The Bayonet

Wednesday, Sep. 19, 2012

Double amputee now leads MCoE company

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Earlier this month, Capt. Brian Brennan became the new commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Maneuver Center of Excellence, in a routine ceremony on Main Post. Four years ago, however, it was unclear if he’d even speak again — or emerge from a coma. Leading Soldiers seemed unthinkable.

Brennan’s life-changing event occurred in the highly volatile eastern region of Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistan border. As a first lieutenant and platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, he lost both his legs to a roadside bomb and was left with an “unmistakable vegetative stare” after suffering severe traumatic brain injury, his Family said.

After being evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, he was stirred from a 23-day coma by Gen. David Petraeus, then the Multi-National Force-Iraq commander, who came to visit wounded troops. The general’s whisper? “Currahee,” a Cherokee Indian word meaning “stand alone,” and the motto made famous by the “Band of Brothers” who fought with Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment in the 101st Airborne Division during World War II.

“He got a jolt out of me — it looked like I reacted,” Brennan said of Petraeus. “I never reacted to anybody’s words, but I reacted to what he said to me. I reacted to ‘Currahee.’ … (The whole group) yelled it again, and that’s when I actually sat up (and) banged my legs up against the bed.

“(The word) meant a lot to me before, and it means a lot to me now. Back then, it was my Soldiers, it was my team. … I knew they were still in combat. I wanted to be with them and still be in the fight. They are my brothers, whether they’re blood or not.”

Brennan spent the next 18 months fighting to get his life back, bouncing between Walter Reed and the James A. Haley Medical Center in Tampa, Fla., for painstaking rehabilitation. But medical professionals and Family members alike have termed his recovery as nothing short of miraculous.

Multiple media outlets, including Fox, CBS News, ABC and CNN, have profiled his story nationally. He’s now been at Fort Benning almost two years, since arriving in October 2010 for the Maneuver Captains Career Course.

‘I knew something was gonna happen’

Brennan recalls everything about May 7, 2008 — up until the point of impact. Riding in the lead up-armored Humvee on a patrol headed to a meeting with village elders in Khost province, near a busy marketplace in Zambar, his truck was hit by a double-stacked anti-tank mine.

“There was nobody around,” he recalled, “so I knew something was wrong and something was gonna happen. I just didn’t know what it was. … Usually, there were a lot of people there.”

The powerful blast rocked the U.S. convoy. When the dust settled, the Humvee was destroyed. Two other Soldiers and a civilian were killed. Only Brennan and Spc. Ryan Price, the gunner, had survived.

The platoon leader’s wounds were severe — he suffered cardiac arrest, numerous fractures, had a collapsed lung, ruptured spleen, and needed external fixators on his legs and an arm, which he nearly lost.

Waiting by the telephone at their home in New Jersey, Jim and Joanne Brennan were told their son wouldn’t make it to the United States and they needed to book a flight to Germany immediately. His mother said “he came into the world fighting” as a baby born three months premature. Relying on faith he’d beat the odds again, the couple decided to wait.

Two days after the incident, his vital signs remained strong and the fever he battled began to wane. The Army put him on a plane for Walter Reed.

“He flew in on Mother’s Day,” Joanne Brennan said. “Brian was covered in lacerations — he had scrap-metal cuts everywhere. He wasn’t breathing on his own. He had a massive incision down his chest. Of course, his legs were wrapped. Just seeing your son as half a man after what he used to be, it’s terrible.

“But as terrible as his situation was, it was the best Mother’s Day gift I could get because he came home alive.”

Brennan underwent dozens of surgeries, more than he cares to remember, he said. Doctors also placed a device in his head to relieve pressure on the brain.

“When the neurologist told us to prepare to put him in a home because he was in a vegetative state, we told him and everybody else, ‘You don’t know this kid’s fight and the power of prayer,’” his mother said. “We were told his brain injury was swelling, but they wouldn’t know the full extent of the damage until they could do an MRI. They couldn’t do that until the fixators came off and the surgeries could be done to repair his bones and fix his wounds, and power-wash all the infections.”

The awakening

As Petraeus made his way around Walter Reed that day in May 2008, nobody could’ve expected what the visit was about to do for the young officer. Nudged from the coma, Brennan had no idea where he was or what had happened to him.

“It all seemed like a dream,” he said. “I woke up and thought I was in my bed (at the combat outpost) in Afghanistan dreaming. And I dreamt that I didn’t have any legs, because I felt they were gone. I didn’t know why my Family was around my bed (or) why General Petraeus was there. It all didn’t sink in because I had a brain injury. I didn’t understand what was going on.”

Up until then, the prognosis was he had a “closed-brain injury” not reversible by surgery, Joanne Brennan said. Because of shearing, the neurons could not find new paths to trigger function, so the Soldier couldn’t communicate.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, he was a 1 in terms of responsiveness,” she said. “He had an unmistakable vegetative stare. There was no response to anything around him before the general came by.”

Drifting in and out of consciousness the next couple of months, he had to be reminded daily that he’d lost his legs.

“My long-term memory was OK. My short-term memory wasn’t,” he said. “And I still struggle with it sometimes now.”

To function in his leadership role, Brennan uses word association, cues and other pointers taught by therapists to remember names and other reference points, he said. Writing things down also boosts memory.

He says he’d prefer to forget some things.

“I lost three men in that explosion,” he said. “I do everything for them. It’s hard to accept that you were in the same explosion, and you’re one of two survivors. So I live for them. I do everything I do in the Army for them.”

The call of duty

Getting out of the Army never crossed Brennan’s mind, he said. After being seriously wounded in combat, the long, arduous road back might have compelled other troops in his position to consider it, and few would blame them. “In my opinion, I haven’t given enough for the freedoms we enjoy. Whether it be on the front lines or not, I can still be true to the United States Army and influence people’s lives as well,” he said. “Otherwise, why am I here? Why was I saved? If I can’t make a positive impact on this world, why am I here? I have to keep driving on and make the best out of (my) circumstances.”

Three years ago, Brennan reported to U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. After graduating from MCCC in the spring of 2011, the captain was assigned to 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, on Sand Hill as its operations officer. He took command of the MCoE’s Headquarters Company on Sept. 7.

He credits the doctors, physical and speech therapists, MCCC instructors and MCoE leaders for putting him in the position he’s in today.

“It was a team effort,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here without their help, and having me come on board here and giving me a shot. … I’m hoping to make a positive impact on the MCoE, the personnel who are here and the Army.”

In his corner office at Building 2651, not far from the Warrior Transition Battalion barracks, there’s a spot set aside for Rocky, his 4-year-old service dog. The black Labrador Retriever was given to him in December 2009 — shortly after he arrived for rehabilitation in Florida — and rarely leaves his side.

“He’s helped me most with PTSD and anger,” Brennan said. “When he’s not around, I’m a lot more angry at the world.”

Recovery hasn’t been easy. Brennan said he still senses “shortcomings” that must be surmounted. While he’s been medically cleared to resume duties, challenges exist, and the long-range diagnosis is a bit more dubious.

“He lives every day to the fullest, ’cause the level of brain damage he suffered is going to take a tremendous toll on him long term, just as much as the arthritic conditions he’ll have physically due to all the fractures,” Joanne Brennan said. “All those things will become problematic as he gets older. But all along, he kept saying he still had a lot to give to this Army.”

Inspirational leadership

Brennan takes part in PT and can run with his prosthetics. Years ago in Ranger School, he could cover five miles in less than 40 minutes. He said he’s not close to that level yet but will be again someday.

He’s also an inspirational speaker, sharing his message of resilience, optimism and perseverance with corporations, athletic teams and other groups. He’s made appearances at Texas Tech and Duke and spoken to Aflac executives in Columbus.

“The only thing we can control in this world is our attitude — you have to try to make it a good one,” he said. “I just wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. … A lot of people think they can’t do it until it happens to them. A lot of people underestimate themselves.

“Success in life is solely reliant on your ability to work as a cohesive fighting machine. You have to all be set on accomplishing one goal. That’s what I tell these groups and my Soldiers.”

Brennan celebrated his one-year anniversary Monday with wife Stephane, a two-time cancer survivor herself. The two began dating in April 2010.

“We couldn’t be prouder of him,” his mother said. “His old football coach always said he’d run through a brick wall. He only knows one way. He never does anything halfway. When he puts his mind to something, he’s going to do it. He’s been that way all his life.

“That was same resolve he brought into the Army. … We’re so thankful we got our boy back. We didn’t know the recovery would be as remarkable as it was. He had a miraculous recovery. He did everything against all the odds.”

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