Craig Remsburg, father of Army Ranger Sgt.1st Class Cory Remsburg, center, watches as his son acknowledge applause from first lady Michelle Obama and others during the State of the Union address Tuesday on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
PHOENIX — For a few moments at least, there were no politics in the State of the Union address. It was just Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, a severely wounded Army Ranger, up there in the balcony overlooking the House chamber.
His left hand was curled in a brace, a large scar visible on the right side of his head.
“Like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up and he does not quit,” President Barack Obama said.
Remsburg, a 30-year-old recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart who had served 10 deployments and now has limited movement on his left side and is blind in one eye, then rose, his father, Craig, wrapping an arm around his son’s back for support.
Remsburg flashed a thumbs-up as the throngs of lawmakers below gave him a nearly 2-minute standing ovation, a scene that became one of the most emotional moments in presidential speeches in decades. He patted his right hand on his chest, in thanks.
The president used the moment to help draw attention to the sacrifices and stories of wounded veterans who try each day to rebuild bodies and minds torn apart by war. It was also a glimpse into a relationship between a soldier and the commander in chief.
His story, however, was what drew the most attention.
Friends recalled Remsburg as affable and a fierce warrior who was always concerned about his fellow soldiers. Master Sgt. Quint Pospisil has known Remsburg since 2003. He described him as the kind of guy everyone liked, and often was the center of attention.
“Usually when he was in a room, he was the one talking,” Pospisil said.
In 2006, they were part of the same Army Ranger company deployed to Iraq. Remsburg was a squad leader, Pospisil a platoon sergeant. Pospisil said as a leader, Remsburg had the respect of everyone who served under him.
“It’s not like they respected him just because he was a buddy-buddy guy. He enforced standards,” Pospisil said. “One of the big takeaways I have of him was that he was always concerned about the safety of his guys.”
In October 2009, a roadside bomb in Afghanistan killed one soldier and severely wounded Remsburg and several others. Shrapnel from the blast went into Remsburg’s head, leaving him with brain damage and partial paralysis. It was his 10th deployment, not unusual for Rangers who tend to be deployed more often but on shorter stints in war zones.
Before Tuesday night, Obama met with Remsburg three times, the first in France when Remsburg was part of an Army Ranger group selected to re-enact a parachute jump in commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the World War II D-Day landings.
About a year later, Obama was visiting a military hospital in Maryland where Remsburg was sent for surgery when the president noticed a photograph on a wall of himself and a strapping, uniformed Ramsburg taken back in Normandy.
Obama was then shocked to see the same man lying injured in a hospital bed.
He later spoke of the chance encounter at a gathering of the Disabled Veterans of America in Georgia, talking about the “good looking young man, a proud Army Ranger” who had been in a coma.
“It seemed possible that he would never wake up,” Obama said, turning then to describing a remarkable recovery in the making — how Remsburg would open his eyes, then a few weeks later, move a leg, then an arm.
When they met at the hospital, Obama recalled, Remsburg couldn’t speak, but looked the president in the eye, lifted his arm and shook his hand. And, when Obama asked how the soldier was feeling, Remsburg gave a thumbs-up.
It was that same salute Tuesday night, up in the balcony, that made lawmakers in the crowd send a thumbs-up back up to him. Wearing his dress uniform and a bowtie, he smiled softly at first lady Michelle Obama and to the crowd.
Remsburg’s father said he and his son hope Obama’s mention of Cory Remsburg’s story will remind Americans that U.S. service members are still at war, being wounded and dying.
“If he sends that message by his presence alone, then he’s done something,” Craig Remsburg told The Arizona Republic in a telephone interview from Washington before flying back home to Arizona with his son.
One of those who have fallen is Wendy Holland’s son, Robert Sanchez, 24, who died in the same explosion that wounded Remsburg. She said that while watching Remsburg on television brought back memories of her own loss, she was happy about his recovery.
“I know Rob would be proud of Cory. I know that,” she said.
Holland said Remsburg doesn’t remember much about the explosion but often messages her through Facebook or email out of the blue to see how she is doing or just to chat about her son.
“He’s a goodhearted person,” she said. “He doesn’t ever feel sorry for himself and I think that’s what inspires me.”
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and AP researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.