Waukegan HS principal back at work after wounded while serving in Afghanistan

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WAUKEGAN, Ill. -- The principal of Waukegan High School is settling back into his job after being wounded in Afghanistan during his fifth tour of duty with the Navy reserves.

In August 2015, Brian Riegler, now 48, suffered a severe concussion and other injuries after a car bomb exploded outside his installation in Kabul. His recovery delayed his return home, which was originally scheduled for fall 2015.

"Quite honestly I don't remember all that much about it," Rielger said of the attack. "There was an explosion and I got thrown, lost consciousness for a while. When I regained consciousness there was a lot of gunfire and explosions, and we spent a good portion of the night defending the base from insurgents attacks. They flew me out the next morning to a hospital."

Riegler compared his injury to being in the NFL -- and rugby, a sport he once played: you want to tell the doctors you're fine and get back out there. But the military made sure he was cleared. Riegler returned to Waukegan High School this week with a Purple Heart medal to go along with his Bronze Star.

Navy Cdr. Brian Riegler receives the Purple Heart.

Navy Cdr. Brian Riegler receives the Purple Heart after an attack on his base in Kabul.

The Navy commander's return to his other job has brought challenges of its own. "When you come back, it's different," he said. "It's almost like I'm a new principal again, because I'm trying to figure out things again and where things are. Education changes so much on a regular basis that it's hard."

Waukegan is no Afghanistan, but Riegler said his other career isn't without its hardships. Being a high school principal means managing, in Waukegan's case, about 4,500 kids, basketball games, football games, board meetings, parent meetings and more.

Principal Brian Riegler works from his office at Waukegan High School. (Thomas Owen, WGN-TV.)

Principal Brian Riegler works from his office at Waukegan High School. (Thomas Owen, WGN-TV.)

"It's an exhaustive job," Riegler said. "I truly believe that this job has made me a better officer in the military, and the military has made me a better principal."

Riegler, an Orland Park, Ill., native, joined the Navy in 1986 and has also served time in Iraq.

"I've been in longer than I've been out," Riegler said. "I just can't fathom what I would do without that."

Reigler's commitment in the military translates across careers. As principal he maintains close relationships with the high school's JROTC program and emphasizes to future sailors and officers the importance of dedication.

“In good times and bad. It’s like a marriage,” Riegler said. Being in the Navy reserves is his job; it's just something he does. This simplicity often makes it difficult for him to describe how he feels any time strangers and friends alike thank him for his service.

“I'm humbled by it," Riegler said. "I think they're talking about somebody else."

Brian Riegler, 48, is a Navy reservist of almost 30 years who was most recently stationed in Afghanistan.

Brian Riegler, 48, is a Navy reservist of nearly 30 years who was most recently stationed in Afghanistan.

Riegler, who lives in Palos Park, Ill., roughly an hour from Waukegan, plans to take up new hobbies outside of work now that he's home, as well as spend more time with his young boys.

"I've always felt that I didn’t spend enough time with my own children; I was always deployed," he said. "You get to a point where you realize, wow, I missed all that."

Added Riegler, "I kind of have a chance to do that over again."

Brian Riegler displays his Purple Heart in his office at Waukegan High School. (Thomas Owen, WGN-TV.)

Brian Riegler displays his Purple Heart in his office at Waukegan High School. (Thomas Owen, WGN-TV.)