As he prepared to step onto a stage and give his retirement speech Jan. 3, Tom Brewer’s phone rang.
It was his doctor, and he had bad news for the 55-year-old retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel.
Brewer had leukemia.
The day before, Brewer had announced plans to run for Nebraska's 3rd District congressional seat, hoping to unseat four-term incumbent Adrian Smith.
Brewer quietly considered his options as friends and family gathered at the Strategic Air and Space Museum near Ashland.
Should he tell them about his diagnosis? Should he announce his withdrawal from the political race?
Surely, people would understand if he decided to focus on his health instead of embarking on a grueling five-month tour of western Nebraska, he thought to himself.
Then that feeling returned. That feeling that kept him in the fight in 2003 when Afghan insurgents pinned him and his unit down during an ambush. The same feeling that propelled him as he retreated under withering enemy fire all the while firing his rifle despite having been shot six times.
It was the same feeling he had experienced after being struck by a rocket-propelled grenade while fixing a flat tire in Kabul in December 2011.
“I did not want everybody to remember me as the guy who announced that he was running for Congress and then people rallied to him and then he quit,” he said. “I wanted their memory of me to be that I gave it my best shot.”
Even as he underwent sickening chemotherapy treatments last spring, Brewer didn’t quit.
The 36-year Army veteran continued meeting residents of the sprawling 3rd District, shaking hands with countless people against the advice of his doctor who feared his weakened immune system might collapse.
He continued on a steady diet of fast food and “rubber chickens,” as he puts it, despite his doctor’s demand that he eat more vegetables and less junk food.
And he continued walking on an ankle that had been severely injured by the rocket-propelled grenade attack three years earlier.
But the 18- and 20-hour days he spent working to meet residents of the 3rd District and the money he spent -- including his federal retirement fund -- weren’t enough to win him a seat in Congress.
“Getting a third of the vote doesn’t carry the day to win the primary,” he said.
Brewer said he was unable to raise enough money to counter the advertising campaign his opponent was able to fund, and his lack of funding prevented Brewer from adequately informing voters about his qualifications and vision. He said it was difficult to show voters the differences between him and Smith, because he struggled to get the incumbent to debate him.
He said he decided to run for office because he saw a need for stronger, more assertive leadership in Congress and because he didn’t believe Smith was providing it. Brewer, a Republican, ran on a conservative platform that included the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, keeping taxes low and protection of the Second Amendment.
He said he struggled to maintain his composure when he spoke to supporters on primary election night in May to tell them he was conceding to Smith.
In the days following, Brewer fought to find some new purpose, a new mission after a lifetime spent leading soldiers into battle. He had been forced to retire from the military because of the wounds he received in the 2011 rocket attack.
“I wore the uniform for 36 years and then to all of a sudden, because of these wounds, go from commanding hundreds of men on the battlefield to deciding what kind of coffee creamer you want leaves you kind of empty."
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He found his next mission in the mountains of Montana.
In July, Brewer reconnected to a program he had first experienced in the summer of 2012.
The Heroes and Horses program takes wounded veterans on a weeklong ranching and horseback excursion into the mountains near Bozeman, Montana. The program is designed to help veterans rediscover their self-worth after having been forced to leave the battlefield because of their injuries.
The day Brewer arrived at the ranch northwest of Bozeman in July, he learned one of the veterans who was scheduled to take part had committed suicide the day before.
The news helped Brewer realize the importance of the program.
“Going back to the mountains this summer, after the defeat in the primary, that helped me get refocused on what was important in life,” he said.
He said the mountain excursion gives the veterans a chance to talk around campfires about their war experiences and build camaraderie.
Riding on cliff-side trails with 100-foot drops reminds veterans that life beyond the battlefield can be exciting and meaningful as well, he said. But he learned the most from the people he met on the trail, the veterans struggling to regain a foothold in their civilian lives like himself.
He shares the story of a young Massachusetts National Guard sniper, a man who was shot in the head in Iraq by an enemy sniper. Brewer had feared the man’s traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and obesity might make him a burden for the other veterans.
All that fear dissipated when he met Levi.
“The kid had more heart and more drive and more passion than anybody I’d ever been around before,” Brewer said.
Later, the young man sent a letter to the program’s organizers thanking them for the experience and informing them that it had helped him reconnect to his wife, and rediscover his passion for law enforcement.
“He turned out to be the best student and helped me to be a better person," Brewer said.
Brewer recently completed his eighth, and hopefully last, major surgery to repair damage inflicted by the RPG attack three years ago.
During an interview at a downtown Lincoln coffee shop last week, he carried crutches and hoisted his bandaged left foot up onto a chair to keep it elevated. He said he plans to have tests this year to ensure the leukemia in his blood is gone and see whether he’ll need to undergo more chemotherapy.
He said he hopes to have fully recovered by April so he can join a fellow Heroes and Horses organizer, who plans to embark on a 100-day ride across the Continental Divide from Colorado to Canada to raise money and awareness for the program.
In the meantime, he plans to travel later this month to Texas to offer sniper training to a group of millionaires. He met the group of businessmen in 2012 while raising money for the American Fallen Soldiers Project and has remained in contact.
“I don’t know why they took a liking to me but they have,” he said.
And he plans to continue helping wounded veterans, like himself, who are struggling. He said he believes he can do more to make the world a better place by helping veterans than he ever could have as a congressman.
“Sometimes blessings are truly in disguise.”