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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of AARP The Magazine.
Care for the 'Hidden Heroes'
Some 5.5 million Americans serve as caregivers for wounded veterans, but many are getting by with a fraction of the resources they need to help their loved ones — or themselves, according to a recent RAND Corp. report. To change that, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, along with first lady Michelle Obama, vice presidential spouse Jill Biden and others, is developing a host of new programs specifically aimed at giving caregivers — "the hidden heroes," as Dole calls them — critical financial and legal support, and health care.
"Once these veterans come home, the challenges increase enormously," says Dole, whose Elizabeth Dole Foundation commissioned the RAND report. "Caregivers provide medicine and injections. They manage rehabilitation. They cope with legal and financial issues they hadn't expected. Post-9/11 caregivers, in particular, work to prevent triggers that may cause emotional and behavioral problems."
Obama and Biden, who began advocating for military families through their Joining Forces initiative three years ago, are now working with Dole and other partners to develop targeted caregiver programs, including:
- Peer-to-peer support forums at all military installations.
- A caregiver peer-support network with one-on-one mentoring, online communities and community-based support groups aimed at reaching 50,000 military caregivers globally.
- Training for caregivers on topics such as finances and legal issues.
- Free financial advice and legal resources.
- Job creation for the unemployed caregivers.
To tap into these new initiatives, visit whitehouse.gov/joiningforces.
For information on existing support, visit VA Caregiver Support at caregiver.va.gov.
Visit AARP's Caregiving Resource Center for a host of helpful resources and additional tools.
— Paula Spencer Scott
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