Brian Birdwell loved being a soldier. He served in the military for 20 years, being deployed in Operation Desert Storm, providing humanitarian relief after Hurricane Mitch killed thousands in 1998, and rising through the ranks to become a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, stationed at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. On September 11, 2001 the terrorist attacks that claimed so many innocent lives thrust him into a battle for his own life.
You can call him a servant leader, and through God’s grace and mercy you can call him a survivor. One thing he prefers not to be called is a victim.
“I don’t consider myself a victim,” he says. “Those who were killed by this act of war and are no longer with us are the real victims…”
Brian doesn’t act much like a victim either. For the past decade, his life has been a mix of fighting for his own recovery, while continuing to serve and lead people. These days, he works from a different kind of battleground: as a Texas state senator.
Asked recently what he would change, Brian says simply, “I wouldn’t change anything.”
“Jesus, I’m coming to see you!”
The morning of September. 11, 2001, Brian left a men’s restroom in the Pentagon and was heading back to his office at 9:37 a.m. when American Airlines Flight 77, hijacked by terrorists, crashed into the building’s western façade. The blast threw Brian to the floor, and flames swelled through the connecting hallways, instantly scorching everything in their path.
"These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith of greater worth than gold which perishes even though refined by fire may result in praise glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed."1 Peter 1:7
Smothered by the smell of jet fuel and engulfed in flames, Brian had no idea what had happened. Even in those first few seconds of the blast, God’s protection was with Brian. He had fallen directly under a fire sprinkler that extinguished the flames that would surely have killed him. It wasn’t quick enough, however, to prevent damage to 60 percent of Brian’s body, which suffered third and fourth degree burns. His uniform had literally melted to his body. His lungs were damaged by the searing heat he inhaled, making it nearly impossible to breathe. He struggled to orient himself in the pitch black inferno, trying to escape, but fearing the worst. He didn’t know if he would live to see his wife, Mel, or son, Matt, again.
“Finally, the pain was too much to bear. I tried to stand one last time and fell sideways. “In my anguish I screamed, ‘Jesus! I’m coming to see you!’” he wrote in Refined by Fire: A Family’s Triumph of Love and Faith, a book he co-authored with his wife and contributor Ginger Kolbaba. Brian drug himself down the dark corridor away from the blast site for what seemed like an eternity. His eyes were swelling shut when he saw a fire door open ahead of him, and a military officer came running to his aid. The officer reached out to grab Brian’s arm, not realizing the extent of his injuries in the darkness of the corridor. To his horror pieces of Brian’s skin fell off into his hands, and he realized that Brian needed medical treatment immediately.
Meanwhile, Mel and Matt were at their Virginia home, excited about working on a homeschool science experiment. A friend called and told her to turn on the TV. Mel watched the planes fly into the World Trade Center towers, although the reality of a terrorist attack didn’t dawn on her at the time. As she was watching the events unfold on live TV, breaking news reported another plane had hit the Pentagon. She was terrified to see flames engulfing a newly renovated part of the Pentagon where her husband’s office had moved weeks earlier.
“I’ve never prayed so hard in my life”, she wrote in the book.
Clinging to life
After struggling to get answers about the fate of her husband in the chaotic aftermath of the explosion, she rejoiced when she finally heard that Brian was alive and had been taken to Georgetown Hospital in Washington, D.C. A neighbor drove her two hours through snarls of traffic toward the hospital only to realize that police had blocked roads into the nation’s capital. She got out of the car and took turns walking and running in a frantic attempt to reach her husband. Finally, after near exhaustion and hyperventilation, she got the attention of police officers who drove her for the final stretch. As she entered the emergency center a nurse prepared her emotionally for what she was about to see: a man who looked much different than the husband who had left their home that morning. She was told that he’d suffered burns but didn’t realize the extent of his injuries or how closely he was clinging to life. When she was finally allowed to see him in the Intensive Care Unit, nothing could have prepared her for what she saw. Brian’s face, arms and legs were severely burned and swollen, beyond the point of recognition. The gravity of his situation overwhelmed her, and for the first time, she realized that she might lose her husband.
Mel drew upon her faith to strengthen her and to pray for God’s mercy on Brian’s life. In the months and years to come, Brian endured skin grafts and scores of excruciating surgeries and intense, unyielding pain. Mel would constantly tear off the “DNR” (Do Not Resuscitate) signs that she would find affixed to her husband’s medical charts, refusing to entertain anything but faith that her husband would overcome his injuries. She would comfort him by rubbing his feet, the only part of his body that wasn’t burned, read scripture to him and pray.
During recovery, Brian says he clung to I Peter 5:10: “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.”
“That promise is not only a spiritual one,” Brian says, “but it can be for any type of suffering we endure, be it physical, as it was for me, or financial, professional or any other type.”
Brian knew God was strengthening him for the next phase of his life. The severity of his injuries meant he would have to retire from the military. After being on leave, then on light duty status, he officially retired in 2004.
“God doesn’t waste our pain”
Brian, now 51, had been a servant leader most of his life. Even the tragedy of 9/11 wasn’t going to stop that. By the time he retired, he had already started Face the Fire Ministries, an organization that offers financial support for the families of burn victims.
The seeds for ministry were planted when his physical therapist asked him to visit with someone who’d been badly burned. Brian talked to the young man and his family like a true soldier would, encouraging him to keep fighting, never give up on his new mission – to recover. Afterward, Brian remembered the words of his pastor: “God doesn’t waste our pain.” He realized that his years in the military combined with his faith in Christ had prepared him to launch Face the Fire in 2003. The Birdwells began visiting burn units and military hospitals across the country to offer comfort and inspiration. (Donations and proceeds from the Birdwells’ book have gone to Face the Fire.)
They moved back to his native home of Texas, where he became involved in supporting political candidates and speaking out at political events. Then, in 2010, he won a special election to the Texas State Senate, after the senator at the time resigned for health reasons. Senator Birdwell was re-elected to a full term five months later. And recently, in November, he was elected yet again to serve residents of his state.
“I may be retired from the US Army, but not from serving,” Brian says, adding that he enjoys working with Mel beside him. The proud parents were privileged to watch their son Matt graduate from Texas Tech University in December.
As Brian reflects on his journey, he says, “I wear the scars, but wear them proudly.”
Though some have asked if he’ll eventually try for Congressional office, he currently has no such plans. For now, he’s content serving Texans within his district. Principles he learned in the military and in church guide the way he oversees his senate staff. For instance, he says, in the military you learn to never give an order you can’t do yourself. The same is true in his workplace.
When he hires a staff member, he makes sure they know the essence of Romans 12:3: “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment.” (NASB)
“Sometimes, dealing with politicians and their staff, you get an air of haughtiness,” Brian says. “That’s not how I want my staff conducting business.”
The way he sees it, the people of Texas elected him to a position where he gets to serve them, to operate on their behalf.
Jesus Christ, he says, is his example. “The servant leader is the one that takes on the burdens of leadership and making a decision and is prepared to endure the hardships along with those he leads.”
Surprisingly, Brian says he wouldn’t change anything that has happened in his life since September 11, 2001. Of course, he wishes that those who lost their lives, including friends and coworkers, were still with us. “They’re heroes”, he says. Yet, Brian wouldn’t trade the pain he endured—God has blessed him and strengthened him because of it.
"I wear the scars,” he says, “but I wear them proudly."Brian Birdwell