Personal Tragedy Inspires Spirit of Generosity in Sept. 11 Survivor
By Elaine Wilson
Special to American Forces Press Service
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, Nov. 17, 2005 When American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Army Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell was just 20 feet away from the impact point. Chaos and destruction ensued; the impact threw Birdwell to the ground, and flames engulfed his body.
In terrible pain, Birdwell was certain he was about to die. But God had other plans, Birdwell said on his Web site.
Birdwell was rescued and began a painful recovery process, with more than 30 surgeries to heal the burns that covered 60 percent of his body.
He also began a journey to help others with similar injuries, providing comfort and support to burn patients at hospitals nationwide through Face the Fire, a ministry he founded with his wife, Mel.
Birdwell traveled here Nov. 9 and 10 to offer encouragement to patients recovering in the amputee-care center and burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center here.
His visit also included a $10,000 donation to the Fisher House Foundation and Fort Sam Houston Child and Youth Services. The presentation was Nov.10 at the Fisher House. Half of the donation is earmarked for the Fisher House Foundation.
Fisher Houses are a "home away from home" for families tending to loved ones at medical facilities. There are currently 32 houses worldwide, with two at Fort Sam Houston, according to a foundation fact sheet.
"It costs a lot of money to keep the Fisher Houses running," said Inge Godfrey, manager of the Fort Sam Houston Fisher Houses. "The support is always welcome. Without it, we wouldn't be able to continue."
Birdwell said he donated the money to pay back a portion of the debt he owes to the Army.
"When the attack happened, I was in my hometown and had great support from my Army family and church," Birdwell said. "My wife and I were treated very well. But, troops who come here from overseas are not in their hometown, so their families have to travel away from their support systems to be with their loved ones. Mel and I wanted to donate money to make their stay more comfortable."
The other half will be used to create a child care fund for families staying at the Fisher Houses. The fund will enable families to use the Child Development Center for hourly care free of charge when the need arises.
Birdwell said his wife dreamed up the idea for free child care last year when she saw a mother at Beaumont with three children under 10 and a husband in the hospital. "It's hard to take care of kids and a hospitalized loved one," Birdwell said. "The hospital isn't the place for young children."
Col. Wendy Martinson, U.S. Army Garrison commander, attended the presentation to personally thank Birdwell for his generosity. "You turned a very bad situation into something very positive," she said. "This gift will continue to give for a very long time."
Now retired, Birdwell works at the same office he did during the attack, the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management, at the Pentagon. He and his wife wrote a book, "Face the Fire," about their experiences during and after the attack. The profits are used to assist burn patients and to support the Fisher House Foundation.
(Elaine Wilson is assigned to the Fort Sam Houston Public Information Office.)