Jenny Briest continues the fight

Jenny Briest continues the fight
When Jenny Briest watches the construction at 12th and West Street in Yankton, she sees more than the start of her family's new home.

She also sees the outpouring of love and support from across the nation. Donations have made possible construction of a handicapped-accessible home for her husband, Sgt. Corey Briest, who suffered traumatic brain injuries and blindness from December 2005 roadside bombs in Iraq.

Corey's rehabilitation in Washington, DC, Minneapolis and Pomona, CA, has kept the Briests away from Yankton for nearly two years. Their children, 5-year-old Kylie and 2-year-old Connor, joined them last year in California.


Jenny spent last week in Yankton, her first visit home since last August. She believes the family's return home for good – tentatively set for June 30 – will stimulate Corey's progress.

"It's been nice coming home. When you get back to South Dakota, there's the … things you miss (about life here)," she said. "Corey will do awesome when he gets back home, being back in this community."

Corey's disabilities made the remodeling of their current house in Yankton impossible. At that point, a local steering committee launched "Bringing Sgt. Corey Briest Home" to raise $250,000 in cash and in-kind donations for a new home.

As of Thursday afternoon, June 14, the figure had reached $180,000 in cash, with $25,000 used to pay for the lot. In-kind donations push the figure higher, and more contributions continue rolling in from across the state and nation.

"Thanks is all I can come up with. It will never be enough," she said during Thursday's visit to the construction site, breaking down into tears.

Two powerful symbols await Corey's return home – an American flag posted on the lawn by Jim Reinhardt and a large yellow ribbon posted by Pat Riibe at the groundbreaking for the house.

For the Briests, the return home marks the next step in a long and challenging journey. Jenny admits their lives will never be the same. But like most things, the new home marks part of the "new normal."

Jenny has been making decisions about the new house – including purchasing the lot and working with the floor plan – while living nearly 2,000 miles away. She has remained in touch and as informed as possible during the long-distance decision-making. Using a speaker phone, she joined the "Bringing Sgt. Corey Briest Home" committee meetings in Yankton.

Even during this week's visit, she has found it difficult to envision the finished product.

"It's hard for me. I can't go from paper to 3-D," she said. "It's been very frustrating, trying to do things in California and via phone conferences."

While the new house is under construction, the Briests will stay at their current house in Yankton, Jenny said.

"We need closure. Corey needs closure. Kylie needs closure," she said. "We have two offers of handicapped-accessible homes, but right now we need a couple nights at the house."

For Corey, the time in their current house will bring back pleasant memories, Jenny said. "He wants to feel the curved corners of his basement at home," she said.

Jenny has provided daily updates on Corey's progress and the family's activities through the "Caring Bridge" Web site at www.caringbridge.org.

"It makes you reflect on what Corey could do that day and how hard it was," she said of the journalizing. "You know, it does help when you sit there and are writing that Corey walked up the stairs today."

At the end of each day, the Caring Bridge journal provides a tremendous time for reflection, Jenny said.

"I have read it back many times," she said. "It's nice to see how far we have come and how much Corey has changed."

Jenny said she is amazed at the people who sign the Web site's guest book and are consistent visitors to Corey's page.

"I read the guest book to him every day," she said. "I tell him, 'Corey, look at all the people that don't know you and are supporting you.' "

Jenny finds herself overwhelmed at the generosity of both loved ones and total strangers.

"You get told someone donated (to the new house), but you are doing a million other things (at the time)," she said. "But then you write about it (on Caring Bridge), and what do you say? What do you do for all the people who have done so much?"

The latest donation came from a high-profile visitor – Gov. Mike Rounds, who also serves as the South Dakota National Guard's commander-in-chief. Rounds met Thursday, June 14, at the house construction site with Jenny, Charlie Battery members and those working with the project.

Rounds presented a symbolic check for $10,350 collected from state employees as part of a casual work day. The Human Services Center in Yankton held a separate casual work day and raised an additional $1,700.

"This is one of the larger single donations that we have been able to come up with," the governor said.

All of the donations and best wishes represent the respect and gratefulness that people feel toward the Briests, Rounds said.

"I don't know how many of us would ever be able to offer the real thanks and gratitude that we do have for the sacrifice that Corey and his family have made. But that doesn't mean you don't try," the governor said.

The new home will forever symbolize continued support for the Briests, Rounds said.

�Sometimes, whatever we do, it will never be enough to truly pay,� he said. �We want to give our best to Corey and let him know we look forward to having him home.�

The push to build the Briest home is similar to the same emotional welcome shown Charlie Battery when it arrived home last fall from a year in Iraq. The parade drew 32,000 spectators, with 4,000 attending the deactivation ceremony.

Charlie Battery will be honored in this year�s Riverboat Days parade. Corey Briest and Brian Knigge, another injured Charlie Battery soldier, will ride as grand marshals.

Corey Briest�s return home – and the loss of four Charlie Battery soldiers in Iraq – have made a tremendous impact across the nation, the governor said.

�We really do want to find a way to say thank you and recognize the sacrifice that these Guards provide,� he said.

The house provides a way of saying thanks, Rounds said.

�For Corey and Jenny and their family, it�s a story of an individual who is so challenged and has given so much. We are able to give back just a little bit,� the governor said. �It looks like a small amount compared to what Corey and his family have given, but the message and symbol is that we care and ? you are part of the community yet.�

Brigadier General Keith Corbett, who accompanied Rounds on the visit, said he felt pride at the effort on the Briest home. He said he has come to expect that kind of support for Charlie Battery.

�I�m not too surprised that they turned to this kind of fund raiser (for the new home),� he said. �It�s appreciation for the men and women fighting and dying for our freedom.�

Charlie Battery members themselves have helped this week with construction work on the Briest home.

Battery commander Lt. Kerry Nilson said the mission isn�t complete until Briest returns safely to Yankton.

�Corey is the last one coming home,� he said. �Getting him back – that will be a high point for the unit.�

�It�s helping a brother in need,� added Sgt. 1st Class Matt LaCroix.

Sgt. 1st Class Shane Toupal agreed. �This is Corey�s home. This is where he belongs,� he said.

Jenny Briest said she will spend the next three weeks packing their belongings and preparing Corey for the flight home.

�It�s a big move for Corey, and we want to make sure we�re not making it too fast,� she said.

Jenny said the couple built strong relationships with other injured soldiers and their families, particularly during the lengthy stay in California. She credited the others with providing support to get the Briests through the arduous journey.

In the process, Jenny said she won�t forget those injured soldiers and their families left behind in California.

�We would have been home a long time ago (without proper treatment) if I was not an advocate for Corey,� she said. �I want to continue to fight and be an advocate for other soldiers.�

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