Col. Tom Brewer spent 1,200 days of his life battling Taliban insurgents and chasing drug runners inside war-torn Afghanistan.
He escaped the poverty and alcoholism of the Pine Ridge Reservation and rose to the rank of colonel in the Army. At work, he earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. In his free time, he ran 39 marathons.
Once, in Texas, armed only with a hunting knife, he tackled and killed a stampeding wild boar.
None of it — not the gangs of terrorists, not the 39th marathon, not the boar — seemed as tough as the day in October when a doctor entered Brewer's exam room and cleared his throat.
I have some bad news, the doc said.
Tom Brewer wasn't dying. Far from it. In fact, he was so not-dying that it had become part of the problem.
Each day since Dec. 16, 2011 — the day that a rocket-propelled grenade blast in Afghanistan severely wounded Brewer — he had clawed his way back to living and clawed his way closer to active-duty military service.
It had become his focus. It had become his latest mission.
An emergency back operation to relieve a bulging disk. Check. Weaning himself slowly, painfully, off the OxyContin that numbed him. Check.
Surgery on his hand that forced him to learn to reuse his thumb. The complete reconstruction of his right foot using synthetic bone, fused joints and giant staples. Seven surgeries in all.
Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check.
There were setbacks along the way — moments when even the forever-confident Brewer didn't know if he'd make it.
The day a pinched nerve rendered his legs useless as he slept, and he woke up paralyzed from the waist down. But the back surgery returned the feeling to his legs.
The day he trimmed trees on his acreage in Murdock, Neb., and without warning the vision in his right eye went black. But doctors restored his vision with powerful steroid treatments.
The many, many days when he had to walk into a therapist's office and do the last thing a battle-hardened 55-year-old wants to do.
He had to talk about his six Afghan deployments, many of them on the lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
He had to talk about his insomnia — what it felt like to lie awake in bed and think about what he had seen and what he had done.
“What you do is you take all those experiences, and you throw them in the closet and try to forget about them,” Brewer says. “My last tour was 666 days long. ... There's a point at which your system starts struggling to keep up with this.”
And so Tom Brewer talked, and the post-traumatic stress slowly began to loosen its grip. He talked for the same reason he endured the surgeries and the struggles and the steroid treatments.
He did it to reach his unwavering goal, his unfinished mission: Col. Tom Brewer wanted to remain on active duty.
He had spent years on the front line of an ongoing Afghan drug war that seeks to prevent kingpins — many of them allied with insurgent groups — from turning Afghan poppies into heroin that will flood European drug markets. He had spent other years in an ongoing fight to make it harder to run money, weapons and Taliban fighters back and forth across Afghanistan's porous borders.
Now he wanted to go back. He wanted, maybe he needed, to finish what he started.
Which is why the doctor's words seemed the toughest that Col. Tom Brewer had ever heard.
Your back and ankle won't allow you to return to full duty, he said. I'm sorry, but my decision is final, he said.
Brewer sat and listened and nodded his head and tried to look calm. But he felt something unfamiliar.
He felt empty.
“Everything about me for 35 years was in that uniform,” he says. “Now he's telling me that I'm a Normal Joe? But nothing in my life has ever been normal.”
Nebraska's most battle-tested soldier turned in his retirement papers last month. He's trying to move on to his next mission now. A mission to figure out what his post-military life looks like.
He will definitely travel around the state and country and speak to veterans groups, PTSD groups, Native American youth organizations. He already does that.
Maybe he will get into politics, run for the Nebraska Legislature or other elected office.
And he will definitely follow the military careers of his children. His son, Travis, all 6-foot-8 of him, recently graduated from advanced infantry training for the Nebraska National Guard. And his daughter, Kalee, is an ROTC cadet at Chadron State College.
This summer, Brewer and his father traveled to Fort Benning, Ga., to watch Kalee make her final training jumps out of an airplane. Ross Brewer, an Army Airborne Ranger who was wounded in the Korean War, got the honor of pinning wings onto his granddaughter as she graduated from Army paratrooper training.
Here's one guarantee: Tom Brewer will continue to say what's on his mind.
“Any (mission) run by U.S. Homeland Security in Afghanistan was a failure,” he says. “ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the Homeland Security guys, the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) ... they just wanted to spend money but never leave a base. There's a certain amount of bitterness there. We were going out on missions. There was a chance of us dying out there. Why wouldn't they take that chance?''
Tom Brewer is sitting at a downtown Omaha restaurant as he says this. He is eating a meatloaf sandwich and answering my questions between bites.
This conversation has spanned the better part of a decade: We have gone to lunch, I have asked questions about Afghanistan, and Brewer has answered them. He has gone on the record with a directness, an honesty, that is all but impossible to find in today's political and military leaders. To be honest, Brewer's honesty has made him more than a few enemies in the military and in the government.
But now we are talking about how the end of Brewer's military career coincides with the wind-down of the long war in Afghanistan. Combat operations are slated to end next year — the American military's 13th year in Afghanistan.
We are talking about this, and it occurs to me that I have never directly asked him the big question, the one he seems uniquely qualified to answer.
He has seen the successes of the past 13 years: the rout that pushed the Taliban into Pakistan and al-Qaida into oblivion; Afghan girls attending school; the corpse of Osama bin Laden sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
He has also seen the failures: an Afghan police force still beset by incompetence and corruption; regular Afghans losing patience and withdrawing their support from a reconstruction effort they increasingly see as an occupation; an Afghan democracy that seems, even after 13 years, to be built upon sand instead of bedrock.
Brewer fought with many men, both American and Afghan, who died during that fight. He nearly died himself.
Knowing all that, I have to ask: Was it worth it? Was Afghanistan worth it?
Brewer talks about increased electricity and good roads, then swerves into a conversation about the problems plaguing the Afghan police.
I nod, and then I ask again: Was it worth it?
This time Brewer talks about the coming Afghan presidential elections and the difficulty of moving American equipment out of the country.
Colonel Brewer, I say, this is a first for us. I think this is the first time you have ever sidestepped one of my questions.
Brewer grins, and I ask it a third time.
Was it worth it?
“There is what you want to see in Afghanistan — the hope — and then there is what your heart tells you will happen in Afghanistan once we leave,” he says.
Nebraska's most battle-tested soldier is not grinning any longer. He's staring right at me.
“I hate what my heart tells me will happen in Afghanistan,” he says. “I hate it.”