John Kriesel will joke that his darkest hour had come on Jan. 17, 1999, when the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings lost to the visiting Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game.
That is, until Dec. 2, 2006, when a roadside bomb ripped through the staff sergeant’s Humvee outside of Fallujah, Iraq. The blast killed two of his best friends. It took both of his legs. It left him for dead.
Kriesel’s story is one of survival and life lessons learned along the way, and he has openly talked about his experiences in the military, in public office as a former state legislator on local sports radio — due to his bittersweet love of the Minnesota sports scene — and his book, “Still Standing,” which a winner of seven national book awards.
He also books frequent speaking engagements, as was the case Wednesday, Oct. 9, before a group of students and members of the community at the Cambridge Campus of Anoka-Ramsey Community College. The event was sponsored by the college’s Student Life Department.
At first glance, only a cane in his right hand shows evidence of the 32-year-old’s injuries. Without knowledge of the blast that shredded his body, one would not know of the prosthetic limbs that fit snug below his knee, under his clothes, and enable him to walk.
He uses his sense of humor to not only entertain but bring comfort to an audience that may feel tense about his brush with death and experiences he has since endured. Starting with those who refused to let him die, Kriesel made his way through four hospitals, 35 surgeries and months of recovery and rehabilitation. To this day, he speaks highly of his time spent at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
He recalled his interest in service upon watching the Persian Gulf War on television. Highly televised, the war began when the United States unleashed Operation Desert Storm after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion and occupation of neighboring Kuwait in early August 1990.
“I remember thinking, if I can get paid to do that (military service), then count me in,” said Kriesel, who lives in Cottage Grove, Minn., with his wife, Katie, and their two boys. And when he eventually did enlist, “It was the best decision I ever made.”
Staff Sgt. Kriesel served in the Minnesota Army National Guard from 1998 to 2008. Stationed in Kosovo in 2004 as part of a NATO peacekeeping force, he talked about how things changed for the National Guard after 9/11.
“When you’re in the military, you don’t hope for war; you just want to be involved. It’s our Superbowl,” he said.
Then in December 2004, he got a call from one of his Kosovo buddies.
“There’s a deployment to Iraq coming up,” he remembered hearing, “and I got ready. So I talked to my wife, and she said, ‘If you don’t go on this deployment, will you regret it later?’
“‘Yes, I will,’” Kriesel said in reply. “‘Then that’s your decision right there,’ she said,” Kriesel recalled.
So Kriesel and some of his closest friends, or “brothers” as he calls them, joined the Global War on Terror and found themselves stationed at Camp Fallujah in Iraq.
“I volunteered to go because I believed in it,” he said.
In time, Kriesel and crew experienced an increase in hostility from insurgents who started firing mortars on their base. In response, “we took the fight to the enemy, and the danger increased,” he noted.
One danger was the threat of roadside bombs or improvised explosive devices that could be easily buried in the dirt roads the military used for travel. “We would wonder, ‘Is today our day?’” Kriesel recalled. “But it kept us sharp.”
It was then that he started talking about the 200-pound bomb that changed everything.
“I look at it as almost 10 years of really good times and one really bad day,” he described. “The area we were in was perfect for an ambush.”
Following the blast that early December day, Kriesel came to learn what had happened.
“Our Humvee was completed destroyed. My left knee was barely hanging …, and my right leg looked like it had gone through a wood chipper,” he explained. “I thought my life was going to end. We had no medics on this patrol.”
With a medical helicopter en route, one of Kriesel’s buddies told him, “I’m not going to lie to you, dude, but your legs are really bad,” he recalled.
A second crew member took another approach: “Hey buddy, you look great; you look awesome,” he added. “It was the fakest smile I had ever seen until I got into politics. But he did what he was supposed to do — step one is always to reassure the casualty.”
Kriesel continued, “I knew I wasn’t the only one (injured or killed by the blast). I kept closing my eyes because I didn’t want to see. When I closed my eyes, it was like I was dreaming. They were slapping me in the face.”
Then someone said, “We have to move you, and it’s going to suck really bad,” remembered Kriesel who also suffered a broken pelvis and arm, along with much blood loss. “So they flipped my legs on top of my chest. The only time I felt pain was when they lifted me up.”
Before the helicopter arrived, Kriesel also felt cold on that 82-degree day. And he prepared himself.
“I said my prayers and prepared for it,” he said of what he thought was the end. “I wanted to go out tough. I wanted my wife, Katie, and guys at home to know that I didn’t suffer.”
The helicopter finally arrived, and Kriesel woke up eight days later to a woman’s voice at Walter Reed. “It was my wife,” he said, noting he later learned he was shocked back to life three times. “Their goal was to keep me alive long enough for my wife to say goodbye.
“She asked me name, and I didn’t know at first,” he added, regarding the brain injury he suffered. “I saw that my legs were amputated and arms were in casts. Everything came rushing back to me. She told me two of my best friends died. That was rock bottom for me. I remember how many laughs we had, and in the blink of an eye it was all gone.
“There is no manual for this. It seems like it just happened. Despite my injuries, it didn’t matter — as long as I could kiss my wife and boys at night. I realized I took that for granted. We forget how precious life is,” he said.
Kriesel, who remains active to this day in assisting fellow military veterans, was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Purple Heart Medal and the Bronze Star Medal for his service to his country.