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REFINED BY FIRE: A Family's Triumph of Love and Faith
LTC (RET) Brian Birdwell & Mel Birdwell
Tyndale House Publishers
Memoir
ISBN: 0842386033

Many of the books written about the tragic events of 9/11 center on what happened at the World Trade Center or the field in Pennsylvania where Flight 93 crashed. Comparatively less has been written about the Pentagon. I always thought that this was because the Pentagon is a military installation and the levels of security there kept these stories quieter.

The fire from the crash in D.C. found victims there without regard to age, rank and serial number just as it did in New York and Pennsylvania. REFINED BY FIRE is the story of one of these victims, LTC Brian Birdwell, who survived the plane's impact by chance --- he was not in his office when the plane hit, but rather in a hallway outside. His two co-workers died at their desks.

The story is that of Brian's courage through thirty-plus surgeries, endless skin grafts and raging infection. While this was happening with great speed and accompanying stress, Mel was beside her husband, fighting for his dignity and sharing a strength and resolve to maintain both his honor and his position. The faith of the Birdwells is clear. God had His hand on their shoulders from the moment that fire hit. Both Mel and Brian turned to Scripture and prayer when many others might have collapsed from despair and anger. Scripture took on new meaning to Mel as she read passages and related them to their lives.

Mel read Scripture to Brian even as he lay unconscious. Instead of questioning their misfortune, she focused them on moving toward healing. They could not run through it, they could not hide from it. Instead, they needed to draw strength for each new step from God and each other.

I love the title of this book. These three words define so much about the Birdwells. They were refined. Their faith was refined. Their family spirit was refined. And through their battle they emerged not tarnished, but rather polished and shining in a new level.

A few personal notes about this book. I had the opportunity to meet Brian and Mel in June at a publisher's conference. I was walking from aisle to aisle when I spotted them with their publicist, who is a friend. We started to chat without my knowing who they were, or their story. After this brief conversation, there was something about their quiet resolve and sense of mission that drew me to read this book. It was like they were personalizing to me the healing that this country has been going through since 9/11.

I truly feel that we hurt more and needed to grieve more than we actually did for these events. Their horror was so overwhelming that the media backed off from the story, feeling people needed to move beyond it. But there are moments when I still wonder if much of the discord and polarization in this country right now comes from the way we were led to "move on" after these events when in reality the "safe" world we all knew came apart that day and its implications hurt more deeply than we may even know.

While I saw Brian's scars when talking to him and Mel, their pride and their humility exalted them in my eyes; they were more stripes of honor than of disfigurement. By the way, I know that pride and humility are two strange words to yoke together. However, in Brian's carriage and Mel's quiet grace, I saw that they understand that they have been tested and came through better for it, but they are also humbled as they know that theirs is just one story of this day that fortunately ended as well as it could. Their mission is to minister to others and speak and share their story.

I, who normally speed read, instead read REFINED BY FIRE in small chunks over the course of about two weeks. Each morning I found myself reading a chapter or two before getting out of bed. I found myself thinking about what the Birdwells had endured --- and risen above --- as I moved throughout my day. Part of the reason I feel I "rationed" this book is that reading about the painful effects of Brian's burning was tough reading. Also, I truly think that when we remember the effects of this tragedy with personal stories, we all grieve and then heal a bit more. Which is a healthy thing.

As we commemorate the third anniversary of 9/11 in September, reading REFINED BY FIRE is a fitting way to reflect and remember.

   --- Reviewed by Carol Fitzgerald

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