Roadside bomb blasts change everything for two soldiers and their families back home. Fourth of a seven-part series on the longest deployment of the Iraq war.
In that dreadful December, every day brought bloodshed, every week hundreds of attacks on Americans and Iraqis.
Car bombings. Drive-by shootings. Kidnappings. Torture. Bullet-riddled bodies. Sectarian fighting. It was a horrible end to a horrible year in the Iraq war.
And for two young soldiers, December 2006 was the month that changed everything, forever.
The sky was clear on Dec. 2 when Sgt. John Kriesel's armored Humvee rolled out to check a report of suspicious activity: people digging on a dirt road near Fallujah.
His Humvee was turning a corner when the left front tire ran over something. Riding shotgun in the vehicle, Kriesel heard a metallic plink -- like a rock striking a 55-gallon drum.
The Humvee flew into the air, its doors blowing open, the gunner shooting out of the turret like a Roman candle before the vehicle crashed down on its side.
Kriesel's helmet and glasses flew off as he was thrown to the ground. Rocks rained down in a concrete storm, and Kriesel heard the screeching of twisted metal, then moans, groans, screams.
Strangely, he was calm. He saw the underside of the Humvee; the axle was blown off.
Then he looked down.
His left leg was nearly severed, still tucked in his pants leg, hanging by a piece of skin. His left thigh was split open like a baked potato, with a bone jutting out and blood oozing.
His right leg, from about six inches below the knee, was badly mangled, as if it had gotten stuck in a wood chipper.
"I'm going to die," he told himself. "This is how it ends."
Sgt. Kriesel, the eternal optimist, had lost faith.
He tried to get up, but it was useless. The bones of his lower left arm were broken; the arm flapped like a door off its hinge. Kriesel, who had trained to be a paramedic, was clear-minded enough to brace his arm to his chest, hoping to avoid nerve damage.
His right biceps had burst; they were peppered with shrapnel. A bracelet in honor of a fallen soldier sliced his right wrist down to the bone.
Kriesel closed his eyes. He couldn't bear to see more.
"Help me! I need help," Kriesel cried.
"Stay still," said Sgt. Adam Gallant, who had jumped out of the Bradley ahead of him and had run back. Gallant did a quick assessment. One soldier was dead, another trapped and likely gone. Two others were walking. Kriesel was top priority.
"Kries," he said, "I'm not going to lie to you, man. Your legs are real bad."
But he tried to comfort him, too.
"You're going to be OK," he said. "We're going to take care of you."
Gallant and another soldier wrapped tourniquets on Kriesel's legs. They propped him up on stacked boxes of MREs so blood would flow to his organs. No one knew it then, but beneath his armor the force of the 200-pound bomb had ripped open his abdomen, and his intestines were exposed.
Kriesel closed his eyes. It was almost like the movies: His life really was flashing before his eyes. He thought of Little League back in Minnesota, his elementary school days ...
Then he felt someone shaking his shoulder.
"Keep your eyes open," he heard. He didn't want to.
He thought of his wife, Katie.
His gunner sat by his side to keep him awake. But the blast had left him with a concussion, and he kept asking Kriesel the same questions:
What's your wife's name?
Your kids' names?
What state do you live in?
Kriesel answered over and over, until he lost patience.
"Leave me alone!" he snapped. "Let me die."
The soldiers needed to move Kriesel so they could tip the Humvee wreckage and remove another soldier trapped beneath it.
"I ain't going to lie to you, buddy," Gallant said. "This is really going to suck."
"What could suck worse?" Kriesel said. "Just go! Let's do it."
As they picked him up, Kriesel's nearly detached leg flopped onto his chest. He howled in pain. No one knew then that his pelvis was shattered.
He was getting cold. Again, he felt sure he was going to die.
"Tell Katie I love her," he implored.
"Shut up, you're going to tell her yourself," Gallant said.
When a young medic arrived, he administered morphine, and Kriesel was loaded onto a chopper. The drug was kicking in. But he managed to give his Social Security number.
Then he closed his eyes again.
At the hospital at the Al Taqaddum Air Base, six surgeons worked on Kriesel as a chaplain stood by in a corner. Once Kriesel was stabilized for transfer to another hospital in Iraq and then to Germany, the doctors placed him in a "hot pocket" -- a heated nylon bag from which only a breathing tube was visible.
Some of those who saw him wheeled by felt sure he was dead.
A doctor tried to reassure them. His heart is still beating, he said. He's still alive.
It was almost midnight in Minnesota, and Katie Kriesel was asleep when the phone rang.
"Katie, I need you to sit up," her mother-in-law said.
John must be dead, she thought.
He wasn't, but the news was grim: John had lost both his legs, one above the knee, the other below.
Katie Kriesel started crying. She called her mother, who lived about a mile away, but she was so choked up, her mother thought something had happened to the boys. She was getting dressed, she said; she'd be right over.