Ashley Kolfage met her husband-to-be, Brian, when she was working as a hostess at a Chili’s in the small west Texas city of San Angelo.
The two quickly became friends, but before any romance could take hold, Brian deployed to Iraq, where, on Sept. 11, 2004, he became the most severely wounded airman to survive any war in U.S. history after a 107mm enemy rocket landed just three feet away as he walked to get a drink of water.
Both of Brian’s legs were instantly shredded, he lost his dominant right hand and his lung collapsed.
Miraculously conscious after the explosion, the senior airman screamed for help. A close friend tried to keep him calm as medics rushed to help. All the while, Kolfage repeated that he just wanted to make it home to see his family.
Medics would go on to perform hours of life-saving surgery before placing Kolfage on a flight to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, where he arrived only 36 hours after being wounded, the fastest medevac to the U.S. from a war zone in history.
Back home, the news of Brian’s injury stunned Ashley, and she wondered if he’d ever be able to live a normal life.
When he awoke at Walter Reed weeks after being placed in a medically-induced coma, Kolfage’s otherworldly motivation to recover took over — he dominated rehab and walked out of the hospital only 11 months after suffering the catastrophic injuries.
Brian messaged Ashley on Facebook shortly after leaving D.C., and it didn’t take long before the two hit it off once again. A trip to visit Brian in Tuscon, Arizona, immediately put all of Ashley’s concerns over his ability to live a fulfilling life to rest.
“Even with Brian’s injury, we try to live a normal life and do things just like everyone else," Kolfage told Military Times. "He still surfs like he did in Hawaii.”
The couple married on May 28, 2011. They now have two children together.
Today, Ashley is competing for the chance to be a Maxim Magazine cover girl, a voting process she has used as a platform to donate to the Homes for Wounded Warriors Foundation.
Brian and Ashley’s own home was built by a similar organization that designs custom homes to accommodate the needs of wounded service members.
“It takes the weight off our shoulders to know we have a forever home that functions for our whole family,” she said. “This means so much to see people raising money for our veterans."
No matter how the voting for the Maxim cover goes, Kolfage insists she has her sights set on a bigger prize.
“My goal is to raise the most money,” she said. “I would love to win [the cover], but when I found out that [Maxim] was raising money for wounded warriors, it made me want to do it even more. I love that Maxim supports our heroes.”
Brian, meanwhile, continues to serve others as a motivational speaker, spreading “a powerful message of being resilient in the face of adversity,” according to his website.
He graduated in 2014 with a degree in architecture from the University of Arizona, finishing among the top of his class despite having to learn to draw and write with his non-dominant hand.
His ability to overcome one seemingly insurmountable hurdle after another has contributed to a successful marriage as well, Ashley says.
“Brian’s injury has made us stronger because we have to have patience no matter what," Kolfage says. “Brian saw a lot of people during his recovery who couldn’t even remember their own family. It made us realize what really is important in life.”
Brian and Ashley often make trips to Walter Reed to visit other wounded veterans to provide hope and inspiration. In 2014, Brian was presented the George C. Lang Award for Courage for his many efforts to take care of and mentor wounded vets.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.