Injured Northland veteran raises money to help returning soldiersBrian Saaristo wanted to help other soldiers transitioning to home life from war zones and found the “Tee It Up for the Troops” group.
By: Mike Creger, Duluth News Tribune
Brian Saaristo really likes to play golf. But it’s as much a personal joy as a public one. Golf has healed him and brought him to others who could use the same balm.
That the Barnum resident can play golf at all is amazing enough. Saaristo lost his legs below the knee while serving in the Iraq war with the 101st Airborne Division. His Humvee was hit with an explosive device in July 2006 and he faced months of rehabilitation. By the fall, he was back home but wondering what he was going to do with his time.
“I’m an active person,” he said, and the thought of being limited by the new reality of his legs worried him.
“Brian is such a strong person,” his wife, Cheryl, said.
“You don’t know how strong you are until strong is the only thing you have,” he said.
Saaristo wanted to help other soldiers transitioning to home life from war zones and found the “Tee It Up for the Troops” group. It gives soldiers something to do and raises money for transition and rehabilitation services.
Saaristo was a guest speaker Thursday night at a dinner with employees from Cliffs Natural Resources. The mining company was honoring its employees who have served in active military duty in the past two years.
Eleven employees were given certificates of thanks and U.S. flags that were flown over the Capitol in Washington.
Cliffs is working harder to recognize the sacrifice soldiers make and wants to make it easier for employees and families.
“Just recognize who they are,” Saaristo said when asked what Cliffs could do to support veterans.
He said companies like Cliffs are “blazing a trail” in treating military employees with respect for their time demands and help needed at home with a soldier overseas.
“You don’t see that a lot out there,” he said of employers.
Saaristo, 49, also has gone back to school, taking classes in business.
But his focus has been on helping others returning home.
“You go from a war zone, constant activity, then come home and get shut down,” he said. “A switch is pulled.”
He said the military has gotten better in recent years supporting returning veterans, but it doesn’t hold your hand.
“The military doesn’t pave the road for you,” he said.
This fall, Saaristo is taking a break from the golf and associated activities that have brought him across the country and world.
He wants to spend more time with his family. He said he’s always been uncomfortable with being called a hero.
“Family is most important,” he said at the dinner. “The wives are the heroes.”
He dreams of moving to a warmer climate, a golf community. It remains a dream.
His children, Brian Jr. and Leah, are getting older and he’s trying to keep up with them.
He’ll relish it, to keep him busy. It’s all he’s ever known, legs or no legs.
He’s set to get a new set of prosthetics Tuesday; he keeps wearing them out.
“It hasn’t slowed me down at all,” he said. “I never want to sit too long.”