Purple Heart recipient returns as Principal of Waukegan High School

by Long Hwa-shu

“You do what you are told to do. It’s your duty,” said Brian Riegler who has just resumed his duties as principal of Waukegan High School after 10 months away from school to serve in Afghanistan as a naval officer during which he was awarded a Purple Heart.

Those patriotic words could easily be fitting advice to his students.

Riegler, 48, a commander in the Navy Reserves, came back to the school, during which on Aug. 7, 2015, he was injured in an insurgent attack at the base in Kabul where he was stationed. A suicide bomber drove to the base that night igniting the bomb, killing one soldier and injuring several others.

Brian Reigler, right, awarded the Purple Heart by his Navy Commander Osborn. - U.S. Navy photo
Brian Riegler, right, awarded the Purple Heart by Army Col. John Osborn. Riegler, principal of Waukegan High School returned to the schools this week.– U.S. Navy photo

“I was within 50 yards of the explosion and thrown against a concrete wall,” recalled Riegler who received severe traumatc concussions to his head, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart.

“At the time I didn’t know about my injuries. I was helping to secure the place because I felt I had a job to do,” said Riegler who was later hospitalized. The injuries, followed by continuing treatment and recovery, kept pushing back his date of return. Originally, he was scheduled to be back in the fall of 2015.

His injuries taught him to appreciate life more, said Riegler who received his boot camp training at Great Lakes Naval Station in 1986. His deployment to Afghanistan was his fifth since 1991. He had been to Kuwait for Desert Storm, Kosovo, England and Iraq as an intelligence officer.

“You go where you’re ordered to go,” said Riegler, his voice firm and decisive.

JROTC members at Waukegan HIgh School greet Principal Brian Riegler back to work. -Kathy Ludowise photo
JROTC members at Waukegan High School greet Principal Brian Riegler back to work. – Kathy Ludowise photo

“But it’s good to be home. I’m reconnecting with my family, friends and associates,” he said of his transition from the war zone to civilian life which at times is trying.

“I appreciate life more than ever. Life is short. You don’t know how long you’re going to live,” he philosophized.

Riegler, who grew up in Orland Park, received his B.A. degree in history and geography from Valparaiso University, and a master’s degree in education from Northern Illinois University. He went on for a program that trains school superintendents at the University of Illinois.

“It’s a big job,” Riegler said of his position as the principal of Waukegan High School which has two campuses at Brookside and Washington with a total enrollment of nearly 4,600 students. He is in his fourth year as the school chief.

On the day of his return to school at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, he was saluted by a contingent of more than 100 cadets from the school’s Junior ROTC program. The cadets, resplendent in their uniforms, gave him a hero’s welcome. Riegler who did not wish to make a fuss about his return was deeply moved.

The school’s Junior ROTC program, he said, is marking its 100th year this year. It is the largest among public schools in the country.

“It’s a program that makes a man out of you,” he said.

Back on the job, Riegler pointed out that he is trying to keep track of things he left behind and do his upmost to make the school the best possible around.

“It’s a big job and I’m here to do it. It’s my obligation,” he said while giving thanks to those who took care of the school while he was away.

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