PART IV: For 2 soldiers, families, lives changed
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.
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.