He's made monumental strides. While he's partially paralyzed on the left side — his left hand and arm, in his words, are "totally useless" — Cory today is able to get around in a wheelchair and can walk with assistance. He still has some speech difficulties but nevertheless interacts naturally with people, wearing a near-perpetual grin and frequently offering a thumbs-up. His sense of humor remains intact, too. In declining offers from hair-transplant specialists who promise to "disguise" the skin graft on his head, Cory jokes that the scar is "a conversation piece." He does suffer from some high-level cognitive deficits, as well as minor post-traumatic stress disorder; while he doesn't remember the explosion, he occasionally has nightmares with fleeting images from the event. Still, if you ask Cory if he feels resentful, he'll answer, "Never. I'm still here. I'm grateful.
"And there's no way I could have come this far without my parents," he adds. "They've been incredible. Believe me, it's not easy having a kid with a TBI."
Craig and Annie aren't ones to complain either, but they concede that the challenges have been formidable. Luckily, they have complemented each other, from the start, in tending to Cory. Craig deftly maneuvered a complex military system and attended to the tedious business of managing Cory's finances. Annie, hardly a caregiving novice — her mom was diagnosed with polio in her 30s, and two siblings endured terminal illnesses — literally rolled up her sleeves and pushed through the daily grind of rehabilitation.
Cory, who admits he's grown closer to his stepmother throughout the ordeal, says, "Annie is all about TLC."
And sometimes a little tough love.
"Initially, we used a hoist from the ceiling to get Cory in and out of bed," Annie recalls. "He wore a diaper. He had a feeding tube. When they finally removed the feeding tube, I started training him: 'OK, Cory, you need to tell me when you need to use the bathroom, and I will put you on the toilet. You are not going to wear a diaper the rest of your life. You're a grown man, and we're going to get through this.' "
A few months into 2010, Annie, an employment-services manager, decided that the two-week rotations into Tampa from different family members just weren't sustainable. "My husband had taken so much time off," she says. "I was torn because I enjoyed my job, where I'd worked for 24 years. But I felt I could no longer juggle it and do a good job taking care of Cory. I said to Craig, 'Someone needs to be with Cory all the time for the long haul, and I'm the most likely candidate.' "
So in May 2010, after weighing the pros and cons, Annie resigned and moved to Tampa, taking up residence at the VA-operated Fisher House.
A turning point
Daily, she arrived at the polytrauma center in the morning and stayed until Cory went to bed at night. She refused to ride the nurses; instead she insisted that they teach her how to rotate Cory in bed to prevent bedsores, how to feed him, how to administer his medications. "I was going to ensure that Cory got the best care he could possibly get," she says.
It was an especially painful vigil at first because Cory still wasn't speaking. His soft palate and one of his vocal cords were damaged by the bomb, making it extremely difficult for him to project sound. That, of course, would not stop this Ranger.
On the morning of June 1, 2010, while rinsing his mouth after brushing his teeth, he aspirated some water and began choking. "He was making these sounds for the first time," Annie remembers, "and I said, 'Cory, you're making sounds.' He said, 'I know.' Just like that. Then I asked him, 'What's your name?' He said, 'Cory.' 'What's your dad's name?' 'Craig.' 'What's my name?' 'Annie.' " Annie was so excited that she called Craig on her cellphone and put Cory on. When Cory uttered the word "Dad" into the receiver, Craig, who was driving at the time, had to pull over, the tears came so hard.
The moment was a turning point.