Jenny Briest has countless times told the story of her husband, Corey, who was nearly killed in 2005 by a roadside bomb while serving in Iraq.
She still must fight through emotions when her thoughts are focused solely on him, however.
That was the case Thursday morning as Jenny gave the keynote address at Vermillion’s Veterans Day ceremony, held in the Vermillion High School gymnasium.
Jenny, who was recently selected as a Dole Caregiver Fellow through the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, talked about the bravery, discipline and devotion that make all veterans exceptional.
“On this Veterans Day, when I think of a veteran, I think of an ordinary person accomplishing extraordinary things,” she said. “The men and women who serve and have served our country are each unique. They all have different backgrounds … some have experienced war, which means separation from their families, the stress of being in a hostile environment and for some, life-altering wounds. But the one thing they all have in common is a love for their country.”
She spoke of John Melia who was severely wounded in a helicopter crash while serving in Somalia in 1992. After recovering from his wounds and realizing the needs of returning veterans, he and his family in 2002 began assembling backpacks filled with toiletries, clothing, CDs and other comfort items for injured troops.
Those efforts evolved to become the Wounded Warrior Project, America’s foremost advocate for those who have come home with physical, psychological and spiritual wounds from today’s wars, Jenny said.
John, she said, is not alone.
“If you look around, you will find more ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things,” Jenny said. “The veterans of the U.S. military have the discipline, motivational skills, calmness under pressure and other leadership traits that one needs to succeed and make them extraordinary.
“For me, it’s my husband who I find extraordinary,” she said, fighting back tears. “Before being deployed to Iraq in 2005, he was an ordinary family guy, pursuing his dream to become a paramedic.”
After he was injured by the explosion in Iraq, his doctors didn’t think he would survive long enough to return to the United States.
“He did,” Jenny said. “They told me he would probably never walk or talk. He does. He is determined not to let anything stop him and he is living his life to the fullest today and for that, I think he is extraordinary.”
Corey, a 1999 graduate of Vermillion High School, joined the South Dakota National Guard during his junior year. He served with the Yankton-based Charlie (now Bravo) Battery and loved being part of that group of National Guardsmen, she said.
“After high school, Corey went on to be a civilian EMT and was going to school to be a paramedic,” Jenny said. “Helping people was just his calling.”
Corey was activated after 9/11 to run security at the Sioux Falls airport. His unit was then activated to Fort Sill, Oklahoma for deployment in the Iraqi war in March of 2003. The initial phase of the war went so fast, she said, that the unit was deactivated and sent back to the United States in May 2003.
Charlie Battery was activated again in June 2005 for Operation Iraqi Freedom. After training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, the group of soldiers was deployed to Baghdad in October 2005.
“Their military police mission was to train Iraqi police,” Jenny said. “They returned home to Yankton to one of the largest welcome ceremonies and parade in the history of South Dakota. More than 35,000 people lined the streets of Yankton, but my soldier, along with four others, were not in attendance.”
She described how Corey was severely injured while on patrol in Iraq by an IED explosion on Dec. 4, 2005. He was riding in the third vehicle of a convoy, when the second vehicle was hit.
“Corey’s Humvee stopped and assessed the situation. Corey, being the squad’s medic, was called to help,” Jenny said. “After his vehicle moved forward, they were hit. Two of Corey’s fellow soldiers were killed instantly and another soldier was severely injured and died of his injuries two months later.”
She described how her husband was severely burned, how he suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him legally blind and had to be placed on a large ventilator because of lung injuries that made it difficult for him to travel.
He eventually was flown to Germany, where his doctors were requesting that Jenny be at his bedside because of his poor prognosis. Eventually, Corey was flown to National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, because they wanted him to be with family before he died.
Jenny and other family members, after spending time with Corey, began planning his funeral, she said, because doctors expressed virtually no hope of him surviving. Then, they saw a doctor coming down the hallway with “such happy eyes.
“He told us that Corey had brain function and we were so excited, we couldn’t wait to go from there,” Jenny said. “From that moment on, we referred to the doctor as ‘Dr. Happy Eyes.’”
She described his hard work at rehabilitation and additional medical care that eventually made it possible for the Briests to return home to Yankton. The non-profit “Operation Opening Doors” built a new home for the family, with the help of local businesses, volunteers and local fundraising.
Corey’s hard work and rehabilitation continues as Jenny fills the role of her husband’s caregiver. Together, she said, the Briest family, including daughter, Kylie, 19, and son, Connor, 16, are living life to the fullest.
“One thing that stands out most to me is when people come up to my husband and thank him for his service,” Jenny said. “He always says he’s just doing his job. I find that very humbling.
“When you talk with many veterans, they all say the same thing – that they were just doing their job,” she said. “That job was to protect the freedoms that we all have. That takes an extraordinary person.”
For the Briest family, Jenny said, every day is Veterans Day.
“We should constantly honor those courageous men and women who gave us the freedoms that we enjoy today,” she said. “Do your part to be extraordinary and thank a veteran and their families for what they have done for you and for what they continue to do for you.”
Thursday’s ceremony began with a procession of veterans to the song “March of the Armed Forces,” performed by the Vermillion High School band and the presentation of colors by the University of South Dakota ROTC.
Following the VHS band’s playing of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Legion Post 1 recognized POW and MIA soldiers and veterans and their families.
Local students also contributed to Thursday’s program. Besides music provided by the VHS Band, the Vermillion High School Concert Choir performed “I Hear America Singing,” followed by a video presentation by students of Vermillion Middle School and a video musical presentation by the chorus of St. Agnes Elementary School.
Following the St. Agnes video, the program heard from Jolley Elementary fifth graders who were named “What Veteran’s Day Means To Me” essay winners.
Special music during the program was provided by Mitchell Olson and Paul Ebsen, who performed “What a Wonderful World,” followed by Austin Elementary students’ salute to veterans.
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” was performed by Olson, Ebsen and Anthony Burbach, followed by recognition of the American Legion 11th Grade Veteran Biography Award winners by American Legion Wallace Post 1.