Starting from Scratch: Technology is Only Part of Learning to be an Architect

After being severely injured in war, U.S. Air Force veteran and UA architecture student Brian Kolfage learns to draw.

Brian Kolfage with Ford Burkhart

Eight years ago, on Sept. 11, 2004, a 107mm insurgent rocket sailed into our camp in Iraq. It was during my second deployment to the Middle East and my fourth year of active duty.

I’d worked all night and returned to my tent for some sleep. At 1 p.m., I woke up thirsty and decided to get some cold water. I made it about 20 feet from my tent before I heard a turbine sound. Moments later, my friends found me lying face down — with my feet pointing up. I had been hit directly. I became fully conscious after they rolled me over, and I remember every gruesome detail.

In seconds, I knew I was badly injured. I didn’t know yet that I would be left without my legs, but I knew my dominant right hand was gone. I would learn later that I had received some of the most serious injuries ever seen for an American survivor of a military attack.

In the months ahead, I would have to set aside my dreams of playing college hockey, doing more serious surfing in Hawai’i, perhaps joining the FBI. At age 22, I faced the prospect of relearning many things — but I still had my sound mind and a good left arm. And I decided, almost immediately, that I was grateful for what I had. I had more, much more, than many other wounded military fighters had coming home.

At first, few of the doctors or nurses expected I would live, let alone walk. I became officially the most severely injured airman to survive in any war.

After a year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I landed at Davis-Monthan as a security officer. Here in Tucson, working with Hanger Prosthetics, I learned to be fully mobile. The doctors said I was the first human with that level of amputation to walk regularly unassisted.

I went on to snowboard and water ski with the help of prosthetics. I could even drive after three months. Now I get around Tucson in a Range Rover with custom hand controls. My wife likes to tell people that my prosthetic right arm is so sensitive I can pick up a potato chip without breaking it.

At 26, I decided to take up architecture at the UA. I’d been talking to a friend who was studying architecture when I discovered the challenge that would eventually draw me out of my routine civilian job and off to the UA campus. But there were challenges to be overcome: among other things, I would have to learn to draw with my left hand.

I had never really drawn much or done much art growing up. I was worried that there was no way I could keep up with the other students, who not only had their dominant hands but were pretty skilled. I wasn’t sure if I had what it took.

Every single assignment the first year was hand drawing. I wound up spending 8 to 10 hours a day practicing skills that younger freshmen took for granted. After a few weeks I was one of the top students. I could handle the hardest assignment they threw at us — like, take a plastic water bottle, crumple it up, and draw it in pencil, to perfection, using shading and lines to show it as a 3-D object.

I scored a 4.0 GPA in my first year at the UA. I also received the Purple Heart Medal and, after my second year, I won a Pat Tillman national scholarship, named for the NFL player who joined the U.S. Army and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

I joined then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on her Veterans’ Advisory Council. I took a number of VA issues to her office on behalf of other veterans and myself.

You could say I have a lot of connections. I’ve been through the system, and vets look out for each other.

Injured veterans are crazy, in a good way. We have a different sense of life in general. We’ve seen some crazy stuff over there. We can take a step back and appreciate things. We slow down and observe a lot more, which gives us a better understanding of things in general — and gives me an eye for the detail required in architecture.

I hope to one day enter graduate study in architecture and planning at Harvard. I hear it’s one of the best, so why not?

Things do take me more time, so I have to be more patient. But everything seems to be possible. You just have to think about a different way of getting to that end point.

And, during Memorial Day weekend, 2011, I married my sweetheart, Ashley Goetz.

Good things keep happening.