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

Like many of his Ranger buddies, Cory worked — and played — hard. "He was a playboy," Annie says. "At the time of his last deployment, he had several girlfriends." He was also making good money and had purchased a powerboat and a double-cab pickup truck. Just before heading to Kandahar, he and a handful of Rangers took R&R in Las Vegas. Hanging on the wall of his bedroom today is a photo from the trip showing Cory and three friends at a poker table, drinks in hand, smiles a mile wide.

By then, Craig and Annie had moved from St. Louis to Gilbert, Ariz., with hopes of eventually retiring. They had downsized to a smaller but more manageable "dream home," and in the fall of 2009 were in the process of remodeling it. "Then Cory got hurt," says Annie, "and we just stopped everything."

The road to recovery and recollection

The gravity of Cory's condition became glaringly evident at the National Naval Medical Center, where he remained on breathing and feeding machines. He underwent the first few of dozens of surgeries — to insert a tracheotomy tube; to repair his smaller shrapnel wounds, including the one to his eye that resulted in a detached retina; to reattach the retina, which ultimately shredded, leaving him blind in his right eye; and, months later, to replace (twice) his cranium above the area of his brain injury.

Most frightening for Annie was when Cory experienced what is called storming, during which he'd break out in a profuse sweat and his heart rate would surge above 150 beats per minute. "Because he was in a coma, there was no way of knowing if he was reliving the explosion," his stepmother says. "I'd grab a washcloth with cold water and bathe his body. I'd hold his hand and talk to him: 'It's OK, Cory. You're safe now, you're in a hospital, you're going to be OK, hon. Just try to breathe, to relax.'

"It would help," she says. "You would see the heart rate start to come down."

Craig was determined to have a family member by Cory's side 24-7, for as long as it would take. But that resolution was put to the test when, three weeks later, Cory was moved to Tampa's James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital Polytrauma Center, one of five VA facilities in the U.S. specializing in TBIs. "I'm talking to people there," Craig says, "and they tell me, 'We've been here for a year and a half, and my son hasn't come out of his coma yet.' It was almost like a two-by-four just whacked me right in the head."

And so the couple decided to do everything possible, as Craig says, "to reach in there and have Cory remember." They plastered his hospital room walls with family photos. They played CDs of the Zac Brown Band, put Modern Family reruns on the DVD player and held New York Giants cheering parties around Cory's bedside during games.

It seemed to work. One afternoon in late January 2010, Craig watched as a woman introduced herself to Cory as his recreational therapist. While Cory's rehabilitation ran the gamut of therapies, Craig could not fathom what kind of recreation his son, who still had difficulty opening his eyes and moving, was going to be doing. "I heard her telling Cory that before he knew it, he'd be flipping her the bird," Craig says. "And in my peripheral vision, I saw Cory raise his right hand and give the woman the finger. I laughed so hard. I thought, 'It's clicking.' "

He speaks: A turning point for the family

The incident marked the beginning of Cory's emergence from his coma. He was tracking what was going on around him and, though he still wasn't talking, he was communicating in basic ways. Yet he had miles to go toward becoming independent, the family's goal.

"It was like I was a baby," Cory explains. "I had to learn everything all over again."

Next page: He's made monumental strides. »

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