Anoka County war hero John Kriesel finds two heroes of his own

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 4, 2012 - 9:43 AM
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"What are the odds? It’s almost too good to believe," said John Kriesel, center, whose Anoka County colleagues Susan Carolan and Dan Disrud helped in his recovery after Iraq bombing.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Sgt. John Kriesel was hired as Anoka County's director of Veterans Services to help veterans manage their lives. He didn't realize he'd be working with two people who helped save his.

As Kriesel celebrates July 4th, his favorite holiday, he will pay homage not only to two "Red Bull brothers" lost in the 2006 Iraq roadside bombing that claimed his legs, shattered his pelvis and required more than 20 surgeries. He will think admiringly of Anoka County colleagues Susan Carolan and Dan Disrud.

Only recently did Kriesel, 30, learn that he works in the same building as two people who spurred the treatment that saved his life, one of whom wondered long afterward whether the young sergeant had survived.

"What are the odds?" Kriesel asked Tuesday. "It's almost too good to believe."

Disrud, 47, is Anoka County's environmental health specialist. Like Kriesel, he was a member of the Red Bulls unit, the 34th Infantry Division of the Minnesota National Guard.

He had been deployed previously to Bosnia, but in 2006, when Kriesel was sent to Iraq, he was selected to work at home for division headquarters.

"I felt almost guilty that I wasn't there," Disrud said.

When he learned of the explosion that blew Kriesel's Humvee off a dirt road near Fallujah, Disrud, an 18-year Anoka County employee, knew he had to alert Carolan, the county's manager in disease prevention and control.

Carolan was thousands of miles away from her office. She was working 12-hour shifts at the Army's Deployed Warrior Medical Management Center in Landstuhl, Germany, where she had arrived only five weeks before.

'Watch out, Susan'

Disrud had made a habit of sending e-mails to Carolan, with messages relating to service members he knew. There was urgency to the one he sent after the explosion on Dec. 2, 2006.

He didn't know which members of his unit were dead or alive.

"Watch out, Susan," Disrud's e-mail to Carolan began. There was a unit of wounded Minnesota soldiers who would arrive for treatment in Germany before being sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, he wrote.

"These were Red Bull brothers," Disrud said Tuesday. "We had to take care of them."

Carolan was working with a hemoglobin unit when Kriesel arrived. She immediately alerted others and was part of the unit that cared for him.

In another coincidence, one of the surgeons stationed at Landstuhl was Dr. Bruce Bennett, from St. Paul. When Kriesel arrived unconscious, Bennett spotted his Minnesota Vikings tattoo and said, "That's a hometown boy. I'll take care of him."

"I didn't know his name at the time, but I never forgot that tattoo," Bennett said Tuesday from Regions Hospital. "It's quite a story."

In his office in the Anoka County Government Center, Kriesel has a photo of four soldiers posing with Santa Claus.

The two soldiers to Santa's left, Specialist Bryan McDonough, 22, of Maplewood, and Specialist Corey Rystad, 20, of Red Lake Falls, died in the bombing.

Kriesel, who had a fractured left arm and shattered right wrist in addition to his other injuries, said he had survived only because of the tourniquets that his surviving buddies had administered to stop the bleeding.

Unconscious the entire time he was at the U.S. base in Germany, he has relied for years on his own research and his wife, Katie, to resurrect details of his recovery.

'Did he make it?'

When Carolan returned to Anoka after her deployment ended in November 2007, she asked Disrud, "What happened to that soldier whose injuries were so devastating? Did he make it?"

She was pleasantly surprised to learn that the soldier from Cottage Grove not only had survived, but would ultimately be elected to the Legislature, where he spoke in favor of gay marriage and was one of the House's leading advocates for a Vikings stadium.

Kriesel, who announced in March that he would not seek a second term, so he could devote more time to his wife and two young sons, has also written a book, "Still Standing," that tells his story.

But part of that story was missing. He knew nothing about the roles Disrud and Carolan played in his survival until after he was hired by Anoka County nine weeks ago.

The trio had lunch together two weeks ago.

"What am I going to say?" Carolan wondered before she and Disrud met with Kriesel last month.

She said the only thing that made sense.

"Thank you," she told him. "Thank you for your service."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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