JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas --
By looking at him you wouldn’t know it, but Brewer has deep scars from a day seven years ago that took the lives of two fellow Airmen, and severely wounded two others. His wounds are invisible. He has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from a terrorist attack many may have heard news reports about and forgotten. But, Brewer has not forgotten that day… he relives those moments constantly.
I was just waiting for my time to die
Brewer and his fellow Airmen from the 48th Security Forces Squadron at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, arrived at Germany’s Frankfurt Airport in March 2011. The team was deploying to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Soon after they boarded a bus bound for Ramstein Air Base, Brewer heard what he described as pops, almost like a vehicle running over a rock. Initially he thought nothing of it, until he saw a man board the bus, armed with a pistol.
“Allahu Akbar,” screamed the intruder as he pulled the trigger, killing the bus driver. In that split second, Brewer realized someone was there to kill them and he took cover.
“There was nowhere for me to go,” Brewer said emotionally. “I put my head between my knees and said, ‘goodbye.’ I was just waiting for my time to die.”
While his head was down, all he heard over and over was “Allahu Akbar,” followed by nonstop gunfire. He vividly recalls the smell of gunpowder overwhelming his nostrils. His senses were on fire as he lost track of time. That is, until the gunman arrived at Brewer’s seat, and they locked eyes.
“At first, I was focused on the barrel of the gun, but then I looked into his eyes,” said Brewer. “The only thing I saw was pure hate.”
In those moments, Brewer saw his future disappear.
“They say your life flashes before your eyes,” he explained. “That’s exactly what happened. I didn’t think that was real until it happened to me. I saw my entire career, my future family and my retirement, flash before me. I thought I was going to die. It was the worst feeling.”
The next thing that happened could only be fate. The gunman raised the pistol, pointed it at Brewer, and pulled the trigger. But this time, the gun didn’t go off. It jammed. He tried once more yelling, “Allahu Akbar,” but again it jammed.
At that point, the gunman turned and fled. Brewer’s years of training and time in security forces kicked in. He jumped up to pursue the suspect. He slipped on the floor of the bus on what he later discovered was a pool of blood.
Brewer caught up to and cornered the gunman, who now was holding a knife, on the second floor of Terminal 2. At that moment, they made eye contact one final time. The hate he originally saw had now turned to fear.
German police arrived to detain the suspect and allowed Brewer to return to the bus to assess the situation and aid his Airmen. What he found was that Airman 1st Class Zachary Cuddeback and Senior Airman Nicholas Alden had been killed, and that two others were severely wounded.
I wouldn’t have lasted very long without treatment
Within a few weeks of returning home, Brewer knew something was wrong. The incident had been replaying in his mind on repeat. He cleared his home 15 to 20 times each day, as thoughts crept into his head that someone was hiding and waiting to “finish the job.”
After several weeks, sitting alone at his desk, it hit him that he couldn’t go on. The symptoms of his PTSD had begun to take over his life. He needed to talk to someone. Brewer believes that going to mental health helped him stay in the military.
“I wouldn’t have lasted very long without treatment,” he said. “Seeking counseling helped my career.”
The biggest challenge for Brewer to this day has been survivor’s guilt.
“I wake up every day with a roof over my head and a loving family. There were two guys that day that had that but don’t anymore,” said Brewer. “These struggles are an ongoing battle. There have been improvements and I manage it better than I used to. It’s definitely not as severe at least, but I am still healing. And I don’t think I’m ever going to stop healing; I’m going to continue to heal for the rest of my life.”
Finding healing by sharing his story
One of the first steps in his journey seven years ago was to write down his story, by hand, multiple times. According to Brewer, being able to release his story, to get it off his chest, was incredibly healing. Now, he is sharing his story to audiences across the Air Force as an Ambassador for the Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) Program.
He believes that by sharing his story he can use himself as an example to give others, who are suffering from invisible wounds, hope.
“People have a negative view about going to mental health. I can tell you I’ve gone to mental health. I’ve returned to full duty. I’m a flight chief who leads 50 Airmen and protects 96,000 personnel,” Brewer said.
Brewer believes his healing was partially on hold until he started connecting with fellow Airmen at AFW2 events.
“For the seven years that I didn’t talk about my incident, I thought that I was healed, but it took me joining the ambassador program and sharing my story to realize I wasn’t,” he said. “So, I guess you could say, I put my healing on hold and hit the pause button. And about four months ago, I hit play.”
Editor’s Note: Are you or someone you know suffering from an invisible wound? Visit the Invisible Wounds Initiative website or the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program for more information. Ultimately, Airmen taking care of Airmen is what this is all about. Finding strength in yourselves and others, to go the extra distance, seek help, and come back stronger. The Air Force is committed to ensuring you have the resources to do so.