That summer American units were ambushed nearly every time they entered the region.
For John Kremer, the former Franklin High School wrestling standout who’d end up in the school’s hall of fame, wrestle a year for the U.S. Navy and later compete on the Olympics stage – the risks were ramped up even more.
A Navy minesweeper who was attached to an Army unit that September, his job was to walk in front of his fellow soldiers and check for explosives buried by the Taliban.
Back in Buford, Georgia, his wife Gabbie – his high school sweetheart at Franklin and the woman who endured his three previous deployments to Iraq – was about to give birth to their first child, a daughter they would name Adalyn.
“The area I was in, they’d shut down the cell phone towers at night,” Kremer said. “But my LPO (leading petty officer) was still able to get calls and about 3 in the morning she reached me and said, ‘Hey, your wife is going into labor.’ “I was able to talk to my wife and mother in law right after the birth and it was cool for that one minute, but the next minute I couldn’t really think about it, especially out on a mission.”
And 12 days after Adalyn was born, parliamentary elections were taking place in the small city of Imam Sahib. It was feared the Taliban would disrupt the process by launching rockets from a small hill – called Qurghan Tapa – just to the north.
A dozen U.S. soldiers were sent to fortify the hill, which was booby-trapped with buried explosives.
Kremer and another minesweeper detonated a pair of IEDs on the way to the hill and then began to lead the infantrymen up the treeless, 80-foot rise. Near the top, Kremer was continuing to pass his detector back and forth when “BOOM!”
He had stepped on an undetectable plastic anti-personnel mine.
Dao and Times photographer Damon Winter captured much of the tragedy and chaos that day with stories, gripping photos and a video that shows Kremer lying on the ground, a big hole near where his two feet should have been.
“The first thing that went through my head was ‘Holy (expletive) (crap)! Did that just happen?!’” Kremer recalled the other day. “Initially, I thought I was hit by a mortar. But when I started coming to, I realized I’d stepped on something. And then I stared down at my left leg and saw only my shin…not my foot.”
He stayed conscious after that and managed to guide the rattled medics and the other minesweeper to him.
Tourniquets were applied to his legs and after he initially refused morphine – he’d later relent – he finally was carried down the hill on a stretcher by soldiers whose steps were slow and nerve-wracking.
Soon there was another explosion and this time Third Platoon specialist Matthew Hayes was down. He’d stepped on a mine and would lose his right leg.
A Blackhawk helicopter came in and Kremer was rushed to a nearby trauma center where he’d previously met the doctors and nurses, some of whom who were in tears when they saw him now.
“I remember getting rolled toward the OR and counting backwards and then I started my time travelling,” he said. “I remember waking up a little while in Germany when they put an epidural in my back.”
He was flown back to the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. and it was decided his right leg, like the left, would be amputated below the knee.
His dad, John Kremer Sr. who’d retired after 20 years in the Navy and now works at Middletown Works, remembers being an emotional wreck when he saw his son:
“I cried every time I saw him. His skipper said, ‘You gotta show strength. You can’t cry in front of him.’ I pushed him away and said, ‘Dude, if this kid doesn’t see me crying, THEN he’s gonna know he’s screwed because I cry at everything!’”
John’s mom, Holly Kosa – she and John Sr. divorced, both remarried and she now works in human resources at Wright Patterson Air Force Base – said when she saw her son: “I was just so thankful he was alive…. It was a miracle!”
Kremer especially remembers the first time he got to hold his infant daughter:
“It was right after a surgery and I was in contact precaution so anybody who came into the room had to wear a gown, mask and gloves. But my daughter was an infant and couldn’t wear all that so I wore the gown and gloves.”
He said it was “a little weird” because he’d never really held a newborn before, but even with the gloves on, he admitted: “It was really cool…It was my daughter!”
Although he’d figured he might be in a wheelchair for at least a year, he vowed to walk before his daughter did.
And once he was sent to San Diego, therapists there shocked him and said they planned to have him up on new prosthetic legs in a week. He was gung-ho and used his daughter as inspiration.
He walked in two months, ran in five, was skydiving in six and on the one-year anniversary of his injury, he and his older sister, Jessica – (he has a brother Jared and a sister Jemma, too) ran the 10K race at the U.S. Air Force Marathon at Wright Patt as their family cheered them on.
Along the way, he was awarded three Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart.
While it took his daughter a year to walk, she did manage to take him down a notch in that time.
“Yeah, that’s the funny story in our family now,” he said. “I was home alone with my daughter. I was holding her and she pooped. It kind of went right through her diaper and I was stuck on the couch and couldn’t really move. I called my wife and was like: ‘Hurry up! You’ve got to come home and help me with this diaper!’”
Holly laughed at her son’s panic:
“He’s always this no-fear, make-it-happen kind of guy. He’s a diver, he jumps out of planes, he clears bombs. He’s pretty fearless. But he couldn’t handle a dirty diaper!”
Kremer grew up in a Naval family. His dad often deployed on carriers and saw the world. His mom spent nine years in the Naval Reserve and her one deployment was to Iraq when her son was there on his first war assignment.
Kremer said he first was enthralled by the military when he was about 10 and they lived in Washington state:
“Me and my buddies were riding our bikes on Whidbey Island and we saw this plane – probably a C-130 back then – fly overhead. We rode toward the beach and saw guys (Navy SEALs) jump out of the plane and hop into boats and come back to shore. That was so cool!”
Before his ninth grade year, his family relocated to Ohio – his dad was a Navy recruiter, then – and he became a wrestling standout at Franklin, qualifying for the state tournament three years in a row.
He won All-Ohio Academic honors twice and along the way won the heart of Gabrielle Lynch, who was a year younger and would marry soon him after her graduation.
He went into the Navy as a hull technician, then went through dive school and explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) school.
“EOD is like a little kid’s dream job,” he said. “You get to roll around in the mud, jump out of planes, shoot guns and blow stuff up. Who doesn’t want to do that?”
His first deployment was to Tikrit, Iraq, where he said he tied for the most EOD missions – nearly 400.
Back in Franklin, his dad – even with his own background – often found himself on edge:
“It’s hard on this end because you’re not trained for it. My theory always was, ‘No news is good news.’”
But when the bad news came, he found his boy had a positive outlook.
“I don’t sit and dwell of the fact I got hurt,” Kremer said. “Even knowing what I know now, oh God yeah I’d do it again. I had a lot of fun and if I didn’t get hurt, I’d still be running teams to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and even Africa now.”
He did reenlist, but as he went through drills he realized he wasn’t quite the same physically and didn’t want to jeopardize the rest of the team. Plus, he had new priorities with his daughter.
After he recovered, he was asked to compete for the Navy in the Warrior Games, where he quickly won four gold medals in swimming, volleyball and shooting and his team took bronze in basketball. In 2014 he was selected to Team USA for the first Invictus Games in London and his team won silver in volleyball.
Soon he made the U.S. Men’s Sitting National Volleyball Team and has since competed across the world – Sarajevo, China, Netherlands, Peru.
Playing libero – back-row defender – he was on the U.S. team that made the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil and said he won’t forget marching into the large stadium for Opening Ceremonies.
Two weeks ago at the Last Chance Qualifier in Germany, the U.S. team missed winning a berth in the upcoming Tokyo Paralympics. While Kremer said it’s “disappointing,” he said his team already is training for the 2024 Games in Paris.
He’ll keep busy in other ways, too, his mom said:
“He serves on all types of armed forces organizations that help a lot other people who were wounded like him and he helps their families, too. His injury has become a platform to push him forward so he can do more for so many other people.”
Father’s Day celebration
John and Gabbie’s son, John Lance – whose middle name refers to fellow EOD technician, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Lance Banuk, the minesweeper who comforted John that day he got hurt – will be two in July.
“That little boy loves his dad beyond measure,” Holly said.
The feeling is mutual, Kremer said: “Hanging out with the Lil’ Dude is pretty cool, He’s really grown close to me. Lately we’ve been chasing a lot of balls and frisbees around the yard.
“Sometimes I have to be stern with him. I mean you can’t have a two-year-old jumping off the kitchen table. But then I think ‘that’s probably what I did, too.’”
Adalyn, who’ll be 11 is September, is “more artsy and into animals,” her dad said.
A year ago she began equestrian riding events and at home she has a pet snake and a bearded dragon (lizard.)
Today, Kremer’s family is in Tybee Island, the barrier reef islet east of Savannah, Ga., for a family vacation and a Father’s Day celebration.
While he will be saluted today, John said it’s his wife who should be trumpeted:
“Look, she had a kid 12 days before I got hurt and then she’s dealing with an almost 30-year-old injured man and taking care of him, too.
“If anything, she should be getting the Happy Father’s Day celebration for everything she has done.”
But John deserves to be celebrated too, Holly said:
“He’s become just an awesome father and an amazing man. He’s never disappointed me.
“Still, I never dreamed he’d blossom like this. I just wanted him to have a good life.
“This is the best life anybody could have.”
John Kremer has a Purple Heart and three Bronze Stars. He’s in the Franklin High Hall of Fame and has represented the United States on the Olympics stage. He’d got a loving wife and best of all, he’s a dad who does it all.
…Except maybe defuse diapers.