Devastating war injuries didn't hinder Kriesel on campaign trail

"It was shaping up to be a great day in Iraq."

War veteran and newly elected Republican state Rep. John Kriesel begins his story with these words. As he addresses a captivated audience Nov. 8 at Barnes and Noble in Har Mar Mall, Kriesel describes Dec. 2, 2006, a day spent searching for improvised explosive devices (IEDs), resting and hanging out with his friends.

Kriesel, who grew up in Vadnais Heights, was stationed at Camp Fallujah in Iraq at the time.

In the book, "Still Standing: The Story of SSG John Kriesel," written by local author Jim Kosmo, Kriesel details the events that happened late that afternoon when the armored vehicle in which he was riding hit an IED fueled by 200 pounds of explosives.

Kriesel, 29, describes the moment of impact as "a loud quiet. Like when you make a cannonball into a pool."

Kriesel was thrown from the vehicle. After he hit the ground, he heard rocks falling like rain around him. As awareness sank in, he realized that he had lost both legs and was in danger of bleeding to death in the sand. In addition, he had suffered multiple broken bones, including a shattered pelvis.

He'd also been eviscerated, although his organs were being held in by his body armor. In retrospect, he's grateful that he didn't know this at the time.

"Seeing your legs blown off is one thing," he says. "Seeing your innards is another."

It was an abrupt ending to what had been a fairly quiet military career. After his initial National Guard training at the Armory on St. Paul's East Side, he was deployed to Kosovo in 2004 as part of a NATO peacekeeping force and was deployed to Iraq during a second tour. Even in Iraq, his work had included a lot of mind-numbing duties, including guarding a pump house.

And then, the vehicle in which he and his buddies were riding struck the IED.

Eight lost days
Kriesel remembers closing his eyes as he lay immobile. He didn't want to know what had happened; convinced he was going to die, he didn't want his last memory to be that of a buddy's dead body. To lighten the story, he quips to his bookstore audience, "But I'm a Vikings fan, and I'm used to disappointment."

Kriesel was the lucky one: the blast killed Roseville Area High School graduate Sgt. Bryan McDonough, 22, of Maplewood, and Sgt. Corey Rystad, 20, of Red Lake Falls. They were two of Kriesel's best friends.

"This is the only pain I still feel," he tells his audience. "Because they were such great guys."

A third friend, St. Paul resident SSG James Wosika Jr., 24, who graduated from Highland Park High School in 2000, died in Fallujah a month later of injuries suffered during another IED explosion.

After the blast that killed Rystad and McDonough, Kriesel was unconscious as he was taken from hospital to hospital, eventually spending most of his recovery in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Writing this portion of the book proved to be a challenge; author Kosmo felt the book needed to be written in a first person narrative, but Kriesel had been unconscious during those critical eight days after the IED blast. To write this portion of the book, Kosmo interviewed Kriesel's buddies and his wife Katie, who was with her husband for every step of his long recovery. Their first-person accounts fill in the gaps left by Kriesel's lost eight days.

Reading these recollections for the first time, Kriesel says he learned new information: shortly after his accident, his heart stopped three times while on the operating table.

Kosmo, who attended the Barnes and Noble event, recalls telling Kriesel, "Oh, yeah, I should have probably warned you about that."

After countless surgeries and hours in physical therapy, Kriesel has made a remarkable recovery. Although doctors predicted he would never be able to walk, he now walks with the assistance of a cane and two artificial legs.

For his service, he received the Combat Infantryman Badge, Purple Heart Medal and Bronze Star Medal. While hospitalized in Washington, D.C., Kriesel's Purple Heart was pinned to his hospital gown by former President George W. Bush.

If that wasn't enough of an accomplishment, Kriesel, who lives in Cottage Grove, was elected to the District 57A House seat held by retiring DFLer Karla Bigham. As a Republican in a district that leans Democratic, Kriesel wasn't expected to win, but he did, earning 51.5 percent of the votes. "It was a nail biter," he said.

With no political background, save a brief internship with U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman on Capitol Hill, Kriesel decided to run for state office because his wife suggested it. "She said I'd be good at it, that I could make changes," he said. He describes himself as a "blue-collar guy" who works for a private firm as a marketing and advertising contractor for the Minnesota National Guard.

Even as a political newcomer, he sees the dissonance in the U.S. "I care about this country, and I have never seen it as divided as it is today," he says.

But, he adds, "There's a lot that people agree upon, more than they realize."

He hopes to bring a little of his war experience to his new position. "In Iraq, it didn't matter who you voted for," he says. "You worked together to get the job done."

Heather Edwards can be reached at southwest@lillienews.com.