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History
Minnesota National Guard
Sgt. John Kriesel: An unshattered spirit

Sgt John Kriesel's legs are gone forever, lost after a couple hundred pounds of explosives blew his Humvee off a dirt road in Iraq His fractured left arm is held together with pins His right wrist is broken His pelvis was crushed on the left side and "broken all the way through" on the right side

"It's just a mess down there," Kriesel, 25, said last week from his hospital bed

Kriesel, who grew up in Vadnais Heights, lies in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC He has had more than 20 surgeries, and he faces years of rehabilitation Two of his best friends and fellow Soldiers from his Minnesota National Guard unit -- Spc Bryan McDonough, 22, of Maplewood, and Spc Corey Rystad, 20, of Red Lake Falls -- died in the bombing

Guilt over their deaths haunts him, but he's not bitter about his life-altering injuries:

"I wanted to go to war I support the cause I didn't have to go to Iraq I'd already gone to Kosovo and had to sign a waiver to go to Iraq If I was 30 and out of the military, I would regret never having gone to war"

"Just another patrol"

The mission to a village near Fallujah that afternoon on Dec 2 was supposed to be routine, although, now, Kriesel can't remember its purpose But he does recall riding shotgun, one of five Soldiers in a brand new Humvee, "fresh off the assembly line with the best armor you could imagine"

The Humvee rolled down a dirt road behind a Bradley tank Green farm fields, palm trees and irrigation ditches dotted the landscape

"This wasn't the barren desert you might picture," Kriesel said "We didn't feel like we were in the middle of nowhere We were laughing, joking, making fun of each other, like it was the same old thing Just another patrol"

Then the Humvee rolled over the bomb The explosion blew its doors off, and Kriesel found himself on the ground:

"I was lying on my back and sat up My vest had been blown open I took that off I don't know why I looked down and my legs were mangled The explosion pretty much chopped them off I remember one of the guys saying, 'We gotta get this Humvee moved' I was terrified I saw my legs The left leg was gone My right leg was hamburger

"I started praying"

"I told my buddies where I wanted the tourniquets 'Put one here Put the other there Needs to be tighter' My left arm was flopping around badly, flapping like Silly Putty I closed my eyes I didn't want to see anymore I didn't want to see what had happened to the others

"I closed my eyes and I prayed I kept wondering, 'When is that bird going to get here? When is that helicopter going to land?' "

Sleeping in body armor

Kriesel felt a chill gripping his entire body He was certain it was a sign of shock, something he'd learned about during an emergency medical course he took while readying to try out for the St Paul Fire Department

"It's amazing the things that race through your mind," he said "I thought I was prepared for almost anything"

But this?

When he was 10, he watched the Gulf War on TV He wore his older brother's fatigues while playing Soldier At 16, he visited with recruiters from each branch of the military and spent his 17th birthday at the Military Entrance Processing Station in Minneapolis

He arrived at Camp Fallujah in Iraq on April 8 -- his new bride's 26th birthday Katie, too, had grown up with stories of the military and of war Her maternal grandfather was aboard the USS Helena when it was torpedoed at Pearl Harbor in 1941, leaving him floating on the ocean for three days before he was rescued

When John told Katie that he wanted to go to Iraq, she felt hesitant

"I told him the Army was part of who he was, why I loved him," Katie said "I couldn't tell him, 'Yes, I think you should go,' because I'd never forgive myself if something happened to him" But she couldn't say no, either, and shatter his dream

But Iraq wasn't Kosovo, where he had been stationed three years earlier In Iraq, mortar blasts erupted around his tent every 10 minutes

"Kosovo was actually fun," he said "I can't think of one time I was in fear of my life "But that first night [in Fallujah], I was scared out of my mind I slept in my body armor I thought, man, I'm going to get blown up tonight"

He said he learned to gauge the distance of the explosions, to know which of them were incoming and outgoing, and which were "simply routine"

Routine Like the Dec 2 mission

In a 10-minute snapshot of hell -- many of them with his eyes closed -- Kriesel lay on the ground, waiting for a helicopter to arrive

"Please, God, get that helicopter here and get me out of here," he prayed

He remembers screaming as he was placed on a stretcher, but not for long He needed every bit of strength to hang onto his severely broken left arm It flopped below the elbow

"I didn't want to rip up the nerves," he said

A helicopter lifted him to a hospital in Balad The next evening, a Sunday night, he was flown to Germany, where Katie and other family members joined him She had heard the shocking news from John's parents about midnight, just after government officials notified them

Grief and guilt

In Germany, Kriesel learned that his buddies had died in the bombing He was heavily sedated; the news didn't register Not until Dec 11, three days after arriving at Walter Reed from Germany, did the shock set in:

"Why did I live?" he asked Thursday "Why not them?

"Of those of us who lived, I got the worst But at least I was ejected from the vehicle I wanted to go to war I explained to my two sons -- they're 4 and 5 -- that there are bad guys over there and people in Iraq who don't have the freedom we have They deserve that freedom"

Kriesel will be bed-ridden for another 10 weeks He is under constant surveillance, needing nurses to turn his body for cleanings and the constant changing of his dressings

These days, he often sleeps four hours at a time The nightmares, "in which I'd see weird, weird faces," have subsided He rarely presses the pain button on his bed The boys -- Elijah, 5, and Broden, 4 -- visited for Christmas

"The youngest one stood back at first, but the older one came over and rubbed my hands," Kriesel said "They think I'm going to be the bionic man with my new legs

"They think I'm a hero"

Meeting the president

Katie sleeps in a reclining chair next to her husband's hospital bed Her employer has given her an eight-month paid leave Katie, who rarely leaves John's side, speaks with a strength that matches her husband's courage and integrity She calls John "her inspiration"

In a visit before Christmas, President Bush awarded Kriesel the Purple Heart

"President Bush told me I was a hero," said Kriesel, a 2000 graduate of White Bear Lake High School "Can you imagine that? He put his arm around my wife Laura Bush was there It was surreal I don't think of myself as a hero I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, that's all

"So this is my life right now My wife is here all the time, and that's great And I have my TV schedule down My favorite time is when Seinfeld is on Then I relax Actually, any day I don't have surgeries, I just relax

"Three-quarters of my days are good days, if not great days I'm here God put me here He was looking out for me"

Paul Levy "¢ 612-673-4419 "¢ plevy@startribune.com
Source and photos: http://www.startribune.com/462/story/919278.html



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