you’ve learned from your military career? And what are three things that you remember? The three up, the three down three went well. Three that didn’t happen. I’d love to sit here and say, what was the mission? What actually happened? But you’ve been through hundreds of missions, but if you had to narrow it down to give advice to veterans looking to get to that next level, whether it’s they’re just getting out of the military, or they’ve been out of the military, and they want to they want to continue on that path of success. What are the three top things that Tom Brewer has learned throughout his career as a military officer and as a senator and as a humanitarian?
Tom Brewer: Well, on the on the minus side, you know, I think there were times that I didn’t listen to my NCOs as well as I should have. And whether you replace the NCO with staff. It. The end effect is the same. There were times that things could have been done so much more efficiently had I just listened. But sometimes you can be very stubborn. Somebody says a young lieutenant or captain that that would be one of them. The other one, I think, would be that there were a few things that I was hesitant to do because I was worried that it might be too hard. And looking back on it now, I wish I would have tested everything to the limit and to a degree. You know, I did pretty good. You know, Ranger School is not a walk in the park. That’s a test. And I feared failing there because I knew of the disappointment of my father would have. And that, you know, that’s hard. You don’t you don’t want that to be looming over you, but you also don’t want to be that person who says, well, I could have done Ranger school. I just never had a chance. Well, if you shaped the fight, you can have a chance. And so, you know, don’t be afraid of taking risks, because in the end, the regret will be that you didn’t do it, not that you did it and failed.
Tom Brewer: And probably the last one is that, you know, we do these deployments all over the world, and the ones who really suffer are your families, because you become very focused in theater and making sure that the troops have everything they need and that you’re successful in that mission. And sometimes you forget back home that, you know, you have a family that’s trying to struggle to get by every day. And, and I always worried that my kids would turn into juvenile delinquents because I wasn’t there. So, it’s kind of refreshing. You know, my son teaches math in high school and was in the guard and, and my daughter is, is a captain and loving her service and what she’s doing. And they’re raising families. And all my fears of having juvenile delinquent kids didn’t work out that way, but it was because they did a lot on their own. I wasn’t there, you know, I missed pretty much three years of my daughter’s high school and three years of my son’s high school just because of all the deployments with Afghanistan. So, the family be the other thing that sometimes you neglect. And I wish I probably would have worked harder to get back, see them do more, do more. On the upside. Wow, three is hard because you think about all of those who, if it wasn’t for them, you would have very limited success in life.
Tom Brewer: And I give that again to the NCOs that that coached and mentored me over the years, whether it was in Katrina, when they pull you aside and they say, hey, sir, I don’t know if this is a good idea, and then you stop and think about it for a second. Like, you know, you’re probably right, probably a very good idea. So, to all of those, you know, all those NCOs over the years made life successful because they not only helped you get through it, but they also were the ones that made sure you didn’t do things that were going to probably injure your career. Um, I would say the other one is, you look back at all of those opportunities you had in life, and a lot of those meant doing a lot of really hard work and taking risks. It would be easy to go through a military career and not do anything too hard and not take any risks, and still become a major, lieutenant colonel, colonel heck, I think there’s a lot of generals that probably got to be general that way. But when you’re finished with your time in uniform and you don’t have both officers and NCOs, but especially NCOs that say, you know, I enjoyed serving with that man, he took care of me. He watched out for us.
Tom Brewer: Then you failed because I don’t know how many officers that I could think of now that no one has a thing to say, good or bad. They were invisible through their careers because they wanted to be invisible. They wanted to get rank without the challenges and responsibilities and burdens that come with that. And that’s all you’re going to have when the dust settles.
John Berry: Well, thank you so much. Great weight, great After Action Review. Thank you, Colonel Brewer. Senator Brewer a hero to many, but more importantly, someone who doesn’t stop being a hero and who continues to give and give and give and build on success so that we can learn what the next step will be for us. I know a lot of veterans who have cherished your leadership and have grown because of it, so thank you for being on the podcast today. But most importantly, thank you for what you do for our men and women in uniform and thank you for what you do for our communities.
John Berry: Thank you for joining us today on Veteran Led, where we pursue our mission of promoting veteran leadership in business, strengthening the veteran community, and getting veterans all of the benefits that they earned. If you know a leader who should be on the Veteran Led podcast, report to our online community by searching @veteranled on your favorite social channels and posting in the comments. We want to hear how your military challenges prepared you to lead your industry or community, and we will let the world know. And of course, hit subscribe and join me next time on Veteran Led.
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