John Kriesel faces a new life after losing both legs in Iraq. But a new home and a warm welcome give the transition a supportive start.
Sometimes, John Kriesel wishes he could just be the person he was before the war -- a young father who dreamed of being a sports radio commentator.
But for now, Kriesel, 26, is still known as the Cottage Grove soldier who lost both his legs in Iraq. "I don't know if I'll ever just be John, as opposed to John the amputee," he said.
On Saturday afternoon, Kriesel did his best to appear like a regular guy at a celebration welcoming him and his family to their new neighborhood.
Kriesel, who normally wears shorts on the weekends, wore jeans to hide his artificial legs. "I wanted to blend in," he explained. He shook hands and swapped predictions about today's matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears.
Yet, it didn't take long for talk to turn to the war in Iraq. Somewhere in the crowd of well-wishers, the sound of a popped balloon jogged his memory. "Jeez, it seems like we're taking fire," he said, laughing. And the brilliant blue skies reminded him of Dec. 2, 2006, the day when explosives blew his Humvee off a dirt road in Iraq.
"I remember lying on the ground and there wasn't a cloud in the sky," he said. "It was a day a lot like this."
Over a plate of bratwursts, Kriesel tried to reassure Vicki Engel, 51, who recently learned that her 26-year-old son, David Engel, an Army infantryman, was being sent to Iraq.
Kriesel pointed out that "just 480" of the estimated 30,000 American military members injured in Iraq were double amputees like him. "It was a freak thing. Very rare," he said. "If only I could do those odds at a casino, I'd be pretty slick."
The words failed to comfort Engel, who confessed to being "scared sick" about her son's deployment. Last year, she visited Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to see one of her son's friends and fellow infantryman, Angelo, who suffered severe internal injuries while in Iraq.
"To me, 480 [double amputees] sounds like a lot," she said. "There are days when I hear the stories and the tears just start rolling down and they don't stop. ... Gosh, I just hope nothing like this happens to my son."
Kriesel described, matter-of-factly, several episodes of hostility he's experienced since his return to the Twin Cities in August. Once, a driver hollered "warmonger" while he was walking near the St. Paul Armory in St. Paul. On a separate occasion, someone yelled, "Way to give it all up for oil," Kriesel recalls.
Kriesel said he doesn't take the animosity personally but wishes more people would remember the sacrifices soldiers are making in Iraq. Two of his friends, Bryan T. McDonough, 22, of Maplewood, and Corey J. Rystad, 20, of Red Lake Falls, died in the same bombing that cost him his legs.
"They get to say that stuff because my friends gave their lives," he said.
Kriesel and his wife, Katie, have received piles of encouraging letters from all over the country. Derrick Companies of New Richmond, Wis., and their subcontractors donated most of the materials and all of the labor needed to build their new, 2,400-square-foot home in a part of Cottage Grove known as Highland Hills. The Kriesels will move next month and will pay about 25 percent of the home's cost.
Kriesel is studying radio broadcasting at Brown College in Mendota Heights and in mid-August landed an internship for KFAN 1130 AM, in which he interviews a Minnesota Vikings player or coach each week.
To make up the time he spent away from his family, Kriesel spends most afternoons playing outdoors with his two sons, Elijah, 6, and Broden, 5.
"My goal is to live a normal life, but that may never be possible," he said as a line of people waited to shake his hand. "But I'm fine with that. Because I'm here and, after all, I'm alive."
Chris Serres 612-673-4308