Tom Brewer's two-year tour of duty in Afghanistan ended Friday with a flash and a bang, just 24 hours before he was to leave the country for Christmas leave.
The 53-year-old Nebraska native and U.S. Army Reserve colonel was injured when the SUV he was standing next to was hit hard in the rear by a grenade. Brewer has spent the past two years helping train Afghanistan's security forces to prepare for America's planned departure in 2014.
"Sometimes, it seems to work that way," he said. "As you get to the end, you tend to be less concerned about some of the negative things that can happen to you. Afghanistan is very unforgiving."
On Friday, he was with a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official at about 6:30 p.m., having just finished with a meeting at Camp Phoenix focused on planning for a National Guard division's planned departure and a Texas brigade's planned arrival. He and the DEA official were driving on the northern edge of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, when their vehicle hit a metal rod that flattened a tire.
They decided to pull off to a quiet area to change the tire.
"That area there had been a hot spot of insurgent activity," Brewer said.
They turned off the SUV's lights -- inside and out -- and Brewer changed the tire using a flashlight on his head. Then he noticed a brake line had been severed so he began squeezing it to stop the leak.
That's when his world exploded.
Brewer is no stranger to combat. He was shot six times when his convey was ambushed in Afghanistan in October 2003. The attack led to him receiving the Purple Heart and Bronze Star and was recounted in a 2009 book, "The Bone Yard" by James F. Christ.
Much like in 2003, Brewer was saved Friday by his bulletproof vest, which bore the brunt of the explosion. But the blast knocked him down and left him briefly senseless. Shrapnel damaged the right side of his head, his right eye, right thigh, right calf and right ankle.
After he regained his senses, he jumped into the back of the SUV and told the DEA official to drive.
"There was just two of us," he said. "They knew where we were. We didn't know where they were."
They headed for a clinic, and Brewer was sent to another hospital for a CT scan and then home for further treatment. The attack left his right eye blurry and his right ear partially deaf.
And, he said, he likely will need surgery on his right foot to repair bone damage.
He had been planning to return to Afghanistan after Christmas for another four or five months. Now, he's not sure whether a physician will clear him to go back.
Brewer, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, had been working as an adviser to Afghanistan's counter-narcotics police and recently was nominated for a promotion to brigadier general. He said he'll stay in the Army Reserve if promoted but seriously consider retirement if not.
In 2008, he was one of two candidates for Nebraska adjutant general, the state's highest-ranking military office.
Brewer returned home to Nebraska on Monday morning. While he's glad to be home, he said, he feels some obligation to return and finish his mission. That involves training Afghan security forces to take over security responsibilities from the U.S. military and NATO forces.
But he also wonders whether the United States and its allies ever will be able to convince the Afghans they can protect their own country.
"There's a point that Afghanistan starts to drain the life force in you," he said. "I don't think the Afghans would ever admit they are ready to do it on their own."
Brewer's son, Travis, a 22-year-old studying middle school education at Doane College, said he would like to see his father stay home, but also understands the importance of his mission.
"As a family, we're kind of used to it," he said. "We're proud of him."