'A second chance at life'
RED LAKE FALLS, Minn. -- John Kriesel was steadied by a cane as he walked on his artificial legs to the podium for his Veterans Day address. People in the packed high school gymnasium knew his story too well. Kriesel's legs were lost to a roadsid...
RED LAKE FALLS, Minn. -- John Kriesel was steadied by a cane as he walked on his artificial legs to the podium for his Veterans Day address.
People in the packed high school gymnasium knew his story too well. Kriesel's legs were lost to a roadside bomb in Iraq on Dec. 2, 2006. The bigger story was that two of his National Guard comrades also were lost, one of Red Lake Falls' own, Corey Rystad.
"My message today is not to look out for roadside bombs," he said. "It's not about what bad happens in your life, but what you do to overcome it."
When Kriesel woke up at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., eight days after the explosion, he learned about his legs. Moments later, he learned about Rystad and Bryan McDonough.
"At that moment, I knew it would be selfish of me to feel sorry for myself about losing my legs," Kriesel said. "I realized I had a second chance at life. From that point, I knew I wasn't going to waste it and was going to live every day to the fullest.
"For sure, it's a tragedy to lose your legs. But without that happening, I may not have enjoyed my friends and enjoyed my life as much as I do now."
Kriesel's 30-minute talk, with no notes, was breezy, often light-hearted, and sprinkled with self-deprecating humor. Even though it was Veterans Day, he stuck with his usual message of living with gusto and appreciating what you have.
Kriesel wrote the book "Still Standing" about his ordeal and recovery, which included 35 surgeries. A resident of Cottage Grove, he was elected to the Minnesota Legislature last week. He was brought to Red Lake Falls by Kurt Philion, a boyhood friend of Rystad's.
Philion is known regionally for running marathons while carrying the American flag in honor of Rystad. He presented the flag to Kriesel after the address as both sobbed and audience members including Rystad family members dabbed at their eyes.
"We still get cards in the mail and people coming up to us, hugging and supporting us," said Jim Rystad, Corey's father. "It keeps us going."
The memory of Rystad and McDonough keeps him going, Kriesel told high school students in an informal Q&A session after his speech. It had its light moments, such as when he said that "the benefit of not having legs is that I can sleep in a loveseat."
But he mostly repeated his earlier message: "Enjoy the day ... Live the moment because you only live once ... Make it great ... Tell people you love them and respect them."
Reach Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 125; or send e-mail to email@example.com .