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Home Sower Column Neb. senator ends legislative tenure filled with service to people in need

Nebraska State Senator Tom Brewer. 

Photo credit: Nebraska Legislature

By Bailey Mooney


The life of Nebraska State Sen. Tom Brewer reads like a movie script. He served his country for 36 years, was awarded the Purple Heart twice, and spent a month in Ukraine fighting for freedom mainly on the front lines in the war with Russia. He additionally was the first Native American state senator in Nebraska. Tom Brewer has proven he never refuses a challenge.

When asked to describe his life, Brewer said it can feel like it is going a hundred miles per hour, especially when it comes to his time serving in the Nebraska Legislature. “Sometimes it is about getting the right thing done, even when there is not much fanfare that comes with it,” said Brewer.

Brewer’s passion for politics was not innate but was built upon his intrinsic motivation to create change in the lives of underrepresented communities across Nebraska. He said that he originally had no interest in being a senator, but the people throughout his district inspired him to run for office.

Medals awarded to Brewer for his military service. Photo credit: Nebraska Legislature.

Throughout his time in the legislature, Brewer prioritized legislation to protect the rights of indigenous communities, as well as military service members. Brewer also credited his inspiration for running for public office to his fellow service members’ and their families’ encouragement. Brewer retired from serving in the Army National Guard in 2014, after spending two years recovering from injuries he encountered in Afghanistan.

Brewer stated that he wasn’t ready to retire from the military and wanted to redeploy. However, the Army conducted an evaluation that determined his injuries were too serious for redeployment. Brewer said that everything he had done in his life revolved around serving his country, and he struggled with his identity. However, he was invited to work with the Wounded Warriors Project in Montana for two years. Through the Heroes and Horses Organization, Brewer served veterans who were wounded both mentally and physically in combat. Brewer said that he grew up on a horse and that it was his primary means of transportation as a kid. Brewer said this job felt like a natural fit because he understood where they were coming from. Brewer said it was a wonderful feeling to help other veterans find their new identity. Brewer took soldiers into the mountains for a week and taught them many Native American traditions like starting fires with sticks, how to navigate in the daytime without a compass, and how to manage terrain on horseback. Brewer stated that he went from a dark place to enjoying what he was doing.

It was during his time in Montana that people suggested he run for the Nebraska Legislature. Brewer said that veterans and their families talked about all the priorities of veteran issues that were being ignored, and they told him to just give it a shot and throw his name in the running for them. “At first I felt guilty because a lot of people complain and then they won’t do anything to fix it,” said Brewer. “I thought to myself that if I am going to be true I better at least try to run even if I don’t get elected. I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines and do nothing.”

Brewer threw his name in for the running in the last hour of the last day he could register. Brewer challenged former State Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis in the 2016 election to represent Legislative District 43. Brewer had two months between registering and the primary.

He had less campaign money than his opponent, however some of the veterans that he worked with in the Wounded Warriors Project suggested that they ride horses and mules across the district to meet people. Other veterans volunteered resources and came together to meet in Ainsworth, Nebraska, on Labor Day weekend to start the ride. Together they rode 500 miles from town to town alongside other combat veterans to discuss what constituents wanted in terms of representation. Brewer said that many people valued the way that the group took care of their animals, and connected it to the kind of representative Brewer would be. He had a passion to help veterans, Native Americans, ranchers, farmers and the people of the district who he felt were neglected. Brewer said that if you go to a job as a state senator and do nothing, the senator takes that part of Nebraska and makes them invisible, and they have nothing.

“No amount of mailers, or radio ads can change the result once you win people’s hearts, this is part of why the ride was a good idea and worked to our advantage,” said Brewer. “I may have accidentally said that if I got in a position to run for reelection I would do it again so there we were back on the mules.”

Brewer said the success of his campaign was due to the veterans who believed in him, and spent a month of their lives either riding or driving across the district to help him win. Brewer acknowledged the dedication of the people who stayed with him during his campaign ride and decided to send some of them to Lincoln to do the job alongside him.

Brewer described the importance of his longtime friend Tony Baker, who served as one of his legislative aides and accompanied him on his campaign journey. Brewer and Baker served together in the military for many years before Brewer was elected to the legislature.

In addition, Brewer described Julie Condon, the clerk for the Government Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, as the woman who holds the office together. He said she helps make sure everything in the committee runs smoothly. Condon also accompanied Brewer on his campaign trail.

But Brewer’s team is not solely made up of those who accompanied him on the trail. Krista Egging serves as Brewer’s administrative assistant and Brewer highlighted her ability to help him manage his time effectively. Dick Clark additionally serves as the government committee’s legal counsel. Brewer said that his staff is part of what made his journey in the legislature successful. After being elected in 2016 and reelected in 2020, he is term-limited at the end of his term in 2024.

Brewer is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and the first Native American elected to serve in the Nebraska Legislature. According to the 2020 U.S. Census data, Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiin people comprise 0.06% of elected officials, but they are 3.4% of the total U.S. population. To fully understand Native American priorities, it is important to raise the leadership and talents of those Native peoples into elected positions. Implementing more Native American people into public office is the key to understanding the assets and issues affecting communities all over our state.

Brewer said he experienced a lack of mentorship when he was originally elected to the legislature. “I don’t know if I really had a mentor,” he said. “I am kind of a survivalist in the sense that I adapt, overcome and get things done.”

Brewer said he felt it was difficult to find someone who mirrored his life experiences and personality. He said his life experiences, being both a Native American and a wounded veteran, were not accurately represented in politics, which in turn shaped his advocacy toward those groups.

In 2019, Brewer introduced LB154, which was passed into law and authorized a study to improve the reporting and investigation of missing Native American women and children. The act is closely tied to his Native American heritage, as it addressed the safety of Native Americans who often are overlooked.

Another example of how Native Americans are underrepresented and misunderstood can be found in Whiteclay, Nebraska, which is just across the border from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. A 2017 study by University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism students found that the stores in Whiteclay were selling 3.6 million cans of beer per year. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, tribal police estimated that while beer was being sold in Whiteclay they issued more than 1,000 tickets for driving under the influence annually on the 2-mile stretch of road between Whiteclay and Pine Ridge.

In Brewer’s first year in the Nebraska Legislature, he worked closely with advocates to close down the beer-only stores in Whiteclay. He said that after the suspension of liquor stores, the town began to thrive and new businesses have opened. “In my first year, we helped close the liquor stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska,” he said. “This was something people had been working towards for many years but had not been able to do. These liquor stores sat right on the border, and there were ambulance and police calls every day; it was a constant problem.”

Besides a concern over alcohol sales at Whiteclay, Brewer also has worked to expand gun rights. His interest in shooting began during his formative years growing up hunting game on the Pine Ridge reservation. His father stressed the need to not miss a shot because Brewer’s family was poor and ammunition was at a premium. Brewer said that his shooting abilities provided him with a host of opportunities. He went on to establish credibility as marksman, winning 10 national championships and The World Sniper Championship in 1997. He helped coach the U.S. men’s shooting team during training in advance of the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Brewer also served as the marksmanship coordinator for Nebraska, and was selected as the director of the Marksmanship Training Center in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1999.

Brewer is distinguished in rifle and pistol and earned his President 100 tab, which is awarded by the Civilian Marksmanship Program to the 100 top-scoring military and civilian shooters in the President’s Pistol and President’s Rifle Matches. Brewer said that shooting accurately to survive became a passion and a skill that helped him survive.

Brewer said another reason for his work to expand gun rights in Nebraska was the lack of police resources in smaller communities around the state. In February, the Nebraska Firearms Owners Association recognized him for his role in getting LB 77 passed in 2023. LB 77 allowed the concealed carry of handguns without a permit in Nebraska and waived the fee and class formerly required for firearm concealment. The previous law required an individual to pass a background check, pay a $100 permit fee, and complete a gun safety course to obtain a concealed carry permit. Brewer advocated for a concealed carry policy since his freshman year in the Nebraska Legislature and worked on it for seven years before the governor approved LB 77 on April 25, 2023.

In 2024, Brewer continued to prioritize pro-gun legislation by introducing LB 1339, to allow vetted adults to carry firearms in schools. However, the bill failed to pass. Brewer described LB 1339 as an opportunity for schools to increase safety if they believed it was needed. LB 1339 would have given school boards the ability to allow off-duty law enforcement officers to carry guns on school property. The legislation would also have created detailed maps of school buildings and grounds for local law enforcement and first responders during a crisis. Additionally, the legislation would also have allowed teachers or other school staff to be armed as long as they took gun handling and safety training.

“Some of the schools in Nebraska are left in a position where they can do nothing but wait for law enforcement, and I think that could cost lives in the future if we don’t provide people with options,” said Brewer. In some communities in Nebraska police response time takes at least 20 minutes, which puts them in a difficult situation during emergencies, he added.

“Over the years pro gun legislation has not been the only thing we have taken on that is controversial,” said Brewer. “Even Chief Standing Bear’s statue wasn’t something that everyone agreed on.”

Brewer shepherded an initiative to replace the statue of William Jennings Bryan, who was the U.S. secretary of state under President Woodrow Willson and the Democratic Party’s nominee for president three times, with the statue of Ponca Chief Standing Bear at the U.S. Capitol. Chief Standing Bear is known as a pivotal figure in Nebraska’s history.

Indigenous people of the Ponca tribe were removed from their homes along the Niobrara River in northeast Nebraska in 1877 and the tribe was forced to voyage south to Oklahoma. Throughout this journey, many members of the Ponca tribe died. After spending almost a year in Oklahoma, nearly a third of the members of the Ponca tribe had died from disease and starvation, including Standing Bear’s son Bear Shield. On his deathbed, Bear Shield made his father promise to return his remains to their ancestral homelands in Nebraska. Respecting his son’s wishes, Standing Bear and a few followers set out to return to Nebraska in January of 1879. Upon their arrival, they were arrested and imprisoned.

During a two-day trial, Standing Bear argued that Native Americans deserved the same civil rights and freedoms others had. He was freed after successfully rejecting federal prosecutors’ assertions he was not a person or human being under the existing U.S. law. This ruling established Native people as people, deserving of the same civil rights and freedoms as American citizens. “As far as longevity goes, getting the statue of Chief Standing Bear in the Capitol will be an achievement that lives beyond me. I believe that was long overdue,” he said.

The statue of Bryan can be found at the Nebraska National Guard Museum in Seward, because Bryan served as a colonel who organized the Third Nebraska Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Spanish-American War.

Brewer said that his father was blunt with him from a young age, telling him he didn’t have the money to send Brewer to college. Brewer said his father was supportive of his career in the military, and helped make sure he was qualified. Brewer retired from the National Guard as a colonel after serving as an infantry officer and an attack helicopter pilot. Brewer was the recipient of two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, the Secretary of Defense Medal of Freedom, The Combat Infantryman Badge, and several other awards.

Brewer’s Purple Hearts stemmed from his deployment to Afghanistan. The first was for his actions on Oct. 12, 2003, outside of Kabul. His team was returning from the Pakistan border at night when it was ambushed and Brewer was shot seven times. He was awarded the Purple Heart again on Dec. 16, 2011, while returning from Bagram Air Base. He was wounded while changing a flat tire when an enemy fighter came through a Muslim cemetery and fired a rocket propelled grenade that hit the truck.

Brewer said that although veterans make many sacrifices, there are not nearly enough resources to support them. “Every veterans group in the state has come to me with bills to fix all the issues,” he said. “There were a lot of issues and there was no support for veterans, so every year we have had to focus on bills concerning veterans to fix a lot of these things that have not been fixed over the years. I believe we have done a lot in eight years.”

Brewer prioritized service members in 2021 by sponsoring LB387, which excluded military retirement benefits from the state income tax. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Pete Ricketts on Jan. 14, 2021. Brewer said he hopes the law will help with recruitment and retention of the military. It will cost about $14 million a year in revenue, but there was no opposition to the bill.

“I have not failed with any veteran issues, and I don’t know if that is because I instilled enough fear in them that they didn’t want to work against me or because people understand and believe that veterans have made a sacrifice and that they are deserving of benefits like the detaxing of military retirement,” Brewer said.

Brewer said that after serving in the legislature he will focus on additional avenues to protect freedom by traveling back to Ukraine in May. “I have traveled to Ukraine five times now and the last three have been while the war has been going on,” he said. “There is a lot of need there for military expertise and how to navigate some of the weapon systems. The weapon systems I trained on are the weapon systems that they have now.”

Brewer visited an area between Russia and the Ukrainian front to help villagers trapped there. He described his time in Ukraine as good work but also dangerous work that needs to be done. “It is a spontaneous emotion to see their desire for freedom and to come from somewhere where we know freedom, and you feel an obligation to help them get it because they deserve it,” he said.

Brewer has been to Kyiv around Christmas time and described the Ukraine capital city as “magical.” He said the people were filled with joy and happiness. During the Afghan war he was part of a team that visited Kyiv to purchase helicopters to fly to Kabul for use by the Afghan military. Brewer described the local people as very down-to-earth and excited to see Americans. When the Ukraine war started, Brewer said he had the same experience.

“You would just walk the street and old ladies would hug you,” he said. “They couldn’t speak any English but they would just hug you and say thank you. We never got that in Afghanistan and we never got that in Iraq, so I just thought if you are going to go and sacrifice blood and treasure then you got to go somewhere they like you.”

Brewer believes the Russian soldiers are wearing down because they are undisciplined and poorly trained, while the Ukrainians have American weapon systems that are more accurate and more lethal, and have better range. The problem is that the Ukrainians are outnumbered so they can’t afford to lose troops.

Brewer said he fears that if the Ukraine army doesn’t win the war over the next year, it will be difficult to do so. Russia is increasing its factory output of supplies while Ukraine is running out of British and American supplies. Brewer predicted a strong push this summer for Ukraine and is proud that Ukraine will be his first stop after he finishes his term in the Legislature.

Beyond that, he does not have a plan. “What I have found is stuff will come, if you spend too much time thinking about it you are probably wasting your time because the world will just bring stuff to you; and you don’t know it’s coming until it gets there,” said Brewer.

Brewer encouraged people everywhere to truly understand and articulate the meaning of freedom as well as the cost. “Ukraine understands that they really only have one choice and it is to live under tyranny or fight to the death for freedom,” he said.

Although Brewer has fought tirelessly for a variety of people, he still is fighting his own battle with leukemia. “We haven’t beat it but we are still fighting,” he said. “Our numbers are okay, but not great. But that is something that I do everyday, which can make it hard to put all the time and energy into other areas.”

Brewer has had leukemia for three years but refuses to let it slow him down in his pursuit of his passions, such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with fellow Nebraska senators Anna Wishart, Justin Wayne, Dave Murman and Ben Hansen. “But to do that for three years has been a bit of a workout, but I was on chemo when we climbed Kilimanjaro, so – I’m stubborn,” Brewer said.

Brewer has fought to improve the situations of others. What remains true to this day is that the goals he sets out to achieve, he pursues passionately. “I thought I am going to do it my way and hope it works out,” he said. “If you sit on your hands and do nothing then that’s going to be the legacy you leave behind.”

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