En español | When attention turned to Army Ranger Cory Remsburg at the State of the Union address on Jan. 28, it was his father, Craig, who helped pull him into the spotlight. As it should be. Craig and his wife, Annie, have completely changed their lives to give Cory the care he needed after a roadside bomb nearly killed him in Afghanistan on Oct. 1, 2009.
Craig Remsburg, 57, talked to AARP.org about what it has taken to help Cory resurface from a three-month coma and continue his battle for an independent life.
Q: One day you're working and the next the world has turned upside down.
A: I was in the middle of a presentation when my cellphone rang. I saw extra digits indicating it was Cory from a satellite phone. I answered, "Hey, Cory. How are you doing?" and there was silence on the phone for a couple of seconds and then the gentleman answered, "This is Maj. McGhee, Cory's company commander." I still get choked up when I talk about it.
Q: When did you decide you'd be caring for him full time?
A: A month and a half after the injury, he was down in Tampa, Fla., and my wife, Annie, and I delivered him at the VA and that's when it hit me: My kid is in a coma. There were other soldiers and Marines with similar injuries and they have been there a year or two and they're still in a coma. It just hit me hard that he might not wake up.
Q: Did you take a leave of absence at that point or did you leave your job?
A: My employer, Telgian Corp., gave me the time off to care for him and take him to various medical appointments or events. I was gone for 3-1/2 weeks that month before I got to come home. After that we were going back and forth between Phoenix, where we live, and Tampa, where Cory got care. I'm a senior executive, vice president of human resources, and I have a great staff, so I was still able to work remotely.
Q: How did you manage a schedule?
A: It was Annie and I. She is Cory's stepmom and has known him since he was 2. We wanted to be with him around the clock. We'd switch every two weeks from December 2009 through June of 2010. I'd meet her at the airport gate — it's the same gate and plane on the US Airways Phoenix-Tampa route — so we'd talk, trade keys, tell where the car was parked and have some personal moments. We'd talk on the phone and on Skype many times a day.
We did that for over six months. It got to the point where we both said, "Maybe we need to get a little smarter." We decided Annie would resign from her job and move there, and then she became Cory's full-time caregiver when he went outpatient. I would fly in and then I would give her a break and sometimes we had friends or family who would say, "Hey, I can take him for the weekend. Just tell me what I've got to do," and then we get to step away a little bit.
Q: That had to be a really incredibly stressful time.
A: Well, you know, you adapt. Cory comes first. There was no other priority in life. It was to help him to recover, and both of us did that.
Q: Were there times when you felt despair?
A: I really didn't. It was just the new normal for us. The new normal was, my son is seriously injured and I'm going to prioritize my life around that and be positive about it. When he was first injured, it didn't look good, and many people didn't think that he was going to make it. It wasn't just the massive injuries to his skull and his eye; they found him face down in water, so he almost drowned. We rejoice every day. It could be worse. There were soldiers who were in a coma for years. Cory was waking up. That, to us, probably saved our sanity. He kept improving.
Q: What other support did you have?
A: As an Army Ranger, Corey was part of the Special Operations Command, and they had a program called the Care Coalition that assigned advocates to Cory and the family. They visited us every day just to see how we were doing, what they could do to help, what the needs were. So between them and our family, and people in Tampa who reached out to us, we had a very strong support system.
Q: Were there joyful moments, too?
A: Sure. It was Cory opening an eye, moving a leg, moving an arm, tracking us around the room and then knowing what to do with a comb and a cup. It was those little treasures of things happening that kept encouraging us. And then it was, "You know what, we're on a roll here. Let's keep it going." After eight months, he was able to mutter the first word. The blast had blown his vocal cords.
Q: It had to help a lot that he was responding.
A: Corey was pretty messed up, but the guy got up every morning, got shaved and he just went after it. He made it easy on us to be caregivers by showing his positive attitude. That stoked us. I felt like, if he's giving that, I'm going to give that.
Q: What are your days like now? You're working obviously, but what about the caregiving?
A: Cory has his own house a mile from us in Phoenix, and we got that only to help keep his psyche going. He gets up at 6:30 every morning, gets freshened up, does his thing, eats breakfast and he's on the road at 7:30 a.m. From Monday through Friday he goes to a private rehab facility in downtown Phoenix for physical therapy and occupational therapy, and speech therapy for four to six hours every day. Then local transportation takes him to his home and a respite nurse fixes his dinner and gets him ready for the next day. My wife goes over late and spends the night. Somebody is always with him. That's the care he needs now.
Q: What are Corey's prospects?
A: My kid is fighting like hell to be independent. He wants as much of his life as he can and he doesn't want us to be around all the time. We've encouraged that as long as it wasn't something where he might get hurt. All these little steps culminated in the guy you saw at the State of the Union address who can almost stand up on his own. He's taking steps with a crutch. He can cycle 18 miles on a recumbent bike now. That's a miracle.
Q: How did taking on this role as caregiver change your perspective on life?
A: I've learned to cherish what I would call the simple things, like breakfast with the wife and family. I go for walks. You soak it up just a little bit more because it just about got taken away from us. It's as simple as that.
Q: It's important for caregivers to learn how to accept help, too, isn't it?
A: First and foremost, you've got to take care of yourself. A caregiver can be overwhelmed in a hurry. You don't have to do it alone. Find that support system. It might just be somebody you can talk to. Celebrate the moments that something improves. Yeah, he got banged up pretty bad, but hey, by the way, he moved a finger today and you celebrate that. You make a big deal about it and you keep encouraging. What I've found in life is that that encouragement matters.
Q: Would you say that to be a successful caregiver you also have to let people care for you, too?
A: Without a doubt. You cannot do it on your own and you've got to be strong enough to understand and appreciate that and bring your barriers down. I thought I was a pretty tough guy, but when it was all said and done, I needed help.
Q: You sound very grateful.
A: At the end of the day, we're the lucky ones. We got our son back.
Todd Pitock is a freelance writer who profiled Diana Nyad for the AARP Bulletin in November.
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