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

The morning light rose in a muted haze, and the soldiers began pulling off their night vision goggles. Weapons squad leader Cory Remsburg, 26, and on his 10th deployment, headed to a clearing to help prepare the evacuation-helicopter landing zone for his 50 fellow Rangers, just back from an overnight operation. Then, in one life-shattering moment, team leader Sgt. Robert Daniel Sanchez, walking just ahead of Remsburg, stepped on a roadside bomb, setting off a massive explosion that hurled both Sanchez and Remsburg skyward.

"There was shrapnel everywhere, and the smoke and dust made it really hard to see," recalls Staff Sgt. Bryan Rippee, mission medic. Yet within minutes, he'd found his way to a nearby canal. There, covered in mud-caked debris, Sanchez lay dead. Next to him was Remsburg — Rippee's buddy and roommate back in the States — face down in the murky water, his heart stopped and his lungs collapsed. A large piece of shrapnel had left a golf-ball-size hole in his head, above his right temple. His back, right eye and chest were peppered with smaller wounds.

Cory Remsburg Craig Remsburg Annie Remsburg Barak Obama State of the Union 2014 Caregiving AARP recovery brain injury support for our vets

“We weren’t afraid to step up,” says Craig, far left, with Cory and Annie. “We’re a team.” — Brad Swonetz

Rippee worked furiously to keep Remsburg breathing while waiting for medical transport to arrive.

"I tried my best to suction the breathing tube" that had been inserted, he explains. "I covered his chest injuries with dressings, then put him under an emergency blanket and cut off his wet clothes so he wouldn't get hypothermia." When he loaded Remsburg into the helicopter bound for a Kandahar hospital, Rippee was sure he'd never see his friend again. "He was in really, really bad shape," he says.

Luck, love and support bring him back to health

Cory Remsburg was injured far worse than anyone on the ground that day could have imagined. Yet Rippee, who eventually left the military and is currently studying at Brown University, did see him again. And so did much of the world in January of this year, when President Barack Obama introduced Remsburg during the State of the Union address. To a loud and sustained standing ovation by House and Senate members, the now 31-year-old soldier rose from his seat — with the assistance of his father, Craig Remsburg, who flanked him on one side, Michelle Obama on the other — and raised his right hand in a thumbs-up.

Obama, who first met Cory at D-Day anniversary ceremonies in Normandy in 2009, just four months before he was nearly killed by the bomb, offered the Ranger a sharp salute. The president then expressed gratitude to the dozens of caregivers who have assisted Cory in his recovery — not the least among them his dad and his stepmother, Annie Remsburg. It was a poignant moment for families across the country who are themselves caring for a loved one back from battle. In fact, a recent RAND Corp. study estimated that 1.1 million Americans — parents, spouses and friends — presently tend to hundreds of thousands of veterans who have returned from the post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with debilitating injuries and illnesses requiring long-term care. And the majority of those caregivers lack the physical, emotional and financial support to accommodate their charges.

Cory was lucky. His family, a fearless clan steeped in the military's can-do tradition, took a collective deep breath, reordered their lives and devoted the past 4-1/2 years to helping their wounded warrior win his toughest battle yet. "When Cory got hurt, something switched on inside me," says Craig. "There was nothing more important than, 'Let's take care of this guy here. He needs our help.' "

Cory's resilience wills him to survive

Craig, a human resources executive, was on a business trip in Toronto when his cellphone rang on Oct. 1, 2009. "I looked down and noticed the extra digits that tell me it's a satellite phone," he recalls. He knew it was his son. "I said, 'Hey, Cory, how you doing?' "

For a few seconds, the line was silent. Then the caller said, "This is Cory's company commander, and Cory's been hurt." Craig started writing down everything he heard: Near drowning. Coma. Injury to the head. Injury to the eye. Collapsed lungs. Burns. "I'm thousands and thousands of miles away, and I'm trying to get a picture in my mind," says Craig, 58. "Then the commander said, 'He's alive.' Once he told me that, I was going with it, hanging on."

Next page: "Cory's injured brain was swelling beyond traditional remedies." »

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