A family riding on self–reliance
by Mike Heaser and John Grones | October 17, 2006
“I’m alive,” Brian Saaristo said in interview at his home
in Wright, Minnesota. That is the attitude he has taken since having both of
his legs amputated below the knees after an improvised explosive device (IED)
blew up the vehicle he was riding in while serving the United States of America
in Iraq back in July.
Brian and his family, (wife Cheryl, son Brian Jr., and
daughter Leah) returned home Sunday,
October 8 after enduring a couple of months of rehabilitation in Washington
D.C. Upon arriving home, the family received a warm welcome from friends,
family, and several organizations.
Brian’s outlook is very positive and the entire family
seems to look at the injury not as a limitation, but a challenge life has
handed them. “The first thing you have do is change your attitude,” said
Brian.“If you fall off your bike, you get back on. Just keep going.”
Brian struggles to maneuver through his house which is
now undersized and almost inaccessible with his wheelchair. He has been using
his prosthetic legs as much as his doctors allow, and sometimes more, but the
wheelchair is his main form of transportation through the house right now.
“Like I said, I don’t let it get me down.” It is apparent he doesn’t.
Brian is confident about a productive future which will
allow him to plan ahead to his next motorcycle ride. At the moment, balance is
an issue. “It will happen,” he said.
Brian owned a Harley Davidson at one time and insists he
will own a bike again. It seems as though its not a matter of if, but when for
him. Chances are, he won’t be parked in a handicap space. “I won’t park there;
I’ll just park in a regular spot and walk,” he explained as an expression of
biker rebellion panned over his face. “I’m an honest person. I’m gonna tell
The Saaristo kids aren’t much different from their
dad.Brian describes them both as self-reliant. “My children think for themselves. It’s a good thing,” he noted. “I like that. They’re not followers; they will be leaders.
The family has bonded through this experience, although
they do spend some time battling over control of the thermostat (Brian wants it
set at 60˚ and Cheryl 74˚).
Brian and Cheryl are sincerely grateful to the local
communities who have supported them and welcomed them home. From the McNultys
who watched their dog while they were in Washington D.C., to the Sworskis who
watched “Cecil” their goat. Then there was the pancake breakfast benefit the
community held for them and the garage their friends and family built for them.
“In a small town like this you don’t actually know how
people come together until something like this happens,” concluded Brian. “We
tried to make it home in time for the benefit dinner, but the traffic in
Chicago (Illinois) and Wisconsin was unbearable. I was mad. It took us three
hours to get through Chicago.”
Cheryl specifically wanted to acknowledge the Red Cross
for all their help, also to the Yellow Ribbon Fund which paid for their car
rental in D.C., and the Wounded Warrior Program that paid for the Saaristo kids
and their cousins’ plane tickets out east.
“We were all pretty devastated when we heard the news,”
said Cromwell resident Carolyn Krog. “We were wondering what we could do to
help the family. Something should be done. What can we do?”
Carolyn, along with Marcella Dahl, decided to have a
meeting to form a plan. They invited friends and relatives, the two mayors
(Cromwell and Wright), members of the Auxiliary, and people from the churches
and the school.
During a brainstorming session, the group decided on a
pancake breakfast. Things evolved from there, and in addition to a breakfast,
the day included a silent auction, music, bingo and a quilt raffle.
“The quilt was an afterthought,” said Carolyn. “When a
member of our group visited the quilt shop in Floodwood (Hingley Road Quilting)
to see if she would donate something for the silent auction, they offered a
beautiful quilt on the basis that all the donations go to Brian.”
It was then decided to raffle the quilt off at five
dollars a ticket.
Carolyn shared that they continued to meet weekly, and
the group split up and went to work. They recruited members of the fire
department and the Arts Guild.
The benefit was a tremendous success. The donations are
still coming in, and they have raised over $17,000. “It’s just amazing—the
outpouring from the local community,” added Carolyn.”We served over 600
Carolyn credited Brad Bennett from KDAL radio for
spreading the word about the benefit. “The radio was very beneficial for the
Duluth crowd. He talked about it on his radio show and collected some of the
prizes,” Carolyn concluded.
At this point, the Saaristos aren’t sure about their
future. Cheryl and the children really like the school district, but the old
farm house isn’t handicap accessible, and the cost to renovate might not be
cost-effective. The current plan is to find a larger home.
For now, the family is making do. They appreciate the
community’s efforts. As Brian and Cheryl look out the window, they see the
garage Brian’s father, Edwin, and
members of the community built. “It will come in handy for storing extra
furniture,” said Cheryl.
Brian also looks out the window beyond the garage and
concludes. “There is a whole life out there. You can’t spend it looking out a
This article first appeared in the October 17, 2006 issue
of the Voyageur Press.