Reporter’s Notebook by Elizabeth Stuart
It’s pretty rare that I get truly excited about meeting someone I’m working on a story about. OK, meeting Vice President Joe Biden was pretty cool. So was meeting Matt Damon. But I can honestly say I’ve never met anyone in my life as remarkable as Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg. (Sorry, Joe and Matt.)
Before President Obama’s State of the Union Address last month, like many others, I hadn’t heard about Cory’s story. I watched the speech from my desk at “New Day” and found myself moved by what the President had to say about this 30-year-old Army Ranger.
“Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit,” Obama said, followed by nearly two full minutes of uninterrupted applause and cheering. Both sides of Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and everyone else in the room were on their feet to show their appreciation for not only Remsburg, but for what he represents as a veteran who returned home from war seriously injured. Some wiped tears from their eyes.
It struck me that cheering for Remsburg was something - even in this deeply politically divided country - that everyone could agree upon. Even if it was just for two minutes.
When I learned that I would be producing a profile of his journey, I was a little nervous. Not nervous about meeting him, but about doing his story justice.
Before the injury
Remsburg joined the Army when he was 18 years old. He wanted to join even sooner, but his father, Craig, made him wait. He became an elite Army Ranger, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan an astonishing 10 times, spending 39 months in combat. He was made the leader of his company’s heavy weapons squad. Those credentials alone make me respect him immensely.
In June 2009, he participated in a reenactment of D-Day, parachuting in on the shores of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, as part of a ceremony Obama was attending. Afterward, the two briefly met. What Remsburg didn’t know then was that he would be meeting the President again less than a year later, under dramatically different circumstances.
On October 1, 2009, he and his platoon hit a roadside bomb in Kandahar, Afghanistan, that nearly killed him. He was found face down in a pool of water, shrapnel lodged in his brain. His father still remembers the phone call he initially thought was his son just saying hello.
“I immediately went into the mode of saying, ‘Hey Cory, how are you doing?’ ” he said. “And there was silence. And that’s when the officer identified himself as Cory’s company commander and said Cory’s been injured.”
Remsburg was in a coma for more than three months. He’s undergone dozens of surgeries and is still blind in his right eye and is partially paralyzed on his left side. But he’s actually come an extremely long way from those first few months.
We met Remsburg at Casa Colina Centers for Rehabilitation in Pomona, California, where he lived for 16 months going through intensive daily therapy to regain his ability to walk and talk. About 10 months ago, he left the center to return home to Phoenix. This was his first time back since he left. Everyone who was there - doctors, nurses and patients - all came up to him to say hi, to give him a hug, to ask how he’s doing.
It’s clear that everyone who meets him loves him. I was particularly struck by his sense of humor. For a guy who’s been through so much, he’s very positive and incredibly funny.
We got to sit in on a speech therapy session that tested his articulation and memory. He had to name something from a category - his favorite baseball team, a color, a state, a street name - followed by a card number from a deck. When he was asked to name a news site, he said, “Fox News,” but then realized who was in the room with him, correcting himself by saying, “Or, CNN. Oops.”
How he keeps such an incredibly positive spirit while struggling with life’s simplest tasks is truly inspiring. And yet, he says he’s uncomfortable being called a hero, insisting that he’s just a “normal guy.”
Meetings with the President
Remsburg met Obama for the second time in 2010, shortly after coming out of his coma. The President happened to be visiting Walter Reed Medical Center outside Washington, D.C., and realized that he knew the young man lying there once he saw the photo of their first meeting hanging on the wall near his bed.
Remsburg is the only known wounded veteran to have met the President both before and after his injury - a sentiment not lost on the commander-in-chief.
Their third meeting was about a year ago, when Obama made a stop in Phoenix and requested to see how Remsburg was doing. It was a private meeting - no one in the White House press corps was alerted. What Remsburg did next shocked even his father.
“Cory got up, saluted him, then got up with a walker and walked across the floor,” Craig said.
For Cory, the gesture was to prove a point: “To show the President that this is what happens when you don’t quit,” he told us.
State of the Union
In January, Craig and Cory Remsburg were seated next to first lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union Address. It was only then that they were aware it was going to be a special night.
Being mentioned in the speech made Remsburg the most recognizable vet in the country overnight, something he’s not entirely comfortable with. But he says he’s OK with the attention so long as it brings attention to all wounded veterans.
“There are other people who would have quit a long time ago and would have been happy in their wheelchair. Me? Oh, no,” he said.
It’s incredibly poignant when he makes such statements. His speech is slightly labored and a little slurred. Every word, every movement clearly takes great effort. Remsburg could be angry. He could be bitter. But he’s just not.
Yesterday, February 26th, Remsburg turned 31. On his birthday, he took a tandem skydiving jump, something I can’t imagine doing even on my best day. He’s also working with a therapy dog that will help him do some of the things he can no longer do for himself.
He says his heroes are his Army Ranger buddies who gave their lives serving their country. He wears a bracelet engraved with their names as a reminder of their ultimate sacrifice.
His long-term goals are to go to college, get married and have children, just like anyone else.
I’m honored to have met Remsburg and to be a part of getting his story out there to inspire others. He may not consider himself to be a hero, but I think he and I will have to agree to disagree on that.
CHARITIES THAT SUPPORT CORY:
http://stl.chamberlainsociety.org/ – Assists with severely wounded warriors or KIA; adopted wounded warrior or children of KIA
https://www.dogs4vets.org/index2.php – Not for profit service dog training
http://www.teamrwb.org/ – Nationwide military reintegration to civilian life
http://www.leadthewayfund.org/ – Assists with Army Rangers in many facets, building homes for wounded warriors
FOR MORE WAYS TO HELP VETERANS AND WOUNDED VETERANS, VISIT CNN IMPACT