AARP The Magazine

Bringing a Hero Home

Sgt. Cory Remsburg nearly died in Afghanistan. Here's how his family helped him get his life back with love and support

Cory was air-evacuated to Bagram Airfield, where surgeons removed a large portion of his cranium to relieve pressure in his brain. Four days later, he was transferred to the Army's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where his medical team struggled to stabilize him.

"That's when we got the call that they wanted us in Landstuhl right away," says Annie, 63. "Any military family knows that's not a good call, because the Army isn't about to spend the money to fly the family to Germany unless it's truly a life-threatening situation." There, on Oct. 7, on the third floor of the Landstuhl hospital, in Room 9 of the ICU, Craig laid eyes on his younger son. No fewer than 20 machines with wires and tubes were hooked up to the 6-foot, 150-pound young man. "His head was bandaged, but his facial features clearly looked like Cory," Craig says. "I was initially startled by his size. He looked larger than life."

Internally, his body was at war. Cory's injured brain was swelling beyond traditional remedies. A neurosurgeon twice applied his scalpel to the Ranger's frontal lobe to make room for the distension, scooping out several additional centimeters of brain tissue. "It was either that or he dies, so you take your choices," says Annie.

Craig, a lively, upbeat man who tends to deflect tension with humor, remembers awkwardly trying to bring levity to the painful moment when the surgeon told him what he had to do. "Oh, jeez, we're Remsburgs, we need everything we've got!" he told the doctor, who didn't think the comment was funny. "You live in the moment," says Craig. "It's happening in front of you. You're praying and doing the best you can to keep looking forward."

After three tense weeks, Cory was finally stable enough to be flown to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Craig and Annie were grateful to have made it over the first hurdle, but they knew much more was ahead. "During the Vietnam War most of the people who suffered the kind of traumatic brain injury [TBI] that Cory did would have died on the battlefield," Annie points out. "They didn't have the techniques to bring those men home alive." She adds: "Our son fought back. He's resilient like you cannot believe. We call him our miracle man."

Looking back: Cory joins the Army to help people

Until Cory was hurt by the bomb, those who knew him would have used terms such as "gung ho," "gregarious" and "energetic" to describe him. "Cory was our wild child, always going 150 miles an hour," says Annie. "If you told him he couldn't do something, that was exactly what he would do. And he was the type of person who could walk into a room of 50 people not knowing one of them, but by the time he left, he'd have talked to them all."

After his parents divorced, Cory and his brother, Christopher, now 32, split time between the Phoenix-area homes of Craig and their mom, Karen Petersen. Craig and Annie gained custody of the boys when Cory was 10, and the family moved to St. Louis, where Craig, once an Air Force firefighter and now a retired master sergeant from the Reserves, was transferred by his employer.

Following in the footsteps of Christopher, who was serving in the Army, Cory enlisted in 2001, immediately after graduating from high school. "I wasn't ready for college," he says, "and I wanted to be helping someone, somewhere."

Enthusiastic and ambitious, Cory decided to pursue Ranger training at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga. A dedicated soldier, he was among the first troops in Iraq in 2003. His go-getter personality and natural athleticism served him well, and he became certified as a HALO (high altitude–low opening) skydiver and a senior jumpmaster — prized skills for secret Ranger missions.

He also enjoyed playing volleyball and was a talented long-distance runner. In the spring of 2009, he and roommate Rippee participated in the Savannah Mile, in which Rangers compete against local first responders. Wearing Army boots, body armor and his camouflage uniform, Cory won the race in six minutes flat.

Next page: The road to recovery and recollection. »

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