Brian Birdwell: Refined by Fire
By Brian and Mel Birdwell
Founders of Face the Fire Ministries
Thirty-five minutes after the second hijacked plane struck the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, an American Airlines 757 slammed into the Pentagon. One hundred eighty nine people lost their lives in that attack and many more were injured. One of the most seriously injured was Army Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, whose story is nothing short of amazing.
Birdwell, who has since retired from active duty, is the founder of Face the Fire Ministries. He recently sat down and shared his thoughts with us on the tragedy that has changed our nation forever.
It’s hard to believe ten years have passed since 9/11 changed America—and your lives—forever. Will you do anything special to commemorate this milestone?
The past years have been an adventure and definitely a time of spiritual growth for me. Mel and I have not made a formal plan to be somewhere (at the time of this writing), but we will be together and most likely will remain in Texas.
Take us back to the moments after you arrived at the hospital and the doctors began to realize the extent of your injuries. What were your thoughts? What were your prayers at that point?
When the attending doctor in the Georgetown ER told me they were giving me anesthesia and that I would be going into surgery soon, I realized that what I said and did right then might be my last words and my last actions. I wanted them to count. I asked the doctor to wait. There were two things I needed to do first, given that I knew I was facing the end of my life.
First, I saw Major John Collision, one of the men who helped get me to the hospital. I called him over and requested that he remove my wedding ring. (The burns were so bad on my hands that the nurse had to do this.) I said, “Make sure that my wife gets this ring.” He assured me he would. Then I asked him to tell Mel that I always loved her. Second, I prayed with Chaplain Linda Cirillo, acknowledging God’s sovereignty and command of my life and eternity.
As you started the recovery process—all the procedures, surgeries, and physical therapy—and were in constant crushing pain, how did your faith help sustain you? Were there ways you sensed God guiding you through this exceedingly difficult time?
I’m not sure it is possible to explain the anguish that critical burn patients experience. There were many days I begged for the mercy of death. Mel would read scripture to me and not only her voice but the Lord’s words also afforded me spiritual comfort in the physical agony of being a critical burn patient. One of our favorite scriptures was this: After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (I Peter 5:10, NASB)
This is the Lord’s promise to us no matter what challenge we face—be it physical, mental, emotional, financial, etc.
What was it like having Mel as a caretaker when you were finally allowed to go home? What was the toughest part about those months? What blessings did you experience along the way?
Mel is amazing. She had to perform some very difficult tasks as she cared for me and my wounds. Helping me recover was a full-time job. On top of that, she had to act as both mom and dad to our son Matt at the same time. I think that might have been one of the toughest aspects for Mel. She tried to hide her emotions, but I know it was hard on her. Everything was piled on her. Many times I felt like such a burden. I realized what a gift I had in Mel. She lived the rigor of her wedding vows. I can only hope to reciprocate half as well should the roles be reversed.
Why did you decide to start visiting burn centers and talking to the patients there?
A: Visiting a burn center is still very hard for Mel and me, but II Corinthians tells us to comfort others as we were comforted. Being able to shed some light on the dark path ahead of a burn survivor is our way of encouraging and comforting others. If, through our interactions, the survivor and family seek the Lord or come closer to Him, we are certainly pleased to be of use to the Lord in that way. From these initial visits, the idea for Face the Fire Ministries was born.
How does Face the Fire help burn survivors and their families?
Besides providing encouragement to burn survivors and their families, we also offer financial assistance to help with expenses the family incurs. Given the length of time survivors must usually stay in a burn center, the family members can end up living out of a suitcase for awhile, and those costs can add up quickly. Higher gas prices mean greater cost for visitation or other expenses related to the family caring for the survivor. We do what we can to help defray that cost.
Tell us about your new role as a Texas state senator. When did you sense God calling you to this new area of service?
The Lord put people in my life that encouraged this new path of service. When the position became vacant, Mel and I spent time in prayer, sensed this was the Lord’s time, and stepped out in faith. By His grace, I was chosen by the voters. My duty is to serve where called and be salt and light to the best of my ability. I am very much enjoying my new duties and the opportunity to serve the citizens of the 22nd Senate District of Texas.
How is your health today? Can you think of any obvious differences in your daily life compared to life before 9/11?
I am doing pretty well for someone who has been run over by a 757! I have range of motion limitations and diminished lung capacity but I have a great quality of life. I think the key difference is that I make sure that when my travels separate me from Mel or Matt, we always stay in contact or I report my progress as I travel. Our experience on 9/11 taught us that you never know when that day will come when you will see your loved ones for the last time. We make each moment count.
How do you think 9/11 changed us as a country?
In the intervening years since Pearl Harbor (the last time a foreign aggressor successfully attacked us on U.S. soil), it was easy for us as a nation to become insulated from the realities of war and the lengths to which evil men will go to further their causes. The attacks on 9/11 were a horrific reminder of the capacity for evil that we face in a fallen world. While we have not forgotten the events of that day, I think that, as a nation, we have forgotten to a great degree the nature of the enemy we face.
What do you hope others learn from your story? Do you have any plans/hopes for the future?
I want people to see that God is gracious. He is always in control, no matter how difficult the road we are walking. This is an easy thing to say, but it is much harder, in our prideful human state, to live as if we believe these words are true. As far as the future goes, our main purpose is to continue to serve and be faithful to His purposes for our lives and be sensitive to His calling as He puts things on our hearts. Of course, Mel and I look forward to many more years together. Our great joy will be seeing Matt continue to mature, all the while anticipating all of the things that accompany this stage of life. We live in the greatest country—and, if I may be so bold, the greatest state! We have much for which to be thankful.
Used with permission. Brian and Mel Birdwell, Face the Fire Ministries 2011 © www.FaceTheFire.org
Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Brian Birdwell is a survivor of the terrorist’s attack on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. After American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, just feet away from his second floor office, Birdwell was thrown to the ground and engulfed in flames. Of the burns that consumed 60 percent of his body, nearly half were third-degree burns. After enduring more than 30 operations and months of hospitalization and multiple skin grafts, Brian has made a miraculous recovery. He was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received on that day.
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