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Coming home

National | A soldier badly wounded in the 9/11 attack finally leaves the hospital, but his ordeal isn't over

Issue: "Fighting words," Jan. 12, 2002

Over the past two decades it's become customary for presidents to place citizen-heroes in the House chamber's balcony and refer to them during the course of State of the Union addresses. Speechwriters, here's one excellent prospect: Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell.

Col. Birdwell recently told WORLD of the loud boom and crashing noise as the terrorist-hijacked 757 plowed into the Pentagon near where he was standing, just steps from his office (where two colleagues were killed instantly). He doesn't remember seeing the fireball coming-"it was just there"-but he remembers being on fire, his lungs burning, thick black smoke everywhere. Convinced he was about to die, he cried out, "Jesus, I'm coming to see you."

Col. Birdwell remembers musing, "So, this is the day God has chosen for me." He wasn't scared; he has been a Christian believer since childhood days in Texas. But the thought of not seeing again his wife Mel or 12-year-old son Matthew saddened him.

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In pain and disoriented, he collapsed. He felt "rain"-he was under a sprinkler activated by the fire. The water doused the flames that had enveloped him. He was surprised he was still conscious. At floor level, beneath the roiling smoke, he could now see where he was and where he had to go to escape. Burned over 60 percent of his body and bleeding, he somehow got up and stumbled down a hall where other soldiers found him. They commandeered an SUV and drove him to Georgetown University Hospital; he was quickly helicoptered across town to Washington Hospital Center's renowned burn unit.

On his second day in the hospital-before bandages were applied-First Lady Laura Bush came to Col. Birdwell's bedside in the ICU. She said, "I've brought someone to see you." President Bush appeared in the doorway and called, "Colonel Birdwell!" Then he saluted. Somewhat sedated, the slender Col. Birdwell tried to sit up; as he strained to return the salute, the raw, exposed flesh on his right arm and hand became visible. Tears came to Mr. Bush's eyes, Mrs. Birdwell recalls.

The president went to the soldier's side and said, "We're proud of you; you're a great American." The Bushes said they were praying for Mr. Birdwell; they commented on the jersey Mrs. Birdwell was wearing-it bore the slogan, "Every day is a holiday with Jesus in your heart"-and asked about the church the Birdwells attend (Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, Va.). The president vowed: "This attack won't go unanswered; we're gonna get these guys."

Col. Birdwell spent the next 12 weeks in the hospital, including 26 days in intensive care. Doctors shaved skin from uninjured parts of his torso and thighs as grafts for his face, head, back, arms, and legs. Some treatments of wounds caused pain more excruciating than what he'd suffered from his initial injuries. He battled one serious infection after another.

He and six other burn victims at the hospital became known as the Pentagon Seven. They, their families, and medical personnel, especially their nurses, became closely attached. On that very first terrible day, Mrs. Birdwell recalls, the family of victim Antoinette Sherman embraced her and included her in a prayer session in a sideroom with the family's pastor. Ms. Sherman died a few days later.

Through it all, Col. Birdwell said, he never felt angry at God or asked, "Why me, why this?" But in one low moment, he sobbed and told his wife, "I wish God had taken me. I can't endure this." She said, "You must." Together they wept, read Scripture, and prayed, summoning resources beyond themselves.

Col. Birdwell slowly regained his sense of humor; he could josh with fellow victims and visitors. Church members helped brighten his stay, bringing him favorite foods. When he turned 40 in November, someone produced a much-craved-for burrito supreme from Taco Bell. Cards and notes of encouragement arrived from across the country. Former field-goal kicker Nick Lowery of the Kansas City Chiefs, the soldier's favorite football team, visited several times and gave him the ball from the first game-winning field goal he kicked for the Chiefs.

Doctors allowed Col. Birdwell to leave the hospital briefly on Thanksgiving Day so he could attend a morning service at Immanuel Bible Church. There, one of the pastors pointed to him and told the congregation of 1,100, "Would you do me the favor of welcoming back Brian Birdwell, a good soldier of Christ, and his wife, Mel?" A long standing ovation showed the gratitude of church members who had been praying for him. But the ordeal is not yet over. Released from the hospital last month, Col. Birdwell faces more operations and many rehab sessions-and more stinging, debilitating pain.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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