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PHOENIX — Tossed like a rag doll by an exploding 500-pound bomb, Army Ranger Cory Remsburg landed face down in a canal. He lay motionless as his buddies scrambled to find him.
Gunshots rang out, and the company took cover in a fresh crater formed by the improvised explosive device that killed one soldier and critically wounded others, including Remsburg.
They huddled, waiting for the helicopters.
On that deadly October morning in 2009, Afghan insurgents ended Remsburg’s eight-year run as an elite combat infantryman, but an unconquerable spirit has guided the Gilbert man through years of recovery.
He recently returned home after months of therapy in California.
About 250 people packed the Gilbert Town Hall on Wednesday to support the 30-year-old Ranger at the town’s latest Operation Welcome Home ceremony, which honors returning military personnel.
The crowd rose in enthusiastic ovations for a man who refuses to be called a hero. The heroes are those who helped save his life, Remsburg said, and there are many.
Now blind in one eye and bearing a titanium plate for a skull, Remsburg is working through speech therapy and toward the goal of walking under his own power.
“I would like to thank my family, friends and the military for their never-ending support,” he said at the ceremony. “In particular, I would like to thank my dad. You’ve been there every step of the way.”
His father, Craig Remsburg, years ago refused to sign papers to let his 17-year-old son join the Army.
“I told him, ‘You have a little time yet,’” said Craig, who served 25 years in the military. “Let’s wait until you’re 18.”
At 5:30 a.m. on Cory’s 18th birthday in 2001, an Army recruiter knocked on the Remsburgs’ door. He was there to pick up Cory.
“I wanted to serve,” Cory Remsburg said. “Wanted the challenge.”
Within nine months, he completed basic training, finished jump school and passed the Ranger Indoctrination Program. During his training, Remsburg and millions of Americans watched in horror as al-Qaida terrorists carried out devastating attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Cory called me that day and said, ‘We’re going to war,’” Craig said.
The first of Remsburg’s 10 deployments came in March 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq.
He was typically deployed for three to four months at a time and fought a total of 39 months in street combat.
“They were hunting,” Craig said. “They were going for the bad guys. They did their missions always at night, and they were quite successful.”
Like a SWAT team, the soldiers were sent after specific targets, Remsburg said. He was made leader of his company’s heavy-weapons squad.
On Oct. 1, 2009, the Ranger unit had just completed a successful mission in Afghanistan, eliminating several enemies and destroying a weapons cache. Remsburg’s company was put in charge of clearing a landing zone for transport helicopters.
On the way to the field, one of the Rangers stepped on an IED, triggering an explosion and killing the soldier. Another Ranger lost his leg, and several others sustained shrapnel wounds, Craig said.
Cory Remsburg, who was about five feet away when the bomb blew up, was thrown, losing his helmet. It would be more than three months before he regained consciousness.
About 7,000 miles away, Craig was training new employees at work in Toronto. His phone rang, and he took the call.
“There’s like three extra digits on the number, which means it’s a satellite phone call,” Craig said. “And I know who it is — it’s Cory, because he calls all the time when there’s a free moment.”
Rather than answering with a “Hello,” Craig immediately said, “Hey, Cory, how are you doing?” Silence.
“Then all of a sudden, I got a guy talking, saying, ‘This is Major McGee, Cory’s company commander,’” Craig said. “That’s when I knew something went wrong.”
The news came in a matter-of-fact way. Near-drowning. Penetrating head wound. Penetrating eye wound. Shrapnel wounds. Collapsed lungs.
“Here I am just writing these things down; you try to collect yourself and you ask 10,000 questions,” Craig said. “When you take that call, your mind starts racing, because while they were matter-of-fact, it wasn’t upbeat.”
Cory was flown to a NATO hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, for treatment. There, surgeons from Great Britain and Australia cleaned his head wounds and worked to stabilize him. He was later transported to Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan before moving to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
He was fortunate to have a physician’s assistant with the group on the mission and skilled neurosurgeons available at the hospital, Craig said.
“We say that Cory has angels dancing around him,” Craig said. “Medics are very good, but physician’s assistants can do intubation and more advanced lifesaving skills.”
Cory and the family eventually flew back to the U.S., arriving at Bethesda, Md., for more treatment. Still in a coma, he was again transferred to Tampa for longer-term care.
When Cory was able to recognize a comb and know what to do with it, doctors said he was finally coming out of it.
“We thought he was in there,” Craig said. “We thought he could understand what was going on. He was in there playing possum.”
Soon, Cory opened an eye, tracking family members across the room. After seven or eight months, he was able to speak.
Progress has come only through painstaking effort and “sheer determination,” and the biggest challenge is “how slow the whole process is,” Cory said.
Last month, Remsburg arrived home in Gilbert, escorted from California by the Patriot Guard Riders.
The military has since provided him with a recumbent bike, and on Sunday he rode six miles. Remsburg wants to increase his ride to eight miles next week and take part in El Tour de Tucson this fall.
“Cory’s a big inspiration,” said Jeff Remsburg, Cory’s younger cousin who is also a Ranger and was on the same mission as Cory when Cory was injured. “He’s a big motivator for a lot of people.”
Cory said he wants to find ways to give back by “inspiring the uninspired” and at some point might like to start a new career, perhaps in a government agency such as the CIA.
“My recovery has not been easy,” he said. “Nothing in life that’s worth anything is easy.”
Charitable organizations, including Lead the Way Fund and the Joshua Chamberlain Society, have provided much-needed help to Remsburg and his family during the recovery, Craig said.