Photo by Bulletin graphics
Leading troops in Afghanistan (click on photo to enlarge).
At Corleigh's Place
“Statesmen founded the country. Politicians polarized it.”That is a favorite saying of Col. Tom Brewer (retired), a candidate for Congress who carries the scars of wounds from Afghanistan, where he served six tours of duty.
Brewer was shot in combat. He was hit by fragments of a rocket propelled grenade. His skull was pierced, his eye punctured, his ears blasted and his right foot shredded.
He is no stranger to battles. He’s dealt with a bunch of them.
He’s been sent home to heal, and when he healed, he voluntarily headed off to war again.
The Gordon, Nebraska native has said he feels somewhat at home in Afghanistan, he’s been there so often. He fought and worked to help the Afghan people rebuild from decades of war and escape the tyranny of Al-Qaida and the drug lords.
The last time he was there, he came home in bandages and crutches.
Now, sidelined permanently from combat because of injuries, the 55-year-old patriot is running for Congress. He seeks to unseat Adrian Smith, the younger incumbent with a firm grip on his seat in the House of Representatives.
He wants to debate Smith.
“I like conflict,” Brewer said. “I don’t think he does. I want to talk issues, head-to-head. If he wants to represent the third district, he should have the courage to do that.”
Battles are constant for Brewer. The day after he launched his campaign in a well-received press conference at the state capitol (Jan. 2), he learned he had cancer. He didn’t falter; he did what had to be done. He attacked the problem. He immediately began chemotherapy.
He caught it early, he said. It is treatable. By Feb. 1, when he stopped in North Platte on the campaign trail, he was more than half finished with treatments.
A little worn but calm and collected, Brewer spent the day rallying support. He talked to the Bulletin over breakfast downtown at Corleigh’s Place.
He’s trained Afghan police to bust up the drug trade. He’s watched their success in western Afghanistan, sensed the possibility of lasting success in the desert. He said young adults in Afghanistan are rising to the challenge and finally throwing off tyranny.
Then, sidelined by a grenade, he returned home to regroup. He wasn't impressed with what he saw.
“As I went through surgery and therapy, surgery and therapy, I watched a lot of TV,” he said. “I could see the lack of conversation about the national debt. I decided if I ever retired, I would see what I could do about that.”
In October, he learned that he had to retire from combat duty. It was about the time the federal government shut down over the debt ceiling. So, when federal guards tried to close the Korean Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. during the shutdown, he emailed Smith, urging him to go the memorial and help keep it open, along with other senators and congressmen, so Korean veterans who had traveled to D.C. could see their memorial.
Smith did not send a response.
His silence further motivated Brewer. He decided to challenge Smith, even though Smith has nearly $1 million in his campaign treasury.
“You can’t be afraid to make a hard decision,” he said.
“Once you’re hooked into the Washington establishment,” he said, “you typically keep your seat, regardless of how well you work for the people.”
Aiming to work for the people, Brewer collects $50-100 donations as he crosses the vast third district, an area that is larger than many states and encompasses 75 percent of Nebraska, from Columbus to Scottsbluff plus all points north and south.
He talks to people, gets acquainted, hears their concerns. And, for another three weeks, he is campaigning between chemo treatments.
“You have to have enough fire in your gut to take on a cause and fight for it,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they’ve been waiting for someone to run. They don’t see Smith as a warrior who will step up to the plate.”
Smith & lobbyists
He is critical of Smith for helping host a big blowout for five Republican Congressmen in Vail, Colo. on Jan 3-5. The weekend at a resort was put together by lobbyists. Individuals could join Smith and other representatives at various events for $1,500. Political action committees were asked to give $2,500 to spend a little time with congressmen, according to a New York Times report.
Smith hosted a dinner on opening night, with bacon-wrapped tiger prawns, lobster, scallop and tuna tacos, elk corn dogs, and Wagyu steak with kimchee brussels sprouts, the Times reported. They had s’mores cheesecake for dessert, and enjoyed bottles of Franciscan Estate Cabernet from the Napa Valley, the Times said.
Brewer said Smith’s coziness with lobbyists is an example of the Washington status-quo. He said Smith could have at least held the gathering to Nebraska, “maybe at Chadron State Park, or any of the state parks” so those who attended would learn about Nebraska and Smith would better represent it.
He’s even more critical of Smith for not voting to establish a special committee to investigate the fiery attacks on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. Four Americans were killed, including Brewer’s friend and comrade in arms, Navy SEAL Glen Doherty. The two served together in Afghanistan.
“The mortars used to kill Americans in Benghazi had American tail fin numbers,” Brewer said recently in an interview on Lincoln radio station KILN. “They were killed with our own weapons. And for the life of me, I don’t understand why Congressman Adrian Smith will not support an investigation that would allow the truth to come out.”
Brewer told the Bulletin that Smith seems to be in league with majority leader John Boehner, and for some reason, Boehner didn’t want the investigation.
Smith became an assistant Whip for the Republicans in the House shortly after he was elected in 2007. A “whip” is a member of Congress who “whips up” support for party line votes.
Brewer’s frustrations are not limited to Smith. He was dismayed at the recent budget agreement that increased federal spending and did away with the automatic cuts that went into effect a year ago, often referred to as “sequestration.”
Sequestration cut the deficit in half, the first evidence in more than a decade that Washington could actually curb its excessive spending.
But, not only did the new budget agreement increase federal spending, it also eliminated cost-of-living adjustments for retired veterans as well as COLA payments for disabled veterans and the surviving spouses of those who were killed – unexpected cuts that hit home with Brewer.
He praised the sequestration.
“It was difficult,” he said, “but it was fair; the cuts were across the board. The military could manage it because we knew what was coming.”
He said the military must contribute to debt reduction.
“We are doomed as a country if we don’t get our arms around the debt. There has got to be a way to balance the checkbook.”
Brewer has excelled everywhere he has gone. He was a state FFA leader in high school. He went to college, studied history and management, became vice president of the Doane College student body and ran track and cross country. He helped start a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter.
In the Army, he became a Ranger – an elite fighting force comparable to the Navy Seals -- and excelled in many areas, including marksmanship, where he won international acclaim. He has run 39 marathons.
He is a highly decorated soldier and a steady family man. He and his wife Kelli raised two children.
In Afghanistan, he commanded a counter narcotics task force in 2007 that trained the Kyrgystan Drug Control Authority to stop drug trafficking through central Asia.
He has said most of the mistakes in Afghanistan have been made by the U.S. For example, a multi-million dollar border crossing in a rural area is not used by Afghans. Rooms of advanced U.S. radio equipment and computers are empty because hardly any Afghans can read, he said in interviews with the Omaha World Herald that are published on his website.
Brewer believes the U.S. is pulling out of Afghanistan in the wrong way, not so much because the U.S. is leaving after 12 years, but because the date of the pullout was announced a year in advance.
“We shouldn’t have announced it,” he said. “We could have started pulling out, but still focused on our primary mission -- finding and killing Al Qaeda. We should have let them guess what we were doing.”
Statesmen founded the country, he said.
“They didn’t agree on everything. They had tremendous disagreements, but they stuck it out. They created the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”
“You have to negotiate to exist,” he said, “but politicians polarize the country. One side wants the other side to meet them more than halfway. That’s the problem.”
This report was first published in the Bulletin's Feb. 5 print edition.