Anoka County Veterans Service Director John Kriesel described his service in the Minnesota Army National Guard as 10 years of great times and one really bad day.
Kriesel spoke at the July 18 Ramsey Rotary Club meeting about his military service, including his deployment to Iraq, and his new job helping veterans like himself.
Serving in the military was a childhood dream, said the 30-year-old Cottage Grove man.
“I think I was 10 when I saw the first Gulf War was on television,” Kriesel said.
While he and his friends were playing war, these guys were fighting for real and “I looked up to them,” he said.
On his 17th birthday in 1998, Kriesel enlisted in the National Guard.
It was a good choice for him because he was not the best student, he said.
He liked to be the funny guy and ended up doing a lot of his school work in the hallway, Kriesel said.
“I was a knucklehead growing up. Still a tiny bit of a knucklehead,” he said.
Following his junior year, Kriesel reported to boot camp.
He was a much better student in his senior year because “drill sergeants have a pretty effective way of slapping the smart aleck out of you.”
After graduation he reported to Fort Benning, Ga.
It was a pretty uneventful career until 9/11 happened, Kriesel said.
The terrorists struck New York City as he was scrubbing the tubs at the ink factory where he was working.
His job in the National Guard “became very serious, very real.”
Two years later, Kriesel and his infantry unit got their first deployment: they were heading to Red Wing to protect the power plant.
It was a disappointment for his unit as the Iraq War was about to start, he said.
“We were all kind of frustrated because we were trained. We were hyped up and ready to go to Iraq,” Kriesel said.
While they don’t wish for war, “if there is one, you want to be part of it,” he said.
Iraq was like their Super Bowl and it was what they had been trained to do, Kriesel said.
The unit’s second deployment was to Kosovo in 2004.
The entire time he was in Kosovo as part of a NATO peace-keeping mission, Kriesel said he felt pretty guilty.
“We would come back from our four-hour patrols and watch the news in the chow hall,” he said.
“We couldn’t help feeling guilty with our brothers and sisters in harm’s way” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We were never really in fear for our lives,” he said.
After the Kosovo tour was over, Kriesel’s enlistment was up and he was planning on getting out of the National Guard.
Kriesel had only been home from Kosovo for three months when a buddy convinced him to stay in because there was an Iraq deployment coming up.
After listening to the details of the upcoming deployment, Kriesel talked it over with his wife Katie.
But his wife refused to make the decision for him.
She asked him if he would regret not going. Kriesel said he would.
The decision was made.
Kriesel and his unit arrived at Camp Fallujah in Iraq April 8, 2006.
The first couple of months were pretty boring. “In hindsight, boring is really good,” Kriesel said.
Their missions started with tower duty and expanded to patrols.
As their controlled space expanded to the Euphrates River, the situation became really dangerous.
It seemed like every day someone from the base was encountering roadside bombs, but the injuries were minor and everyone was walking way, Kriesel said.
On Dec. 6, 2006 that changed.
It was shaping up to be a fantastic day in Iraq, Kriesel said.
His group had just finished watching for insurgents at a road intersection that was frequently set with bombs and had returned to camp.
“It was 82 degrees and sunny. Something anyone in Minnesota would take on a December day,” Kriesel said.
The unit members had something to eat and were headed to take a nap when an unmanned drone spotted suspicious activity.
Five men, including Kriesel, jumped into a Humvee and three men went into a Bradley fighting vehicle.
Nothing suspicious was going on, but the drone later spotted someone digging on a heavily used road.
As the vehicles approached the area, Kriesel remembers hearing a triggered ignition switch, followed by a loud quiet.
The Humvee had run over 200 pounds of plastic explosives packed into propane tanks.
“It was like doing a cannon ball into a swimming pool,” he said.
“I don’t remember flying in the air. I don’t remember hitting the ground.”
As he woke up on the ground, Kriesel lay there with his eyes closed listening to rocks showering down on metal.
He also heard his buddies, some yelling for their missing friend, Bryan McDonough.
“I did not want to believe what was happening, but I have been a Minnesota Vikings fan all my life and I was used to the absolute worst case scenario,” Kriesel said.
When Kriesel opened his eyes the first thing he saw was the mangled 12,000-ton fully armored Humvee on its side.
Then he looked down. The bones of his left leg were broken and sticking out. The right leg was gone below the knee.
“It looked like it had been put though the wood chipper,” Kriesel said.
There was blood everywhere and Kriesel was pretty sure his life was coming to an end.
There was no medic with the unit.
His buddies in the Bradley came to help the injured men.
One guy, Adam, came over and put a tourniquet on Kriesel’s right leg to stop the bleeding before going to see to the other men.
“I knew from the sound I was not the worst,” Kriesel said.
Another buddy, Todd, came a little while later to work on Kriesel.
Todd pasted on a smile and assured Kriesel he looked great and he going to be OK.
“It was the fakest smile I have ever seen until I got into politics,” said Kriesel, who decided not to seek re-election after serving as state representative in District 57A for the past two years.
It was not until the pair moved Kriesel to the helicopter landing spot that he began to feel pain.
When they flipped his leg on his chest, his broken pelvis was rubbing against his spine, from which it had become detached, Kriesel said.
Kriesel was left in the care of a soldier, who had suffered a brain injury, while the pair went to look after the soldier under the Humvee.
“I remember laying there and getting so tired,” Kriesel said.
But as he would drift off, one of his buddies would slap his face and tell him to stay awake. Then he started feeling cold.
Kriesel said he prepared himself to die.
“I remember thinking I needed to go out like a man,” so they could tell Katie and his two sons that he was at peace when he died, Kriesel said. “I grabbed Adam with my good arm (his other arm was broken) and told him to tell Katie I love her,” he said.
Adam ordered him to shut up and that Kriesel would tell Katie he loved her himself.
Once the helicopter arrived and it lifted off, Kriesel said he felt he had a chance.
It was the last thing he remembers before waking up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., eight days later.
Both legs had been amputated and his arms were in casts. Kriesel also had chest wounds from shrapnel.
“Everything came rushing back,” he said.
After asking if he knew where he was at, the nurse asked him if he knew the woman by his bed.
“I thought it was a stupid question. It was my wife,” Kriesel said.
But he could not remember her name. At least, he had the wherewithal not to shout out random names, Kriesel said.
As the drugs wore off, Kriesel remembered Katie’s name. Then he asked about his buddies.
One had received minor injuries and was still in Iraq. Two died.
“I have never felt lower. I was a hot mess for a couple of hours. I was devastated,” Kriesel said.
Then he realized how lucky he was to have a second chance and he made a promise not to waste it, Kriesel said.
Kriesel, who was a staff sergeant, was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star medals.
He also co-wrote a book about his experience.
“I feel incredibly blessed to be able to work with veterans,” said Kriesel, who was hired in May by Anoka County as its new veterans service officer.
When Kriesel came back from the hospital in 2007, he spent a lot of time trying to convince himself that everything was fine and he was normal, he said.
“That was not the case. It took me a while to learn it was a new normal,” Kriesel said.
While his injuries are obvious, he now has the opportunity to bring attention to less obvious injuries, he said.
The friends that helped him survive have gone through a couple of rough years because they had to see their friends die, Kriesel said.
Past generations were denied the benefits they earned and they are making sure his and future generations will not be denied their benefits, he said.
Tammy Sakry is at [email protected]