The rumors spread quickly in Baghdad. Sgt. John Kriesel had been hit, his military buddy Neil Doyle kept hearing. And hit badly.

Had Kriesel lost a leg? Two legs? Was the Minnesota National Guard member even alive?

"Two weeks later, when John was able to take calls at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center], I called him," Doyle recalled recently. "But it was hard, when John was hit, not being able to leave Baghdad for Fallujah, where John's unit was.

"When your boys are getting hit, you want nothing more than to go over there, to help them."

Kriesel -- who lost both legs and had his pelvis, left arm and right wrist shattered when several hundred pounds of explosives blew his Humvee off a dirt road in Iraq in December of 2006 -- is now in a position to be the one to help fellow veterans. On May 1, he was named director of Anoka County's Veterans Services office.

Doyle, supervisor of the Veterans Services office in Olmsted County, has known Kriesel for 10 years and served with him in Kosovo in 2004. Kriesel, a Minnesota House member who announced in March that he won't seek reelection, says it was Doyle who suggested that he apply for the Anoka County job.

"John's tough, he's funny and he's got common sense," Doyle said of Kriesel.

"He's also a combat-tested veteran who, as an amputee, knows about monthly compensation benefits and the channels veterans go through. Having lived through what John's lived through gives you the kind of expertise that you don't find in a manual."

He's worn many helmets

Kriesel won the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star in the service, and he's won the hearts and admiration of much of Minnesota since returning from the war.

He's been a devoted family man, radio personality and author. He's done marketing for the Minnesota National Guard. He says he's "just a regular guy."

As a state representative, Kriesel, a Republican from Cottage Grove, has been the co-author of a Vikings stadium bill and has advocated for gay rights.

Now, he will advocate for fellow veterans.

"I want to cut through the red tape," he said. "There are a lot of benefits out there that those veterans have earned. But you really need an advocate, a liaison to ge through it all.

"I want to be that advocate and I want to be a strong advocate. These are my brothers and sisters that I'm fighting for now."

Kriesel will succeed Allison Lister, who held the job less than two years before announcing her resignation in January. Before Lister, Duane Krueger held the job for nearly three decades. Lister and Krueger both have been very popular with veterans because neither turned veterans away -- and that includes veterans from other counties. Kriesel wants to continue that open-door policy.

"I wouldn't turn anybody away," he said. "I've been through this, trust me.

"For a veteran to ask for help is so hard," Kriesel said on the day he was appointed by the Anoka County Board. "You're wired from the time you join the military to suck it up, deal with it and drive on. But veterans are vulnerable."

Leaving the House

Kriesel, who was elected to his first term at the Capitol in 2010, said he was not aware of the Anoka County job when he considered resigning from the Legislature. It was a family decision. His sons are 11 and 10.

"My family is ecstatic," he said of wife Katie and sons Broden and Elijah. "They're ready for me to be done. The kids kept asking, 'Dad, can we go outside and play catch?' Now we will."

Kriesel said he can't worry about what he might have accomplished in St. Paul when there's so much to be done in Anoka County.

"I'm aware that people are aware of my story, but I'm not a celebrity," he said. "I just want them to trust me.

"So many people helped my family and helped me. I'm doing great. I have a lot to offer. I want to give back."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419