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Veteran grabs second chance to help others

Barnum resident and Cloquet High School alumnus Brian Saaristo decided that getting both legs blown off from the knees down in an IED explosion in Iraq was a second chance at life. The determined former soldier has definitely made an impact in the years since. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com1 / 5
Brian and Cheryl Saaristo pose with a Wheaties box that Brian was featured on. Contributed Photo2 / 5
Then Army Sgt. Brian Saaristo walked on his prosthetic feet every day after the blast that took his lower legs in 2006 and built up his strength and pain tolerance much faster that his doctors could have expected. Duluth News Tribune file art3 / 5
Saaristo is an avid golfer who has competed in numerous tournaments, including two Warrior Open Golf tournaments hosted by President George W. Bush. Contributed Photo4 / 5
Brian Saaristo receives the American Red Cross Military Hero medal in 2013. Photo contributed by the American Red Cross5 / 5

Brian Saaristo considers July 2, 2006 his "alive date" because that's the day the 53-year-old Cloquet native received a second chance at life.

On that date in the city of Kirkuk, Iraq, Sergeant Saaristo and four others were riding in a Humvee down a city street with their convoy. The Iraqi skies were black from burning oil wells. The stench filled the air, mixed with the odor of garbage everywhere.

They were headed back to base when all of a sudden there was a huge explosion and the Humvee was blasted into the air. The convoy had driven over an improvised explosive device (IED).

Saaristo, a 1981 graduate of Cloquet High School, decided to pre-enlist in the United States Army while he was in 11th grade and left shortly after graduation.

The Army life sounded exciting to the small-town teenager. He traveled all over and lived in Europe during his first 10 years in the military. On weekends he would visit countries such as France, Sweden, Austria and Denmark. Later he would visit England and live in Germany.

Saaristo was an artilleryman until he retired from the Army in 1987. Like many others, he decided to re-enlist in the Reserves after the Sept.11 terrorist attacks. Saaristo chose to do active duty when he rejoined in 2003.

In 2005 he was deployed to Iraq.

On that fateful day in 2006, the convoy was taking the same route as they did most days. According to Saaristo, IEDs are buried in the ground. They have a remote control device that someone triggers when a vehicle drives over.

"All they have to do is turn it on and as soon as you go over, it ignites it. Then the next vehicle that goes over it explodes," he explained. "The vehicle explodes and goes into the air about 20 feet, then comes down and is all mangled up."

And that's exactly what happened to Saaristo's Humvee that day.

He remembers it vividly.

The 6-foot Saaristo was sitting wedged into a back corner of the Humvee when the IED exploded underneath his side of the vehicle and blew off both of his legs from the knees down.

When the Humvee exploded so did the fire extinguisher, which was a good thing. The extinguisher sucked the oxygen out of the vehicle and prevented the inside from exploding into flames.

"It's pretty cool how shock works, shock lets you think, but it doesn't make you think about what's happened to your body parts." said Saaristo, as he remembered the moments after the IED exploded. "The only thing that really hurt is when they pulled me out and my butt hit the concrete."

Saaristo applied tourniquets to himself, then tried to help his fellow soldiers in the vehicle. The driver ended up losing one leg in the explosion, but all the others were fine.

Both men were sent stateside to begin the healing process at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland.

The driver was in Walter Reed for three years and now works for the Pentagon.

"He was a baby," Saaristo said with a laugh. Saaristo was out in three months and drove himself home.

His family came to visit and stayed in the Fisher House for wounded veterans. His wife, Cheryl, didn't recognize him when she first saw him at the medical center, he said.

"She didn't know it was me because they were giving me the wrong medication and I was blown up (bloated and swollen)," he explained.

Saaristo worked hard to speed through the healing process. He was fitted for prosthetic legs and learned how to walk on them as soon as he could.

"You lose balance if you don't get on them right away. You have to have a lot of drive," said Saaristo. "It was painful at first. You put them on like you're stealing them (and need to run away) and it's not so bad because the pain goes away."

Saaristo appeared in the December 2006 issue of National Geographic as part of a story on wounded soldiers and their stay at Walter Reed.

The magazine wanted to explore if Walter Reed was working as far as the healing process for veterans and if it was truly family-oriented. Saaristo's photo in the story showed him working out at the hospital as his wife and two youngest watched.

According to Saaristo, the real healing process happened when he got back to his home in Barnum and integrated back into the routine of daily life.

It's a busy life. Of his five children, 16-year-old Brian Jr. remains at home with Brian and Cheryl while the others — William, 35; Michella, 31; Daniel, 27 (from his first marriage) and Leah, 20 — are off pursuing their own lives.

As is Saaristo, who got back on his motorcycle as soon as possible and still enjoys golf and downhill skiing. He is now the general manager at McDonald Rental in Cloquet. He sold his motorcycle but is thinking about getting another this summer.

He admits that he is "a bit" competitive. He has been to England three times for competitive golf as well as Florida and two Warrior Open Golf Tournaments hosted by President George W. Bush.

The prosthetics wear out and Saaristo has them replaced about every three years due to his active life style. He is able to get new ones in Duluth.

Saaristo has volunteered in several ways since coming back home, including motivational speaking for suicide prevention as well as speaking to diabetes groups and in schools.

"Wounded veterans think, 'who wants me?' so they go into a hole," explained Saaristo. "They get buried so deep they can't get out of it."

His love of golf prompted him to work with Tee It Up for the Troops, an organization that helps wounded warriors get back on their feet and into sports. He was on the board of directors for four years and is currently serving on the advisory board.

The president of the board of directors nominated him for the American Red Cross Military Hero medal in 2013.

The American Red Cross Heroes Awards raise awareness about ordinary people whose extraordinary actions exemplify the Red Cross mission to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies.

Saaristo also got his photo on the front of the Wheaties cereal box.

When asked how he is doing now, a huge grin appeared on his face.

"I'm doing great!" Saaristo said.

Saaristo is still passionate about helping fellow veterans.

His advice to others is to not leave a fellow veteran behind. Check up on them by calling them on the phone or look them up on facebook to see if they are OK, he said.

If a veteran wants to talk to somebody and does not know whom to turn to, Saaristo is open. He encourages veterans to use him as a point of contact.

"Call Brian, I'm always available," Saaristo said. "They can come talk to me."

He also has a list of resources that he is willing to share if a veteran is interested. He advises veterans to search out resources or ask someone for help.

The road to recovery experience has taught him patience.

"Don't let life pass you by," said Saaristo. "You need a reason to live and I want to help people, that's my goal."

Saaristo was awarded the Purple Heart and later the Bronze Star Medal for his act of valor under fire.