Pentagon correspondent Tara Copp rode into Iraq in 2003 with four airmen from San Angelo’s Goodfellow Air Force Base: Airman First Class Valentine Cortez; Airman First Class Brian Kolfage, Staff Sergeant Chad Wurm and Senior Airman Daniel Holmes. After returning home, Copp needed to better understand war. She began a ten-year journey to rebuild her grandfather’s lost World War II bomber pilot missions. She weaves both stories into The Warbird, published in March by Squadron Books. The following is an excerpt from chapter seven, “Purple Hearts.”
September 11, 2004
Cortez still had his hands on Kolfage’s wounds when the medics finally separated them. It gave Cortez a moment of reality. He looked at the ground. He saw things. Bloody things. He pushed away from them and jumped beside Kolfage in the ambulance. When the medical team charged the gurney through Balad’s field hospital Cortez was left outside. He stood by the hospital’s tent flaps, wondering why he was wearing his buddy’s bloody hat.
The base issued a call for blood. Within minutes a line of airmen, Marines, sailors and soldiers formed around the hospital’s sandbags and canvas. Some came on bikes, some just came running as soon as they heard the call.
It was barely 3 p.m.
Cortez waited out the news.
Kolfage survived the first surgery.
We had to amputate, the doctors said.
He stood watch through the night. Cortez endured as people gave more support than he could stand. His team gathered. The chaplain hovered. A bunch of other people were just … there.
Some minutes he’d crouch. Some minutes he’d stand, or walk in the sliver of light seeping from the hospital tent. Cortez waited. And overnight, Balad’s medical team saved Kolfage’s life. He was stabilized to fly. Word went out: Kolfage would be evacuated immediately on a massive C-5 Galaxy. The men and women of Balad Air Base who had lined up to give blood shifted into a line to salute Kolfage’s path to the plane. They stood, some silent, some cheering support as the ambulance slowly drove an unconscious Kolfage to the flight line.
Cortez had 1,000 thoughts running through his head as the ambulance approached the plane.
You can say goodbye, he’d been told. Cortez was given special permission to approach the gurney before it was lifted into the C-5’s hold.
Cortez walked up to his friend. Kolfage was intubated, his neck was in a brace. His face was barely visible through gauze and bruises and wiring.
Cortez thought of all they had shared, serving in these dangerous lands. Cortez knew this was the last time he would see his friend for a long time. He remembered what they used to shout to stay motivated during long night watches and when they pushed each other at the gym.
Cortez leaned in close to Kolfage’s face and repeated the words.
We live together. We fight together. We die together. We Band of Brothers.
Two weeks later, compassionate doctors eased Kolfage into news he vaguely grasped as he drifted in and out of morphine-infused consciousness at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Oh that really did happen. My legs are gone.
I visited Kolfage at Walter Reed shortly after, because Wurm had reached out.
The room was dim, with blinds halfway drawn across the lone window. Kolfage was propped on pillows, a blanket covered him from his waist down. It went flat after his hips, except for small ridges of fabric caused by a dozen lines of tubing that connected him to fluids and medicine.
His arm was now a white bandaged nub that seeped yellow puss.
This room was the exact opposite of the Baghdad I’d last seen. It was the real price and real life of war. As we said our first “hellos” in a year, I looked into the hollow and drugged eyes of my friend and wondered if he knew he was smiling.
“You can sit on the bed,” she said. It was a direct but almost challenging welcome from his girlfriend, a pretty 20-year-old who Kolfage had dated on and off since high school.
Kolfage had lived in Hawaii back then. He’d been a sandy, 15-year-old punk of a kid who was hanging out on an apartment balcony with friends when he saw her riding a skateboard and called down. When the Air Force moved her family to Texas he’d followed. Then he decided to enlist.
When the phone rang where she was staying in San Antonio during his second deployment she couldn’t stop screaming until someone could convince her Kolfage was still alive.
I sat on the bed. I don’t know what exactly I said to her or to Kolfage. I remember it was a muting task to open my mouth because every crutch I used to reconnect — “How’s it going? What have you been up to?” — was an embarrassing failure. I knew how Kolfage was. He was one-half. He was right in front of me. I still asked. What the hell else do you do? I asked about the hospital food.
“I just started eating solids again,” he said.
“The food sucks,” she corrected.
I asked if his parents were OK.
I asked what I could do to help.
That one was the trigger. His young girlfriend had the weight of the world on her shoulders, but said nothing. How do you complain about the stress and the fear and the responsibilities that did not exist three weeks ago, when you have both of your legs and your arm and you did not serve our country in Iraq? Kolfage never, ever said this. But it was in her head, in her mind, in her heart. It was in the eyes of every new “friend,” all those doctors and nurses and hospital coordinators who would make small talk of their own: “How are you doing?” The first few times when she dared show fraying she saw the flicker of judgment. Of pity. And she quickly learned to just smile and say she was fine.
Instead she focused. She moved back and forth from checking on his bandages, like the nurses had taught her, to staring at her phone for the 100th time, wondering if this next number she’d been told to dial would finally get them the support they needed.
Access to cash. A place for her to crash while Kolfage healed. She had nowhere to go, she didn’t want to be anywhere but here. At night she curled up beside Kolfage on the bed, her shampooed hair a soft and welcome respite from the medical smell of the sheets.
When I asked what I could do to help, it was a hollow offer like so many others would be. She quickly shut me down; in even the few weeks since the attack she’d learned to read a real offer from an empty one. It was a survival instinct.
She was right, there was not much I could do. But I could take my notebook and my pen and four weeks after Kolfage was hit the best thing I could do was to write and write and get their story on our wire.
A few days after “United for the Journey” hit our newspapers they married. With no dress and no ring they were joined by a Walter Reed chaplain. They were a young man and a young woman who sat together on Kolfage’s hospital bed with no legs and no right hand. He put his left hand in hers and they vowed to face this unknown together.