The Endless Recovery From the Endless War

An Obama speechwriter reconnects with the wounded soldier who became a national symbol of resilience.

President Obama greets Army Ranger Cory Remsburg at Bethesda Naval Hospital in February 2010. Photo: Pete Souza
President Obama greets Army Ranger Cory Remsburg at Bethesda Naval Hospital in February 2010. Photo: Pete Souza
President Obama greets Army Ranger Cory Remsburg at Bethesda Naval Hospital in February 2010. Photo: Pete Souza

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He was, for a time, the most well-known veteran in America.

On the evening of January 28, 2014, Cory Remsburg, an elite Army Ranger grievously wounded in Afghanistan, sat next to First Lady Michelle Obama in the balcony of the House chamber as President Obama delivered his annual State of the Union address. As one of the president’s speechwriters, I watched from the floor below, crowded among congressional and White House staff.

Nearing the end of his speech, Obama described how, on Cory’s tenth deployment, a bomb blast had thrown him into a canal, where his fellow soldiers found him facedown, underwater, unconscious, with a punctured skull. Across the country, television screens cut to Cory, with a lean build, close-cropped brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and striking in his dress blue uniform — a bow tie and a chestful of colorful ribbons and commendations.

Hours earlier, I had met Cory back at the White House. Although we were meeting for the first time, I had expected it to feel like a reunion with an old friend. I felt I knew him.

After all, I had been writing about Cory for several years, ever since Obama had encountered him in the hospital as he recovered from his wounds. I had spent hours on the phone with Cory’s father trying to understand intimate details of his son’s injuries so that the president could share Cory’s story with veterans groups across the country. At one veterans convention, I saw aging warriors in wheelchairs who heard about Cory’s determination to walk again and struggled to their feet, shouting in approval.

To me, Cory was perseverance personified — a living symbol of American resilience.  For a touch of daily inspiration, I had hung a poster-size photograph of him on the wall of my windowless office in the basement of the West Wing.  In it, Cory is standing with the help of a walker, proudly showing Obama that he was learning to walk again. If my two young children ever grew frustrated with homework or soccer, I’d tell them about a soldier they had never met and everything he had to overcome.

Finally meeting Cory in person, however, I started to realize how little I understood about him. Arriving in the grand entrance hall of the White House, with its imposing columns and portraits of presidents, I spotted Cory and his father, Craig, seated at a reception for the First Lady’s guests for the speech. I introduced myself and a broad smile stretched across Cory’s face. I told him he looked ready for prime time. “Oh stop,” he joked, playfully waving off the compliment.

But Cory remained seated. The explosion had left him with a severe traumatic brain injury and a large fleshy scar down the right side of his head. He was mostly paralyzed on his left side and couldn’t stand without assistance. As I reached out to shake his hand, his right arm moved loosely, searching to connect with my own.

We made small talk, but Cory’s speech was slurred. As he strained to summon a few words at a time, I looked sheepishly at Craig, a jovial, white-haired Air Force veteran, to repeat what his son had said. Cory is largely deaf in his right ear, so I spoke louder, making the conversation all the more stilted.

We sat and talked for a few more minutes, but I was unnerved. Cory’s injuries were far more severe than I had imagined. What if, when recognized by the president, he couldn’t stand up? What if he stumbled and fell in front of a live television audience of millions?

Michelle Obama with Remsburg as he was recognized by President Obama in the State of the Union address in on January 28, 2014. Photo: Pete Souza/Official White House Photo

That night in the House chamber, you could have heard a pin drop. Obama recounted Cory’s months in a coma, dozens of surgeries and years of grueling rehab in his quest to walk again. The camera closed in slowly on the young soldier’s face, giving a hint of his wounds, seen and unseen — pockmarks from reconstructive surgery, an eyelid that drooped slightly over his blind right eye, the large scar down the side of his head.

“Cory is here tonight,” Obama said, his voice rising, “And like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit.”

The chamber erupted in a standing ovation of applause, cheers, and whistles. With a gentle lift from his father, Cory hoisted himself up. His left arm hung motionless, wrapped in a brace. With his good right arm, he gave a wide, somewhat floppy wave, prompting more applause.  The First Lady placed a hand on his shoulder, and Cory flashed a thumbs-up, unleashing another torrent of cheers. Down at the rostrum, Obama gave him a sharp salute. From my spot on the floor, I could see members of Congress with tears in their eyes, and I struggled to hold back my own.

With more than 30 million Americans watching, the ovation went on for nearly two minutes. In this young Army Ranger, our country had found, it seemed, a perfect metaphor for how we so often wish to see ourselves — resilient, ever hopeful, triumphant no matter how overwhelming the odds.

Down on the floor, I breathed a sigh of relief that Cory hadn’t stumbled or fallen. But I was still unsettled from our meeting hours before and by the stark contrast between how he appeared from afar and the reality of his life up close. And I wondered — when some 80 percent of the Members of Congress who were applauding Cory never served in the military; when less than one percent of Americans wear the uniform — how much do any of us really know about the lives of veterans like Cory?

How much do we really want to know?

Moments after waking up, Remsburg puts on his shoes before getting out of bed at home in Gilbert, Arizona. Photo: Pete Souza

The next morning, headlines proclaimed Cory as a new face of the 9/11 generation. “Wounded Veteran Star of Speech.” “Meet War Hero Cory Remsburg: The Man Who Stole the Nation’s Heart.”

As his father pushed him in his wheelchair through Reagan National Airport, crowds of travelers broke into applause.  In his hometown of Gilbert, Arizona, strangers offered their gratitude — “Thank you for your service!” Schoolchildren across the country scribbled him letters of thanks in crayons. A woman from Nashville sent him her grandfather’s Bible from World War II.

Soon, Cory was crisscrossing the country — the guest of honor at fundraisers for veterans, the grand marshal at parades. When he was wheeled onto the ice to drop the ceremonial first puck at a St. Louis Blues game, the crowd roared. A publisher pitched the idea of a Cory Remsburg coloring book for kids. Cory and his parents were interviewed by Katie Couric, who called him a “true American hero.” He was featured on CBS Evening News, where David Martin said, “He just might be the perfect soldier.”

Every telling of Cory’s story followed a now-familiar arc. Ten deployments. Explosion. Nearly killed.  Years of rehab. Slow, but steady recovery.

In the final year of Obama’s presidency, Cory’s journey appeared to come full circle. On a bright spring day, a door to the Oval Office opened to reveal Cory, now retired from the military and dressed in a suit, standing on his own strength. As I watched from just outside the room, he stepped forward, his father guiding him from behind. Cory walked haltingly, in wide uneasy steps, at times teetering and nearly losing his balance. But each time, he regained his footing and threw a leg forward. Finally, he reached Obama and shook the president’s hand. The scene was captured in a White House video and viewed online more than a million times. That same year, a video of Cory walking doggedly across a gym during rehab went viral and was viewed more than 5 million times.

It seemed to be the kind of tidy, satisfying moment of closure we Americans so often long for. The wounded warrior we had clapped, cheered, and wept for was standing and walking again. Just as we had always hoped he would. Just as we wanted him to. Perhaps, on some collective, emotional level, just as we needed him to.

After Obama left the White House, Cory and I stayed in touch. We came from vastly different backgrounds — Cory, the hard-charging Ranger originally from Missouri who enlisted in the Army on his 18th birthday; me, a liberal from Massachusetts serving in a Democratic administration. We never discussed politics or the war in which he had fought and that I had helped make the case for in presidential speeches. But we bonded over the shared, surreal experience of Cory’s dizzying rise from anonymity to celebrity, and we became friends — a small, unlikely bridge across the country’s military-civilian divide.

In late 2017, Cory invited me to his high school, outside St. Louis, where he was being inducted into the school’s hall of fame. On a warm September evening, I took my seat in the school auditorium with a few dozen of Cory’s family and friends. As the ceremony began and the lights dimmed, photographs and video clips appeared on a large screen—a montage of a life I had never known: a young boy with blue eyes, blond hair, and a wide smile; a percussionist, proud in his band uniform; before the explosion, with his fellow Rangers, unaware of the calamity to come; after the explosion, back home with his stepmother, Annie, as she helped him with tasks that were once small and now daunting — getting out of bed, putting on socks, lacing up sneakers.

Sitting in the darkened auditorium, I was suddenly getting a fuller picture of the soldier I had helped put up on a pedestal for the whole country to admire. Cory’s story didn’t start with ten deployments and it didn’t end, so neatly, with a slow, but steady recovery.

After the ceremony, Cory’s family and friends gathered in a nearby hotel bar. His brother, Chris, a blunt-talking Army veteran who was living with Cory as his full-time caregiver, was also eager to see a more balanced portrayal of his brother’s life.

“Enough with the hero worship,” Chris said to me, “This shit can get fucking dark.”

This October 1 marked a decade since the explosion. Cory has now spent more years working to recover from his injuries than he did serving on active duty in the war zones — one of the approximately 5,000 veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq with penetrating head wounds who have returned home to live with their catastrophic injuries for decades to come. In advance of this milestone, I asked Cory and his parents for permission to follow him for the year.

I wanted to see the unvarnished reality of his life after the applause.

In a deeper sense, I suppose I also felt an obligation. The speeches I had written making a case for continued military engagement in Afghanistan had helped keep the nation in a war that had changed Cory’s life irreparably. But my service in the White House had ended, and most Americans had moved on, rarely thinking about the wars that have been waged in our name for nearly two decades. Now, I had the chance to look squarely at the cost of war and, in a small way, try to better understand the fight that veterans like Cory wage every day.

Cory agreed to the project, saying it “would be cathartic” to finally open up about aspects of his recovery that he had never discussed publicly.  We sat down together for our first conversation in late 2018 in a guest suite at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland where he had just completed several days of tests as part of a neurological study of veterans with traumatic brain injuries. (Given Cory’s difficulty speaking, some of the quotes below have been edited for clarity.)

The glare of the national spotlight had, at times, been “very awkward,” he admitted to me, pushing out his sentences in slow, staccato bursts with deep breaths every few words. “I hope to display … the image” of a wounded warrior “as positively as possible.” But all the attention over the years had left him feeling “somewhat pressured” to show that he was still making progress. Now, he hoped being more candid about his own struggles would help other veterans see “you are not alone.”

Over the past year, I spoke with Cory and his parents about two dozen times, in person and by telephone, often for an hour or more.  I visited him at military and veterans’ hospitals and at his home in Arizona, where he granted me and photographer Pete Souza unprecedented access to his daily life. I spoke with more than 30 of Cory’s family, friends, fellow Rangers, doctors, and therapists.

I soon learned, as his brother had warned me, how dark the journey could get.

Remsburg does stretching exercises with the help of a physical therapist at a fitness center in Phoenix, Arizona, in June 2019. Photo: Pete Souza
Annie Remsburg spots her son Cory as he walks with a walker inside his home in Gilbert, Arizona in June 2019. Craig Remsburg is in the background working on Cory’s schedule. Photo: Pete Souza

The day after Thanksgiving in 2016 — just months after millions of Americans had watched online as he walked again — Cory, his brother Chris and several friends visited a state park outside Phoenix. In the parking lot, as Cory tried to maneuver himself into his large all-terrain wheelchair, he lost his footing and fell. His head slammed hard into the pavement.  As blood trickled from a cut on his forehead, “Cory was trying to talk, but he was incoherent,” recalled Chris, who rushed his brother to the nearest hospital. In the emergency room, Cory went into seizures.

Overnight, doctors increased the anti-seizure medicine that Cory had been taking for years, and eventually the seizures stopped. Released the next day, he returned home with stitches across his forehead.

Later that week, Craig was at work when he received a call from Cory’s physical therapist. “There’s something wrong with Cory,” she said. He was disoriented, his balance was off, and he could barely stand. Cory was rushed to the hospital, where a battery of tests confirmed his parents’ worst fears. The fall had aggravated his brain injury — the equivalent of a new injury.

“That,” Annie told me, “was the beginning of the downslope.”

Cory soon fell again — once in his bedroom while putting clothes in his dresser, another time on a road trip with Chris, when he lost his balance in a hotel bathroom and crashed into the toilet.  “Thank God he hasn’t hit his head again,” Annie said. “Cory’s still pushing himself, but he doesn’t walk as much as he used to.”

“I thought … I’d be farther along,” Cory acknowledged as we began our conversations last year, “I thought … I’d be walking by now.”

By then, Annie and Craig had taken over as Cory’s full-time caregivers. They were worried, and I could see why. Listening to Cory talk, it seemed that his relentless drive — which had fueled him through years of hard-won progress — had come to verge on a form of denial. Perhaps it was the Ranger Creed that he lived by (“Surrender is not a Ranger word”). Perhaps it was an inability to recognize his own limitations, a common effect of brain injury. Perhaps it was pride. Whatever the reason, in our early conversations Cory never mentioned his fall or how he had regressed. In fact, he had recently told his father about his plans to run a marathon and become a Secret Service agent.

“Cory is kind of stuck,” Annie explained, “between the 26-year-old Army Ranger he was and the 35-year-old man he is.”

On some level, Cory seemed to agree. “People tell me,” he said, “that I should forget who I was … because I’ll never be that guy again. But it’s hard for me … to say goodbye.”

I had seen how difficult it was for him. One morning, I awoke to emails that he had sent to me in the middle of the night — old photographs of himself in full battle gear heading out on a mission. At one point, he was watching a History Channel documentary about his final mission just about every day. He once showed Annie a picture of himself at the beach before the explosion, tanned and muscular. “I want,” he said wistfully, “to look like this again.”

Meanwhile, Annie had noticed Cory on social media watching friends move ahead in their careers, get married and have children. “He’s watching the life he wishes he had,” she said. Cory had turned down offers from several colleges, had no primary job, and spent chunks of his day at home on the couch watching TV. “Cory,” Craig worried, “still hasn’t found his purpose.”

He had struggled to find love as well. Prior to the blast, Cory had been something of a playboy. “He was so witty and charming,” said his stepsister, Shelby, who remembers several women arguing over which of them was his girlfriend following his injury. Since then, he has dated some women, whom he usually met online. A few, it turned out, seemed more interested in his veteran’s benefits than in a relationship. In one case, Cory bought a ring and proposed to a girlfriend after spending just two weeks together. “I’ve had to put a boot to some of them,” said Annie, whose warm smile belies her role as the disciplinarian in the house.

Other women were more clear-eyed about the immense challenges posed by Cory’s condition and seemed ready for long-term relationships. But brain injuries can result in a profound lack of impulse control, as well as hypersexuality, and the relationships fell apart when Cory struggled to commit or stay monogamous.

Cory, I learned, had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. He was eating less and had lost weight. Annie believed that, despite several inconclusive sessions with therapists, he was also suffering from depression, rooted in the life and friends he lost to war.

Although Cory has no memory of the explosion, he confided to me that he still thought about the incident every day. The blast occurred as his patrol prepared to clear an area for a helicopter landing, wounding several teammates and killing one of his best friends, Sergeant Robert Sanchez, a gregarious soldier from Florida with a movie star smile. “I was in charge of the landing zone,” Cory said. “I still have that feeling … that I screwed up.”

Cory admits that memories of Rob or his life before the blast can spark emotional outbursts.  “Those are my big triggers,” he told me. “I am the reason,” he joked ruefully, “that Jack Daniels is still in business.”

Cory calls them his “bad days.” In one pique of frustration, his face red with anger, he kicked away his wheelchair, sending it careening across the room. He often resisted wearing a gait belt so someone could hold him while he walked, snapping at his parents, “I know my body better than you!”  Seeing him struggle one day with his walker, Annie repeatedly urged Cory to slow down. “Get out of my house!” he yelled, shaking his fists in her face.

At the same time, neither Craig nor Annie could recall Cory ever shedding a tear since his injuries — a lack of outward emotion, perhaps linked to his brain injury — that concerned them as much as his outbursts.

“It’s over,” he said on one particularly dark day, “I just don’t care anymore.”

According to his parents, Cory has never tried to hurt himself, but they refuse to take any chances. A refurbished M1 rifle from World War II hangs on a wall in his house, but high enough that it can’t be reached, and his parents object to having any working guns in the house. “I’m not giving him any opportunity,” Annie said, “to even give it a thought.”

As I prepared to follow Cory for the year, Craig drew an analogy to his son’s former life as a Ranger when he jumped from planes and parachuted down toward high-value targets.

“Cory hasn’t landed yet,” Craig told me. “We just don’t know how this story ends.”

Remsburg has some assistance as he dons a pair of shoes to do some assisted walking during rehab at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida, in February 2019. Photo: Pete Souza
Remsburg jokes with an occupational therapist at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital. He was undergoing some rehab at the hospital this past spring. Photo: Pete Souza

In January of this year, Cory checked himself into the polytrauma ward of the Tampa veterans’ hospital for three months as an in-patient. Ostensibly, he was there to test out a robotic prosthetic that he hoped would make his limp left arm — he calls it “my T-Rex arm” — somewhat functional for the first time in a decade. But when I visited him for several days in late February, it was clear that he also had a more ambitious goal in mind — to regain the mobility he had lost since his fall.

Cory was optimistic, telling me that this year would be “make or break” because he had heard that, for some patients with traumatic brain injuries, “ten years is a defining moment.”

I was, admittedly, skeptical. The explosion in Afghanistan consisted of several deadly waves, according to Dr. Steven Scott, Tampa’s polytrauma director, including an initial “wall of air” traveling more than 300 miles per hour that violently shook Cory’s brain and battered it against his skull. On top of that, an explosive ordnance disposal technician on the mission told me that thousands of pieces of debris were hurtled at Cory and his teammates.

Cory had shown me a photograph taken in the operating room of his skull partially removed and his brain spackled with muddy debris from the canal where he landed. Dr. Kenneth Harris, Cory’s neurologist at the VA in Arizona, had pointed to black-and-white scans of Cory’s brain on a computer screen and explained to me that “nearly a third of his brain has been damaged or removed.” Moreover, I had read that the long-held view in neurology was that healing in the brain after a traumatic injury occurs primarily within the first several years.

Given all this, the fact that Cory was alive at all was astounding.  But was it realistic to think that he could still improve ten years on?

Dr. Risa Nakase-Richardson, a neuropsychologist at the Tampa VA, takes a hopeful view. She includes Cory’s case in her presentations to medical conferences where she refers to him as an “extremophile”—a life that unexpectedly survives under the harshest of conditions. She points to new research published last year showing that, among TBI patients, “measurable functional recovery” can occur “throughout the ten-year period” after the initial injury.

Cory’s brain, she told me, “is still trying to heal itself.”

Sure enough, during my time in Tampa I witnessed undeniable, if incremental, gains. One morning, an occupational therapist carefully slid Cory’s paralyzed left arm and fingers into a robotic prosthetic. The gears whirled as his fingers clamped shut around a small plastic ball. When the therapist asked him to let go, Cory’s fingers — and the gears — twitched every few seconds, but his hand remained largely still. He closed his eyes in concentration. He leaned his body forward, as if to will his hand into action. Finally, his fingers popped open and the ball fell away. It had taken him nearly half a minute just to move his fingers, and he said he was exhausted. Still, in all the years that I had known him, it was the first time I had seen Cory move his left hand.

Later that day, Cory seemed to take another step forward, literally and figuratively. His one driving desire, he told me many times, is “to be independent.” To him, this means being able to walk by himself, without the aid of any device. Watching him during physical therapy, I sensed that perhaps his definition of independence was beginning to evolve.

Cory arrived in a wheelchair — pulling himself along with his good right leg — certainly not walking, but essentially independent. When two therapists helped him stand and shuffle down the hallway — catching him when he stumbled — he was arguably walking, but not independent.

Craig and Annie Remsburg hold up their son Cory as they sing the National Anthem at the dedication of a new Fisher House adjacent to James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida, in February 2019. Photo: Pete Souza

Eventually, Cory seemed to find a liberating compromise in a device he had been resisting for years — a tall, four-wheeled rolling walker that came up to his chest. He pulled himself to his feet, a therapist wrapped his left forearm tightly to an armrest, and he took a step. He moved slowly, dragging his left foot, which often banged into the walker, as a therapist followed a few feet away, just in case. Soon, he was moving briskly down the halls, smiling at staff and — despite repeated instructions to keep his hands on the walker — waving at other patients. It was the fastest I had ever seen him move.

It was “monumental,” Cory told me afterward, “just having a little bit of freedom.”

It felt like a turning point.  Just as I was starting to see what might be possible for Cory despite his many disabilities, it seemed that he was finally starting to accept that some of his disabilities might be permanent — a greater self-awareness that could be the foundation for the next chapter of his life.

During speech therapy — as his service dog, Leo, a large brindle Dutch Shepherd, lay quietly at his feet — Cory repeated after the therapist, over and over.

“S, A, stay.”

“S, E, stee.”

“Sticky, sty, stow.”

“Sticky, sty, stow, stew.”

“Co … ry. Rems … burg.”

Remsburg, with help from his father, Craig, leads the crowd in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Photo: Pete Souza

“I hate my voice,” he once told me. He had returned to Tampa under the mistaken impression — perhaps because his brain injury can impede his judgment and memory — that he might qualify for a procedure to strengthen his vocal cords. After doctors reminded him that he’s not a suitable candidate because the source of his impaired speech is neurological, Cory told me he was “upset.” Would that mean, barring any future medical advances, his voice would remain as it is for the rest of his life?

“Most likely,” he replied.  “I’ll try harder … just hoping I’m intelligible.” In fact, a few hours later at the dedication of the hospital’s new guesthouse for visiting families, I watched Cory lead a crowd in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, quite intelligibly.

“I hate my vision,” he admitted another time, referring to his blind right eye, in which his retina had repeatedly detached and ultimately shredded. He has traveled several times to New York City to meet with a leading ophthalmologist, only to be told that there’s currently no approved procedure in the U.S. to repair his eyesight. “I’m waiting … for modern medicine … to catch up,” Cory told me, but, for now, “I can’t improve it.”

I also learned that, years earlier, Cory had scoffed at group-therapy sessions; he once told a case manager, speaking of the other veterans, “They … are … disabled.” During his months of rehab in Tampa, however, he went willingly to these sessions. I asked if he considers himself as being disabled in any way.

“I don’t think I am,” he answered, and added, softly, “even though I am.”

I saw other subtle signs that Cory was coming to terms with his injuries when I visited him at his home in Arizona this spring. I arrived at his one-level house in a well-kept subdivision in Gilbert around 7:30 in the morning, while Cory was still sleeping. Craig — who was at the kitchen counter filling a pillbox with the nine medications that Cory swallows each morning for his myriad conditions — let me in so I could shadow Cory for the day.

As Craig pulled back the curtains in Cory’s bedroom, filling the room with light, Cory was already in typical form.  “I had a horrible dream,” he said. I immediately assumed he had suffered another night of flashbacks. Then he pointed at me and dead-panned, “I woke up to Terry.”

Over the next ten hours, I saw how even the smallest task requires every ounce of energy and concentration that Cory can muster, making even the mundane seem miraculous. Getting out of bed — sitting up, sliding on slippers with one hand, swinging his legs to the floor, standing up while keeping hold of the bed rail, turning his body and lowering himself into his wheelchair — took him five carefully coordinated minutes. Spooning his breakfast of oatmeal, peanut butter, and cut bananas from the bowl to his mouth at times took multiple attempts. Sending an email or text meant pecking away at the keyboard one finger at a time. Cory’s is a life in slow, deliberate motion where every act, no matter how infinitesimal, feels like a victory.

Yet, it’s impossible to deny how much Cory continues to depend on his parents as caregivers. I watched as Craig cut Cory’s food at breakfast, as he or Annie does at most meals, which Cory says is “kind of humiliating.” It was Craig who put toothpaste on Cory’s toothbrush, rubbed deodorant under his arms, slid on his pants and wiggled sneakers onto his feet. He pushed the brace onto Cory’s stiff left hand and fingers, fastened an orthotic around Cory’s left ankle to keep it from snapping and wrapped the gait belt that Cory hates around his waist. Cory can use the bathroom and take showers, seated, on his own. But if he wants to leave the house, Craig and Annie carefully help him into his Ford F-150 pickup and drive him where he needs to go. From the minute Cory wakes up to the time he goes to sleep, his parents are rarely more than a few feet away.

Craig Remsburg helps Cory apply deodorant shortly after Cory woke up. Cory needs help from his parents with many everyday tasks. Photo: Pete Souza
Remsburg has use of one arm and is able to do some tasks on his own, including brushing his teeth. Photo: Pete Souza

It’s easy to see why. The day before I arrived, Cory was in his garage when his wheelchair suddenly tipped backward. Had it not been for a quick-thinking guest who extended his hand as a cushion, Cory’s head would have smashed into the concrete floor.  On the day I shadowed him, I was in the kitchen and looked up to see Cory standing in the middle of his living room, wobbling as he tried to move from his wheelchair to the couch — alone, with no one spotting him. It was over before I could get to him — just a few seconds to pivot and plop himself down into the plush leather couch — but it was terrifying to watch.

The rule, I thought, was no transfers without a spotter. When I asked his father about it afterward, Cory was clearly annoyed and declared me a snitch. Later, Craig told me that Cory had fallen six times that month.

Craig and Annie are under no illusions of how difficult the years ahead will be for their son. The brains of people with traumatic brain injury are known to age faster, increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and dementia. Veterans with post-traumatic stress are at a higher risk of accidental injuries and suicide. Craig and Annie are in their sixties; he has two bad hips and her hands shake from essential tremors. “We’ll always be there for him, so long as we’re here,” she said, but “Craig and I aren’t going to live forever.” Their hope is that Cory will continue to live in his own home, with a caregiver, as long as possible.

Even with the uncertainties that loom, Cory has certain advantages in his favor. He wields his sardonic sense of humor like a cudgel. He once pointed to a scar on his leg where muscle had been transplanted to his head.  “The only problem,” he quipped, “is I kick my leg … and my head twitches.”

Cory also draws strength from a robust support network. From time to time, Cory still gets notes of encouragement from Obama. Several charities help with expenses. He remains connected, as best he can, with his military brotherhood. A gruff Army veteran recalled visiting Cory in the hospital and seeing him stand up from his wheelchair to salute a visiting general. “In his heart,” the veteran recalled, struggling for composure, “he’s still a Ranger.”

When Cory took a break from rehab in Tampa to celebrate his 36th birthday at his favorite pizza joint near the hospital, a handful of local veterans — all Army Rangers — roared in on their motorcycles, clad in black leather jackets.  Over beers, one of them told me, “We try to be there for him.”

Remsburg shares a beer with some fellow veterans during a birthday party in his honor in Tampa, Florida, on March 2, 2019. Photo: Pete Souza
Cory’s stepsister Shelby helps blow out candles. Photo: Pete Souza

I’ve often thought of something Cory said years ago during one of his many TV appearances: “There are people … [who] would have been happy in their wheelchair.  Me, oh no,” he declared, wagging his finger in disapproval.

As I had begun to see at the hospital in Tampa, our final conversations at his house revealed a young veteran who was starting to accept the hand life had dealt him, along with a new readiness to make the most of the years still ahead of him. We talked one afternoon at his dining room table, surrounded by shelves piled with reminders of his interrupted life. Medals from his time in the Army. A model of his skull, with a gaping hole the size of a man’s fist. Scrapbooks of newspaper clippings celebrating his travels as one of the country’s most prominent veterans.

Cory still blames himself for Rob Sanchez’s death, but a little less so as time goes by.  He keeps in touch with Rob’s mother, who, like his fellow Rangers, has told him there was nothing he could have done to prevent the explosion. “I feel a little less guilty,” he told me. On October 1, ten years since the explosion, he spent a quiet day at home, texting with soldiers from his squad and updating his Facebook profile picture with one of his favorite photos — him and Rob, their shirts unbuttoned, drinks in hand, during a raucous trip to Las Vegas before their last deployment. Annie still feels Cory would benefit from counseling; losing Rob, he concedes, is “some of the baggage I have to learn to carry.”

Annie believes that Cory also shows signs of maturing when it comes to women. He’s still a flirt; when old Army buddies stop by and take him out to dinner, Cory spends as much time trying to get the waitress’s phone number as eating. But Annie has noticed less carousing, online and in life. “I dislike who I’ve become physically,” he told me, but “I’m a better man now.” Despite his injuries, he’s still capable of having children and imagines getting married to “a woman who sees me as the real Cory, not the outer shell” and having a child — “one that’s healthy.”

For the first time, he acknowledged to me that he had suffered a fall that day in the park. “They say I regressed a year or more,” he said. Finally accepting that he has a disability is “a new feeling…I realize…there are certain aspects…I physically cannot change.”

It reminded me of a moment from the day before as Craig drove us home from yet another rehab session. We were in Cory’s F-150, which he still dreams of driving again.  “Some say this is my new normal,” he said, gazing out the window as the arid Arizona landscape passed by.

It was hard to hear, but perhaps also a glimmer of the healthier, more realistic outlook that Cory will need going forward. “The purpose” of his recovery, Dr. Bruno Subbarao, the director of the polytrauma program at the Phoenix VA, insisted to me, “isn’t to walk. The purpose is bigger than that,” he said, pointing to how Cory and veterans like him need fulfilling experiences and relationships outside of family and rehab — the things that “really make life worth living … and that’s what we have to open up his eyes to.”

Craig helps his son Cory situate himself into his bicycle. Cory rides competitively in the Wounded Warrior Games. Photo: Pete Souza
Remsburg rides his bicycle in the neighborhood where he lives in Gilbert, Arizona. Photo: Pete Souza

These days, Cory spends less time on the couch and he practices moving around his house with his red rolling walker.  He’s hopeful that with more practice with the robotic prosthetic he’ll regain the use of his left arm so “I can double-fist some beers.”

He has started using Uber to go places on his own, including on a few dates. He’s at the gym more and on his recumbent bike training for athletic competitions for veterans with disabilities. This spring, he won a gold medal in archery by holding the bow with his right hand and pulling the arrow back with his mouth. “Don’t tell my dentist,” Cory joked.

He continues to travel the country with his dad sharing his story and helping raise money for wounded veterans. He volunteers time online each day with a veterans charity, scanning incoming emails to flag any veterans in crisis so they can be connected quickly with assistance or counseling. He works several hours a month with a car company that awards specially adapted vehicles to injured veterans. “I’m not directly kicking down doors … or eliminating bad guys,” he said, “But if I can make sure that a certain soldier is all there … I’m helping … like I’m still in the fight.”

Remsburg works out at home. He is a big New York Giants football fan. Photo: Pete Souza

Before the explosion, Cory was, by all accounts, an incessant jokester, including during deployments when a prank would earn him extra push-ups but give his teammates a brief respite from the horrors of war.  In an unguarded moment before shipping off to Afghanistan for the last time, he had confided to his parents that he was ready for a less dangerous assignment. In fact, between deployments, he had started working the night shift at a hospital off base, tending to patients as an orderly in the emergency room.

The explosion had transformed him physically, but in our year together — in his humor and compassion — I saw that Cory was still in there. “I know … I will walk again,” he never stopped insisting to me. I asked, as gently as I could, whether it had occurred to him that the things that seemed to give him the most satisfaction — the things that kept him in the fight — did not involve walking. He paused, a young veteran with a lifetime still ahead of him. “I’m still trying to figure out … what makes Cory Cory,” he said.

He glanced at the tattoo on his right leg — the crest of his 75th Ranger Regiment and the date that changed everything: Oct. 1st 2009.

“I’m a work in progress.”

Terence Szuplat (@TSzuplat) served as a foreign policy speechwriter for President Barack Obama from 2009-2017 and deputy director of White House speechwriting from 2013-2017.

Pete Souza (@PeteSouza) was the official White House photographer for presidents Reagan and Obama.

The Next Fight for the Wounded Veteran Obama Made Famous