11 April 2011

Review: 'Still Standing'

'Still Standing: The Story of SSG John Kriesel' by John Kriesel with Jim Kosmo

Minnesota Army National Guard soldier John Kriesel deployed to Iraq in 2006 as part of the 1st Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (1-34th BCT). In December of that year, an Improvised Explosive Device (I.E.D) large enough to take out a Bradley armored personnel carrier instead detonated under Kriesel's decidedly less-hardy Humvee. He lost both legs, and two buddies.

This is more than a war story, or a medical memoir. This is a story of a family.

There is heroism here, and humor, with equal helpings of grace and grit. Buddies stop by before an unconscious Kriesel is evacuated from Iraq, and mark their visits by handing off their combat patches to attending nurses. Kriesel's wife works at a global logistics firm, and its employees repeatedly deliver the Kriesels help: expedited passport, Christmas gifts, donated vacation time. In the hospital, an upbeat Kriesel announces he'd like to meet President George W. Bush: "Here's the deal," he tells visitors. "I'm not mad at the president; I love the guy slightly less than I love my wife. I just want to meet him and say thanks for supporting us." [p. 156]

Together with former newspaper journalist Jim Kosmo, Kriesel has written well-paced and engaging account of his experiences in the National Guard. He puts a random IED blast in context of a whole career, and of a continuing commitment to country and community. Readers walk away not only with insights into the high-tech, high-touch medical system that supports U.S. wounded warriors, but also a sense of what any citizen-soldier may face on any deployment, and after any homecoming. Consider:
"In this room full of some of the closest friends I'll ever have, I feel alone," Kriesel says of his arrival in Iraq. "The toughest part of this job isn't leaving the wire and heading into danger, it is realizing what you left at home." [p. 74]

"I'm a lucky guy in many, many ways [...]" he tells a crowd of Minnesota friends, family, and well-wishers after his recovery. "I will never look at any day the same again as long as I live. Each day I get to tuck my kids into bed and kiss them goodnight, and to kiss my wife goodnight. That is a gift!" [p. 232]
Written mostly in first-person (when Kriesel is unconscious, friends and family pick up the story), the book start by covering the usual bases expected of a coming-of-enlistment-age memoir: How I joined the Army; how I deployed for the first time (as a "peacekeeper" to a riotous Kosovo, along with the Iowa Army National Guard's 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment); and how I was almost done with Army until I decided to deploy again.

In Iraq, existence is dusty and life is cheap. Kriesel speaks candidly about how survival seems almost arbitrary: "Our lives may depend on spotting the simple signs set out to warn locals about bomb locations, something as subtle as a brick turned at a different angle, a pop bottle on the ground where there had been none yesterday, or a dead animal." [p. 111]

Midway through the book, when the bomb goes off under his truck, Kriesel reports that the sound of the blast isn't all that loud. Or maybe it's so loud it's quiet. Like the "ringing in your ears a couple of hours after leaving a super-loud concert."

As a writer, Kosmo successfully achieves a balance between providing just enough military-and-medical detail and serving the greater story. In an epilogue, he shares an anecdote of when he workshopped the first few chapters of the book with a group of Twin Cities writers.
[O]ne woman told me I needed to tone down the injuries. She explained that she was a physician working in the emergency room of a nearby hospital and that no one could have survived with the massive injuries I described. I explained that the book was not fiction. But, her comment reminded me of the need to use extreme caution in writing so that your true meaning is clearly understood. [p. 288]
Perhaps in pursuit of such true meanings, Kosmo revisits the voice of Kriesel's wife, Katie, by devoting a short chapter to her words toward the close of the book:
There was a lot of tension between [husband and wife], but it boiled down to was he just didn't know who he was anymore. That caught me off guard. [...] I wish someone had given me some warning that he was going to do that. I had spent so much time holding things together. I expected him to have his life together once we got home. But, instead he went crazy and there was great tension. Looking back I totally understand it, but living though it, I was like, What are you doing? [p. 266]
Today in Minnesota, both Kriesels stand together and on firmer ground. The former citizen-soldier is now a marketing and advertising contractor for the Minnesota National Guard, a motivational speaker, and a state legislator.

"If I can't fight," Kriesel says, "I can still serve."

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