Corey Comes Home

Corey Comes Home
For nearly two years, Sgt. Corey Briest has spent his life proving people wrong.

Some people said he wouldn't survive his blindness and traumatic brain injuries from December 2005 roadside bombs in Iraq. Others said he would never return to Yankton to live with his family and friends.

Saturday, Briest proved them wrong once again.

After 19 months of rehabilitation � the last year of it at a California private facility � he landed aboard a National Guard C-12 plane shortly after 5 p.m. at Yankton's Chan Gurney Airport. The plane door opened, and Briest smiled and waved to about 100 cheering family members, friends and even a bagpipe player.

After a two-year absence, Corey Briest was finally home.

Jenny Briest called her husband a hero and said he refused to accept failure.

"Corey has always been defying the odds," Jenny said. "From day one, they said he wasn't going to make it. Then they said he was immobile and wasn't going to move again."

Briest became the final member to return from Iraq with the Yankton-based Charlie Battery of the South Dakota National Guard. The other members of the 1st Battalion, 147th Field Artillery unit returned exactly nine months ago, also on a Saturday, but the mission claimed four fallen soldiers and others who were injured.

Several of those Charlie Battery members greeted Briest upon his arrival, standing at attention. Briest was helped down the plane ramp and wheeled across the tarmac. Family and friends, many of them waiting in the summer heat during a one- to two-hour plane delay, yelled greetings and waved flags and yellow ribbons.

After receiving hugs and even greeting a new baby cousin, Briest was taken by van to the Summit Activities Center for the welcome-home ceremony. He was escorted by about 100 motorcyclists from four states, many bearing an American flag as they formed a long, continuous line. Well-wishers gathered at points along the route.

As he entered the Summit Center gymnasium, Briest received a thunderous standing ovation from an estimated 1,000 persons.

In a somber moment, Capt. Kerry Nilson � who commands Charlie Battery � honored the unit's four fallen soldiers: Sgt. First Class Richard Schild, Staff Sgt. Daniel Cuka, Sgt. Allen Kokesh Jr. and Staff Sgt. Greg Wagner.

In one of the most dramatic moments of the welcome-home ceremony,Briest rose from his front-row seat and walked with assistance toward the stage for his awards presentation. As has been part of their lives for the last 19 months, Jenny provided her husband with both physical and emotional support as they stood for the ceremony.

"Corey's goal was to walk up and accept his medals," Jenny said afterwards. "We will have to send the videotape to his physical therapist. Every day, Corey practiced standing up. He wanted to be able to walk up and receive his medals."

Briest was presented with four awards: the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Army commendation medal with a V-device for valor and a Combat Action Badge. Rather than receive his awards in a distant hospital, Briest chose to wait until he could receive the awards in front of family and friends back home.

The awards were presented by Capt. Tim Koehler with assistance from Capt. Phil Stiles and Command Sgt. Major George Arends, who had served with Briest in Iraq. As a sign of their deep friendship, Briest and Arends engaged in a playful handshake and "thumb war" during the presentation. With Jenny's help, Corey saluted his Guard brothers.

"Now and in the future, we can be sure Corey will show up at the Armory and give a lot of grief to the sergeant major," Stiles said with a laugh.

Col. Ted Johnson, the director of the SDNG joint staff, praised Briest's courage and heroism.

"You (Briest) have what we call the 'warrior ethos,' " Johnson said. "You always place the mission first; you never accept defeat; you never leave a fallen comrade; and you never quit."

Johnson also recognized Jenny Briest as a "true champion for your husband."

Stiles welcomed the Briests and expressed his pride in them. "Corey and Jenny have been an inspiration to all of us, and they will continue to be for all of us," Stiles said.

Briest will face more challenges, but "he will continue to make strides," Stiles said.

During Saturday's program, Lt. Gov. Dennis Daugaard noted Briest's arrival home just before Independence Day, when heroes of another kind put their lives on the line for freedom.

Daugaard then told the story of how his parents attended all of his concerts throughout school. The lieutenant governor admitted the meaning of his story likely puzzled the audience.

"The point is, my parents were born deaf. They came not to hear me, but so I could see them and know they cared about me," Daugaard said. "Today, we're not sure that Corey can hear what is going on all around him. But one thing I know, he knows how much we care."

Briest and his family face many struggles in the days ahead, Daugaard said.

"We can't know what (Briest) has gone through and what he will go through," the lieutenant governor said. "But Corey knows we care and we are grateful. And we welcome him home."

The South Dakota congressional delegation was represented at Saturday's ceremony.

U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin read the Congressional Record Statement, which she had given on the House floor, officially recognizing the Briests' homecoming.

" 'Corey Briest beat all the odds and survived. In doing so, he has become an effective agent for change � change in a system that was unprepared to deal with one of the signature injuries of this war: traumatic brain injury,' " Herseth Sandlin read.

" 'The strength and tenacity of the Briest family over the past 19 months have served to inform and assist other brain-injured servicemembers and their loved ones. Their experiences have guided policymakers and administrators. And the sheer will and indomitable spirit of Corey Briest has inspired us all.' "

As she handed a copy of the Congressional Record Statement to the Briests, Herseth Sandlin whispered to the couple, drawing smiles and quiet laughter from them.

So what did the congresswoman say to them?

In an interview afterward, Herseth Sandlin preferred not to repeat the exact words. However, she shared her relationship with the family built while working together on Corey's medical care.

"I feel a special connection to the family. I share a personal feeling. Corey is my hero, and Jenny is my hero, too," she said. "As a newlywed, I understand there is a certain relationship � his affection for her, and her devotion to him."

The Briests' struggles over the past 19 months will help others in need, Herseth Sandlin said.

"I can't say enough about Corey and Jenny and what their experiences have meant to a whole host of other families," she said. "I had so many emotions to see Corey walk to the front of the stage and get his medals."

U.S. Sen. John Thune said Briest has attained distinction in his service to the nation.

"True greatness is not conferred by rank, title or position. It is how you respond to great adversity. It is given to those willing to brave danger and death for a cause greater than themselves," Thune said.

"(Briest has) looked death in the eye and met adversity and trials over and over again. That's why so many are here tonight (for a welcome) worthy of a hero and his family."

Thune said he had faith in Briest's ability to continue his recovery. "There are tough times ahead, but Corey will continue to beat the odds," the senator said.

Yankton native Matt Varilek represented U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, who continues his recovery from a brain hemorrhage.

Varilek referred to the effort to build a handicapped-accessible home for the Briests. The effort has raised $200,000 cash toward the $250,000 goal, and the figure raised so far doesn't include the in-kind contributions.

"I have such pride to be from a community which provides for a hero such as Sgt. Briest," Varilek said.

Yankton Mayor Curt Bernard also offered remarks.

"It's not only a good afternoon, it's a great afternoon. Charlie Battery, we were proud of you then, and we are proud of you now," he said. "This is recognition of the last remaining hero. He is forming a new life with his family."

The new Briest home will hopefully be completed in about a month, Bernard said. The community wants to continue helping the Briests and other Charlie Battery soldiers, he said.

"We say thank you and want to reach out in any way we can help," he said.

Col. Johnson noted in his remarks that Charlie Battery will send more soldiers to Iraq this fall. The public will be called upon to provide continue support, he said.

Saturday's audience included families of the four fallen Charlie Battery soldiers. Kay Schild, the widow of Rich Schild, said the welcome home brought good feelings.

"This is closure, and we are glad (Briest) is home. Rich would be very honored (at the tribute)," she said. "The community has been very supportive and in remembering Charlie Battery and the fallen soldiers. I am hopeful (the public) will continue to think of them."

After Saturday's ceremony, Jenny Briest said her husband is looking forward to the simple pleasures of life.

"(Corey) wants to sit in his recliner and pet his dog," she said. "He wants to go to the ambulance station (where he was an emergency medical technician), and he wants to eat Charlie's pizza."

Corey will continue rehabilitation locally, Jenny said. "Corey will do 10 times better here, where he can be surrounded by his friends and family," she said.

Jenny said she has been overwhelmed by the support from across the nation. "You can't put it into words. The home they are building for us � it's more than a dream come true. Now, Corey won't be bound by anything," she said.

It's all part of rebuilding their lives, she said.

"This is a new normal. Our lives are turned upside down, but we are starting over," she said. "We have kept our (family) traditions, and we have met the challenges.

"We are happy that Yankton has supported us from day one."

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