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

With caregivers by his side, Cory's future looks bright

Four years have passed since that day — four years made up of minutes and hours of unrelenting, tedious and dogged hard work for Cory. Four years marked by incremental but steady progress. Four years during which neither Annie nor Craig ever stopped long enough to question whether they possessed the steadfast dedication needed to get their son through — because, as a team, they've been too busy with each task in front of them. For Craig, that's meant spending two hours daily responding to emails and calls from half a dozen military liaisons involved in monitoring Cory's recovery. Or gathering his son's medical documents — charts, X-rays, therapy orders, surgical instructions — which now fill nine file boxes in his home office. Or advocating — successfully — to keep him on active duty so his expenses would be paid. (This year Cory will be retired as 100 percent disabled.) For Annie, it meant completing the daily run of rote exercises — replacing the fork in Cory's hand over and over again until he could learn to feed himself. Or stretching with him every morning, helping him roll his neck side to side to strengthen his battered muscles. Or teaching him to dress, a task that once took nearly an hour and today is accomplished in 15 minutes. "We've all learned to read each other pretty well," says Craig, "and we know when we can step back, and when we need to step in."

Little by little, Cory has moved away from the hospital setting at Tampa's polytrauma center — first sharing a nearby apartment with Annie while receiving outpatient therapy; then moving to Casa Colina Centers for Rehabilitation in Southern California, to gain transitional living skills apart from his parents; and finally, in August 2013, moving to a three-bedroom home in Gilbert, Ariz., a mile from Craig and Annie. A certified nurse assistant comes in five days a week to help him, and Annie — no surprise — willingly spends each night in one of the spare bedrooms.

Though Craig admits that living separately from his wife "certainly had a changing effect" on the relationship, he says that, in the end, "we have gotten closer. We took our new roles very seriously, we shared in this undertaking, and we can look back and be proud that we had a hand in where Cory's at."

Sometime within the next year, Cory hopes to move yet again, to a nearby home purchased for him by the New York–based Lead the Way Fund, which supports Army Rangers in need. (The house is being made handicapped accessible by NFL player Jared Allen's Homes for Wounded Warriors.) By that time, Cory should be well on his way to being able to safely live on his own, assuming he's conquered his most immediate goal: to walk independently.

"He's still a huge fall risk," says Kay Wing, owner of SWAN Rehab in Phoenix, where Cory currently works with physical, occupational and speech therapists at least four hours a day, five days a week. But, she insists, "he will get there."

Annie chalks it up to his newfound patience. "Cory was never patient growing up," she says. "Once, when we were in Tampa, I said, 'I am amazed with your level of patience because I helped bring you up, and I know that when you wanted it, you wanted it now.' He looked at me and said, 'What choice do I have?' "

Says Craig, "My son will eventually be able to do whatever he puts his mind to. It's up to him."

Cory's plans are clear: "To run again," he says, his words elongated and full of effort. "Eventually, go to college, get married, have a kid."

It's approaching 9 p.m. in Gilbert, and Annie, feeling good, pulls her minivan into her stepson's driveway. She's just returned from a dinner date with her husband, one of the regular rituals the couple has put into practice to, as Craig says, "make sure we take care of the caregivers." Having saved up their airline mileage, the pair are also planning a vacation for just the two of them this fall to Walldorf, Germany, and Annie's excited. But for now, she's tired.

She tiptoes to Cory's bedroom and finds Leo, the rescued Lab-husky-Weimaraner mix that Cory recently adopted and is training as a service dog, curled up next to his master. Cory flashes his stepmom a thumbs- up, and Annie, fingering a classic rubber and metal bicycle horn attached to a string on a bedside railing, says good night.

Around 3 a.m., Cory sounds the horn. In the bedroom down the hall, Annie wakes. "I always hear it," she says. "And I get up and go in and walk Cory to the bathroom. I try to give him as much normalcy as possible."

She pauses, then adds, "I want Cory to have his life back, and together we're going to get there."

Next page: Care for the "Hidden Heroes." »

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of AARP The Magazine.

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