Obama and a soldier: a lesson in resilience

President met Cory Remsburg at 3 defining moments

New York TimesAugust 25, 2013 

— Three times, mainly by chance and in very different circumstances, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg has met President Barack Obama.

They were introduced near Omaha Beach in France in 2009, when Remsburg was part of a select Army Ranger group chosen to re-enact a parachute drop for celebrations of the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings in World War II.

The second meeting came less than a year later at a military hospital outside Washington, where Obama was stunned to see among the wounded troops from Afghanistan a familiar young man – now brain-damaged, a track of fresh stitches across his skull, and partially paralyzed.

The third time was two weeks ago in a private visit in Phoenix, where Remsburg did something that neither Obama nor military doctors would once have predicted: He stood up and saluted his commander in chief.

There was more. Grasping his walker, “Cory took a step, then another, and then another,” Obama said later, “all the way across the room.”

In more than four years in office, Obama has met privately with nearly 1,000 men and women injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet his encounters with Remsburg stand out for bringing a president face to face with the resilience of the wounded and the brutal costs of the wars.

For Remsburg, the meetings have been “very humbling,” he said in a phone interview last weekend. For Obama, the soldier has come to personify the challenges endured by more than 50,000 men and women wounded in the two wars of the last decade, many facing recoveries that “will last a lifetime,” as the president recently said.

An honor and a tragedy

The two men first met on June 6, 2009, when they were introduced in Normandy at the D-Day commemoration. The parachute jumps by the seven Rangers were over, and they were back in their uniforms and medals. Photographs were taken, and soon Remsburg, who had served in Iraq, was off for a 10th deployment, to Afghanistan.

Four months later, on Oct. 1, he was facedown in a canal near Kandahar, thrown by the force of a quarter-ton roadside bomb, shrapnel penetrating his brain and right eye.

He spent the next three months in a coma, through surgeries at military hospitals in Afghanistan, Germany and Bethesda, Md., outside Washington. Through the winter of 2010, he was at a veterans hospital in Tampa, Fla., where he slowly regained consciousness.

In April 2010, he returned to Bethesda for surgery to rebuild his skull. One day that month, Obama came for his annual physical and to visit patients. Entering a hospital room, he saw a photo on the wall – of himself and Remsburg in Normandy – and did a double take, looking at the broken man lying there, and again at the strapping soldier in the frame.

“Cory still couldn’t speak, but he looked me in the eye,” the president said later. “He lifted his arm, and he shook my hand firmly. And when I asked how he was feeling, he held up his hand, pulled his fingers together and gave a thumbs up.”

Obama gave that account two months later, at the June 2010 convention of the Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta, drawing cheers from several thousand veterans.

Slow and steady progress

One of his speechwriters, Terry Szuplat, who had drafted the president’s speech to the disabled veterans, stayed in touch with the soldier’s father, Craig Remsburg, over the next three years. So when Obama was again due to speak at the disabled veterans’ annual convention, this month in Orlando, Fla., the speechwriter worked with the president and the Remsburgs to include an update on their son’s progress.

Remsburg had recently moved home to Gilbert, Ariz., near Phoenix, after 2 1/2 years in hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Obama was scheduled to be in Phoenix four days before the veterans’ convention. Realizing the coincidence, White House aides arranged for Remsburg to go to the school where the president would speak.

A day after Obama spoke of him to the disabled veterans, Remsburg moved from his father’s house into one of his own nearby, with a full-time caregiver. Among other decorations, he has Ranger photos, including the one from Normandy.

He receives therapies up to six hours daily. And though he cannot move his left arm and is awaiting a retina transplant for his sightless right eye, Remsburg rides miles on a recumbent bike on Sundays with a veterans’ group. He struggles to speak, yet he has begun giving short speeches about life as a Ranger.

“Just because you are down, you are not out,” he said in a burst of words.

And he talks of coming to Washington: Obama invited him for a fourth meeting, this time at the White House.

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