A Lakota Warrior Swaps Bullets for Ballots

At 58, Col. Tom Brewer has spent more than half his life - 36 years - as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces. But as he campaigns to become Nebraska's first Native American state senator, Brewer finds himself fighting for his country in a whole new way.

Sunlight spills between the fluttering cottonwoods on an early fall afternoon, a tile-blue sky sprinkled with clouds hovering above the rugged pine-covered buttes of northwest Nebraska.

Clad in denim and cowboy boots, he’s on his beloved mule, riding slowly across the old parade ground at Fort Robinson, across the land of his ancestors. He passes the low-slung building of pine logs where the Northern Cheyenne escaped on a freezing January night, only to be gunned down as they fled in the deep snow. He passes the barracks where the “Buffalo Soldiers” – an all-black cavalry unit – were dispatched to help quell the bloody uprising at Wounded Knee, the place where almost 300 of his people were slaughtered shortly after Christmas 1890.

And then he rides past the three-foot-high stone marker, the one noting where an Army private drove a bayonet into Crazy Horse’s back on the evening of Sept. 5, 1877, the spot where the Lakota war chief refused an Army cot, preferring instead to bleed to death, on the land of his people.

It’s the place where the rider believes the heart and soul of the Sioux Nation died 139 autumns ago.

Tom Brewer rides across a field near Fort Robinson in western Nebraska on Sept. 14, 2016.

Col. Tom Brewer knows the smell of death.

He grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation – where poverty and diabetes, fetal alcohol syndrome and suicides – run rampant, seizing too many Lakota lives each year. He’s walked the streets of Whiteclay, where some descendants of those who once wiped out Custer’s command now surrender to a can of Budweiser.

Back then, there were few choices for Indian youth like him, a direct descendant of the famed Sioux Chief Red Cloud. So when a military recruiter came calling, Brewer did the only thing he could think of: He signed up for a hitch, donning the uniform of the country that had destroyed his own.

“The Lakota spirit is a warrior spirit and that’s what drew me to the military,” Brewer says. “We’re a warrior culture, and if you’re going to be a warrior, you should do it in uniform.”

And so he did, serving 13 tours of duty. Six in Afghanistan. Countless battle wounds. Shot seven times. Blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade. Traumatic brain injury. Two purple hearts and a bronze medal.

But now, at 58, he’s fighting a different battle.

His weapons include his 11-year-old mule, Chip, a trailer full of four-legged creatures, bumper stickers, placards, pick-up trucks and an infantry of war buddies who’ve signed up for a new hitch: Helping their commander ride his sturdy mule across hundreds of miles of Western Nebraska prairie, the old buffalo country, to wrangle votes from all the cowboys.

One day soon, Thomas Ross Brewer hopes to pass through the portals of the state capitol building in Lincoln and plant his boots on his desk – the first Native American to be recognized as a Nebraska state senator.

***

“BREWER’S DOWN!”

He vaguely hears the radio screaming. Down, yes. But not dead.

The first bullet bore through his left bicep. Another tore his right armpit. A bullet-proof vest blunted a third shot that caught him square in the chest. Shrapnel ripped into his skull, close to his left eye.

It’s the evening of Oct. 12, 2003, in Afghanistan, in a place they call the Bone Yard – a former Russian weapons depot the Americans have transformed into a maintenance center. The pain is paralyzing. He’s woozy, but fights to keep moving, to stay conscious.

The sound of weapons and radios explode all around. He seeks protection behind a pile of rubble, but slips, smashing his face into a cinderblock. In the shadows not far away, two figures turn toward him. The force of the first few bullets blew him backwards, blew his rifle 15 feet away, so he grabs a 9mm pistol and fires.

He’s surrounded. Stuck. Running out of weapons. Bleeding badly. Struggling to breathe. He finds his radio and yells for his unit not to come for him – it’s too dangerous. He’s ready to make a run for it when he sees another shadowy figure approach. His weapons are out of reach, so he prepares to fight with his hands. Suddenly, he sees it’s not the enemy – it’s one of his own men. They’ve come to get him anyway.

That night, the U.S. Army colonel survived six gunshot wounds.

“You didn’t survive all of that,” he will tell you now, “if your destiny is not to do something worthwhile for this world.”

Top: Col. Tom Brewer and Erik Herring served together in northern Afghanistan in 2011. Left: Brewer was shot six times during an epic battle at a place called the Bone Yard in Afghanistan on Oct. 12, 2003. This photo was taken after he was released from the hospital. Right: In December 2011, a rocket-propelled grenade hit Brewer and shrapnel tore up his body – including his foot. As a result, doctors fused his ankle together.

And he will tell you, too, that one way he survived Afghanistan was to fall back on his heritage, to think of Red Cloud and all the warriors who had distinguished themselves in battle.

“I think all of us who put the uniform on, who had Native American heritage, felt an obligation as we went into the military to run faster, jump higher, shoot straighter, everything,” Brewer said. “Because we did not want to be the weak link in the military machine that we were becoming a part of.”

But no matter how hard you thought of your ancestors, how fervently you used them to steel your own nerves, there were times it didn’t work.

"The Lakota spirit is a warrior spirit and that’s what drew me to the military. We’re a warrior culture, and if you’re going to be a warrior, you should do it in uniform."

- Col. Tom Brewer

It’s late afternoon and Brewer’s taken refuge in a shady grove of cottonwoods on the lower parade ground of the old fort. He’s talking about one of those times.

The flight from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Dover, Delaware, took 23 hours. On board was the flag-draped coffin of one of his men – a young soldier who died in battle the same night Brewer was severely injured. For 1,380 minutes he struggled to compose the words he would say when the mother came to claim her son.

“The harder I tried to find the words, I couldn’t do it.”

He stepped off the plane, feeling numb, helpless, his mind a blank. When the mother came forward, the 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound Oglala Lakota warrior collapsed in her arms.

“I’m sorry,” he told her.

“He was doing what he loved,” she consoled him.

Five years later, he still struggles with the memory, struggles to compose his thoughts between the tears.

“If you’re going to send people to war,” he finally says, “you’d better understand the consequences.”

***

Horses.

He grew up all around them, like every other Lakota boy for the past three centuries. Horses made the Sioux Nation renowned warriors.

“If you've ever been on the ground and had a horse rush up on you with someone on it, you have that respect for just how violent and how scary that can be,” Brewer said.

He was 5 the first time he hopped aboard. Most of the time he and his childhood friends rode bareback across the western plains. They decorated their horses with halters made of twine from hay bales. Then they rode these ornamented creatures – their only source of transportation until age 16 – through the reservation like “wild children.”

Tom Brewer adjusts his hat outside of the barracks at Fort Robinson in western Nebraska on Sept. 14, 2016. Brewer is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served 36 years in the military.

Brewer led a simple life growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation until February 1973. That’s when American Indian Movement members and about 200 Oglala Lakota joined forces to protest the U.S. government’s failure to fulfill its treaties with the Native American people.

For 71 days, they stood their ground at Wounded Knee, the sacred site where the cavalry had slaughtered hundreds of their people more than eight decades earlier. During the siege, they were often surrounded by members of the U.S. Marshalls Service, FBI agents and other law enforcement agencies, which had cordoned off the area.

Brewer was in his early teens during Wounded Knee II. Throughout many nights, FBI agents and U.S. Marshalls frequently fired flares to see if anyone was trying to escape. Brewer and his friends made a quick calculation: Those flares contained aluminum tubes – tubes they could cash in for desperately needed money.

“I've always been accused of being somewhat fearless, but we walked between the guns that were pointed toward the church (to get the aluminum cans),” Brewer said.

That fearlessness eventually carried him through 36 years in the military. And it would have continued had it not been for the injuries. Had it not been for a rocket-propelled grenade that blew up the right side of his body on the 666th day of his tour – the day before he was to go home.

So at age 55, after two years in and out of hospitals, he was back in Gordon, Nebraska, safe and sound, but without a purpose. He needed to find one.

"You didn't survive all of that if your destiny is not to do something worthwhile for this world."

- Col. Tom Brewer

Horses.

Heroes and Horses. It was perfect – a program founded in 2013 and funded by various sponsors that relied on horses and mules to help heal the tormented psyches of wounded war veterans. He’d heard about it through Soldier Angels, an umbrella organization that matches veterans with programs designed to help ease their return to civilian life.

The veterans who participate in Heroes and Horses spend several days in Montana learning how to ride, saddle, pack and care for a horse, and then navigate through the mountains on horseback. They also learn the traditional Native way of doing things like starting a fire. Brewer said the idea behind it is to remind the veterans they are capable, that they still have a purpose.

The Brewer Army rides on muleback across a field near Fort Robinson in western Nebraska on Sept. 14, 2016. Brewer rode with a group of veterans on a Freedom Ride across the 43rd Nebraska Legislative District as part of his campaign.

Another idea is to use stress as a weapon to help confront the crippling PTSD that saddles many veterans.

“We used this stress to give the men confidence in themselves,” Brewer explained. “We rejuvenated them to believe in themselves so the thought of suicide was no longer there.”

The base camp for the Heroes and Horses program is in the rugged Gallatin Mountain Range of Montana, which has the largest grizzly bear population among the Lower 48. And as stress inducers go, a 6-foot, half-ton mother grizzly charging from the woods works pretty well.

At a camp for all female veterans in July 2015, a group was moseying down the winding paths of a mountain on horseback, enjoying the picturesque scenery of Montana’s snowcapped peaks, after spending several days camping in a combination of snow and hail.

Suddenly, a mother grizzly and her cubs came out of the woods. Brewer was leading the group and summoned the other group leader, Kail Mantle, from the rear. But his horse, Rancher, lost its footing on the narrow path, sliding down the steep, rocky mountain. A dead tree branch skewered the horse’s heart, spraying blood everywhere “like you had opened a hose from your sprinkler or something,” Brewer said.

Recalled Anna Mann, a female veteran of the group: “The veteran between Tom and I was starting to experience some serious symptoms from the blood and the yelling and the screaming. So I had to talk the veteran down with my words and tone and get them to look away, look at me, look at their horse.”

Brewer and Mantle got the pack saddle off the horse and slowly led the women down the mountain. The grizzly followed behind, staring ominously.

“It was nice to know those skills never leave you, of keeping your cool while the world is going pear-shaped,” Mann said.

***

Tom Brewer talks with John Sibbitt during a visit to the Crossroads Nursing Home in Alliance, Neb. on Sept. 15, 2016 as a part of his Freedom Ride across the 43rd Nebraska Legislative District.

Early autumn and he’s riding his mule, Chip, his army buddies trailing behind, through the towns scattered upon the vast prairie of western Nebraska – Valentine, Chadron, Gordon, Hay Springs and Alliance.

Brewer, a conservative Republican, is vying to represent Nebraska’s 43rd Legislative District – nearly 17,000 square miles, an area larger than New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

One of those along for Brewer’s Freedom Ride is Tony Baker, a 58-year-old war buddy of the man on the mule. The two have been riding together for a long time, all the way back to when they served together in Afghanistan.

“Helping Tom on the Freedom Ride was … that rare chance ordinary citizens hardly ever get to actually do something that really matters,” Baker said.

Late on a Thursday afternoon, the political war party pulls up to the lobby of the Crossroads Nursing Home in Alliance. Inside, Mr. John Sibbitt is dazzling onlookers with his trick roping. In dark wash jeans, a blue-and-white striped, button-up shirt, a tan cowboy hat and black boots, he’s trying to lasso every pretty girl who walks by.

Not many old cowboys still have the energy to rope a young girl. But Sibbitt’s no ordinary 94-year-old.

Inducted into the Nebraska Sandhills Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2010, he’s lovingly called the “Godfather of the Sandhills.” Renowned for his pranks, he once flew a plane through Western Nebraska, air bombing a couple of farmers he didn’t like with sacks of flour.

His parents died in 1942, when Sibbitt was barely 20. Although he desperately wanted to serve in the military, the Army had different ideas. His orders were to ranch 900 head of cattle to provide precious food for the U.S. military.

When Sibbitt spies a familiar face striding down the hallway, he and the would-be senator greet each other like old friends, clasping their arms around each other’s shoulders as they walk through the nursing home.

They met a few months ago, when Brewer came through Alliance campaigning. They got to know each other, and when Brewer told him about the Freedom Ride, Sibbitt made him promise to come through and let him ride on one of his animals. Brewer kept his promise.

And he can be sure that Sibbitt will keep his come Nov. 8.

“Any man that’s got manure on his boots goes for me,” Sibbitt said.