The commotion woke 4-year-old Broden, and Katie tried to calm him, stretching out in his bed, where he dozed off again but she simply watched the clock, hour by hour, waiting for morning and more news.
Over the next two days, Katie tried to maintain normal routines -- even taking the boys for a breakfast with Santa -- and struggled to keep her voice steady and her eyes dry.
As calmly as she could, she told her sons their dad was hurt and she had to go to Germany to help him.
What kind of hurt? they asked.
"Dad doesn't have his legs anymore," she said.
They looked puzzled.
Everything will be OK, she said. He'll get a wheelchair.
Later as Katie read her sons a bedtime story, 5-year-old Elijah had a question.
"Are Dad's legs going to grow back?" he asked.
"No, honey, they don't grow back."
"I just don't want to talk about it anymore," Elijah said.
That Sunday, Sgt. Travis Ostrom received a call at home.
Terrible news for the 1st Brigade Combat Team: Three casualties from an IED attack. John Kriesel was badly injured, and two other Minnesota National Guardsmen -- Specs. Corey Rystad and Bryan McDonough -- had been killed.
Rystad, just a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday, was an avid hunter and a natural athlete, a quiet guy who was always asking questions, always interested in learning how to be a better soldier. McDonough, 22, liked to crack jokes; everyone enjoyed being around him. But he had a serious side, too. In an online entry, he had written that he was proud to defend his country and there was "no other place I would rather be."
Ostrom had to start coordinating the military aspects of two funerals.
It was the most unwelcome part of a job he never wanted.
Ostrom, who had served in Bosnia, Somalia and the Persian Gulf, had expected to be a platoon sergeant in Iraq, but he never got there. A knee injury at the worst possible time, during pre-deployment training in Mississippi, had sidelined him.
While his comrades fought, he was assigned to a lonely armory in Minnesota serving those on the home front.
He felt guilty, but plunged into the crucial job helping families with bills, cutting red tape -- and, as now, making preparations for final goodbyes.
That December day, Ostrom quickly called other Bravo Company soldiers on home leave. That way, they'd hear the news from him first. Also, some would be among the dozens of soldiers he'd tap for the sad necessities at hand: to carry flags in honor guards, to drive dignitaries at the two funerals, and to serve as pallbearers.
He scheduled rehearsals at the armory, bringing in a borrowed casket. The soldiers practiced folding the flag, synchronizing the 21-gun salute.
The dutiful sergeant had the same message for all of them: You have just one chance to do it right.
"Did everybody make it out OK?"
It was John Kriesel's first question when he woke up more than a week later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He had no memory of the nine or 10 surgeries he'd undergone, first in Iraq, then at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
The look on his wife Katie's face gave him the answer even before she spoke. His two buddies had been killed.
Though Kriesel couldn't recall some things, he knew he had lost his legs.
In fact, he had come close to dying: His back was broken, his stomach, arms and face were pocked with shrapnel. His left arm was broken and part of his colon had to be removed. His pelvis and spine had to be fused with screws and pins.
He'd hardly had a day without surgery.
But already, Kriesel looked better than when Katie had arrived in Germany. She had fallen to her knees when she first saw his swollen face and blood seeping from his wounds. She decided immediately to sleep by his side every night, convinced if he knew, he'd fight harder to survive.
Kriesel wanted to see their sons, and in time he was well enough. Katie already had conferred with a child psychologist about how to prepare them and to describe what they'd see. Elijah and Broden had never visited a hospital or been around anyone disabled.
Put one hand under your knee and one hand above the other knee, Katie told the boys. Now pretend there isn't anything below that anymore. That, she said, is what Dad is like.
When the boys arrived in the lobby, they weren't interested in hearing explanations about bandages, machines or wounds. Dad. Dad. Dad. They just want to see Dad.
As Elijah entered his father's room, Kriesel covered his amputated legs with a blanket.
"You don't have to cover up your ovals, Dad," said the boy, describing the shape of his wounds. "I'm just glad you're alive."
That bitter December was winding down when Sgt. J.R. Salzman, just back from home leave, heard about Kriesel. His convoy commander happened to be Kriesel's cousin.
On Dec. 19, Salzman was in the scout truck leading three other Humvees and a 20-vehicle fuel tanker convoy through northwest Baghdad to Tallil Air Base. He was talking with his driver, when there was an enormous blast.
He lost consciousness, then woke to the sound of his gunner screaming obscenities; hot shrapnel had spattered over his legs.
Salzman smelled something sickening, like burning wires, mixing with the smell of burning flesh.
Bleeding and trapped in the still-idling Humvee, he thought of his wife, Josie, whom he'd married just nine months before. He muttered her name.
He tried to grab the right door lever to get out. But he couldn't.
He felt terrible burning and when he looked down, he realized why: His right hand and wrist were gone. About six inches above his wrist, he saw two bones sticking out from chewed-up flesh.
Salzman's Humvee had been hit by an armor-piercing bomb called an EFP -- an explosively formed penetrator -- that was hidden in a pile of rocks on the right side of the road.
Despite excruciating pain, he kept his cool, checking quickly to see if his left hand was there. It was. But it was swelling in his glove, and he couldn't move two fingers.
He continued the inventory of his body. He rotated his shoulders. He felt below his waist. Everything was there.
He shuffled his feet -- and at that moment, he had an incongruous thought that carried him far away, if only for a split second: He could still log roll, something he'd loved since he was 5, something that had made him a champion.
Then his mind snapped back: He needed a tourniquet. He carried two but there was no way he could put one on. He tried to call for help, pressing a radio button with his left thumb, but the blast had fried the electronic equipment.
"Get the medic up here," he ordered his driver and gunner, "... if I don't get a tourniquet on, I'm going to bleed out."
Salzman wondered if this was the end, then pushed that thought away.
"No. No. NO WAY am I dying here," he said to himself. "Not here. Not now. Not today. Not in this country, I'm not dying."
To be continued.