One foot, two foot, new feat
They thought being home would be easier. Brian and Cheryl Saaristo had hoped when they returned to their rural home in Wright, after living for months on campus at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., that home would help make it b...
They thought being home would be easier. Brian and Cheryl Saaristo had hoped when they returned to their rural home in Wright, after living for months on campus at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., that home would help make it better.
Brian, a former sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division, who lost his feet when an improvised explosive device smashed through his Humvee in Kirkuk, Iraq, in July, was looking forward to living normally at home again.
"But I didn't think it would be this hard," he said. It's hard to move around the house. It's hard to feel exhausted after half a day of walking on his two prostheses. It's hard not to have a job to do.
And it's hard for Cheryl, who was fired from her job in Cloquet while she was at Brian's side during his recovery. Today, she is busier than ever, taking care not only of Leah and Brian Jr., but of Brian, too.
The family reached their goal of returning home, but their future is still uncertain.
They are reluctant to sink an estimated $100,000 into their old farm house to make it fully wheelchair-accessible. Doing nothing isn't an option -- getting a wheelchair into the tiny bathroom is a logistical nightmare. Buying a new home also is a tough choice. What to do with Cedric, the family goat? Cheryl loves the wide-open spaces, and the Saaristo family deer camp is just five miles down the road.
The uncertainty has been hard on their children, Cheryl said -- one day they think they are staying in their home and going to their school in Cromwell, and another they will be moving to Carlton, to Proctor, to Duluth.
One big help has been the community support. Hundreds of people turned out at a benefit in Cromwell that raised more than $23,000 on Oct. 7, the day the Saaristos arrived home. Another benefit took place on Saturday in Cloquet. Family and friends helped put up their new garage, and people frequently drop by with coffeecake or boxes of meat. They appreciate it all.
Sometimes strangers recognize Brian on the street. Sometimes they thank him, and call him a hero. He's not sure what to think of that.
"I don't really feel like a hero," he said. "I think everyone that goes over there is a hero."
The rest of Brian's unit from the 101st Airborne Division is home from Iraq, though they probably will be deployed again, Brian said.
"Unfortunately, I won't be going with them," he said. "If I was healthy, I'd want to go."
Saaristo is retired from the military, "Just 10 years too early," he said. He and Cheryl left Walter Reed against the advice of Brian's doctors -- it was too early, they said, wait here and take it easy.
No way, Brian answered. He talked the hospital officials into releasing him, and two days later the family had his feet and all their belongings packed for the drive home.
"It felt like we broke out of there," Cheryl said, and laughed. Brian didn't get to keep his feet full-time until they left Washington.
"He was always like that," said Brian's father, Bill Saaristo of Cloquet. "When he wants to do something, he wants to do it now."
That worked well in the military, but Brian has found waiting while his body heals frustrating. "It makes him a little mad," Bill Saaristo said.
Brian wears his feet only part of the day -- walking for too long leaves him drained and exhausted. Yet when he is walking, his step is quick and well-balanced. He still carries a cane but doesn't always use it.
On Halloween night, Brian rested while the kids got ready for trick-or-treating. His legs are stuck out in front of him as he rests, his prosthetic feet at permanent right angles. Leah and their new puppy, Buddy, climbed over them as they played. Brian has learned not to keep his feet on the floor overnight, or Buddy might start gnawing on them.
Brian hasn't yet found a hospital to continue his therapy. During a recent trip to a veteran's hospital in St. Cloud, the family learned the military had listed Brian as only 30 percent disabled, and officials referred him to a hospital in the Twin Cities -- meaning more phone calls and paperwork. Brian is hoping to finish his rehabilitation in Duluth.
His family worries that Brian is trying to do too much, too fast. Cheryl recently brought Brian to see a doctor because his body was showing signs of exhaustion.
"Cheryl says I'd better slow down before I fall down," Brian said. "But I can't just sit around and do nothing."
Brian went deer hunting with his father this year, like always, but also like never before.
"It's a lot different," Bill Saaristo said. Brian hunted atop his all-terrain vehicle, instead of tromping through the woods. Uneven ground is still difficult to maneuver. Brian used to spend nights at the deer shack, but this year he was there only a little while. Bill Saaristo gave him a walkie-talkie to keep in constant contact. Brian dressed in a warm jacket and pants, but just thin socks and sneakers on his prosthetic feet.
"But he's alive, and he's my son. That's the main thing," Bill Saaristo said.
The Saaristos were moving close to Brian's military base when he was injured. All their furniture had been shipped to Kentucky, and they returned to a nearly empty house.
Brian fits perfectly across the one remaining loveseat, though he misses their comfortable leather couch.
But that's OK. It's time for something new.
"We're living a new life now," Saaristo said. "I think it's time for some new furniture."