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Wounded Ranger humbled by time in Capitol spotlight

Jan. 30, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  

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PHOENIX — Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg and his father, Craig, knew they would be watching the State of the Union address in the box reserved for guests of the first lady. But they didn't know exactly where their seats would be.

Someone at the top of the stairs directed them to the first row. Craig Remsburg guided his son — who walks with a cane and has limited use of his left arm after nearly being blown apart in Afghanistan — down the five steps.

Craig Remsburg scanned the names taped to each chair. There was one that said Dr. Jill Biden. Another said Michelle Obama.

The chair next to that one had his son's name. "Oh," he thought. "OK, here we are."

In that seat, in the minutes that followed, Cory Remsburg would be seen on TV by an estimated 33.3 million viewers. He would turn into a representative for all wounded soldiers. And he would be lauded by the president as a role model, a man whose own struggles to walk and talk again mirrored the struggles of the nation.

It was something the 30-year-old didn't expect when he left his suburban Phoenix home and boarded a flight Monday to Washington, D.C.

Remsburg had received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. He had been feted at Gilbert Town Hall, and a local group of motorcycle riders welcomed him home when he was released from rehabilitation centers.

But while sitting in the front row of the gallery at the U.S. Capitol, the recipient of a nearly two-minute standing ovation Tuesday night, Remsberg would become part of the national conversation.

"I don't think I deserve that much recognition," Remsburg said Wednesday, during an interview after landing at Sky Harbor International Airport. "I was just doing my job."

First Obama meeting

Remsburg signed up for the Army on his 18th birthday. He trained to be a Ranger. While he was readying himself, the country was attacked by terrorists. Remsburg told his father he knew he would be sent to war.

Beginning in 2003, Remsburg was sent on multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. While most soldiers serve 12 month rotations, Rangers serve three to four months at a location, but they have little downtime between missions.

During one of those breaks, in 2009, Remsburg and other Rangers were chosen to help mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day by re-enacting the paratrooper portion of the Normandy invasion in World War II. Before the ceremony, Remsburg met Obama.

In the State of the Union speech Tuesday, the president described the Remsburg he met in France as "a strong, impressive young man, with an easy manner, sharp as a tack."

A few months later, Remsburg was sent to Afghanistan. While he and other Rangers walked through a field, an explosive device detonated. Remsburg flew into the air. His body was found facedown in a nearby canal.

He remained in a coma for months, but regained consciousness. He was treated at a military hospital in Bethesda, Md.

In April 2010, Obama toured the hospital and met with wounded soldiers. By chance, he came into Remsburg's room and spotted the picture of himself and Remsburg taken in France.

Obama chatted with Remsburg, who, at the time, was not able to speak. But Remsburg did shake Obama's hand and used his fingers to make an OK sign.

Obama's staff kept in touch with the family. The two met again in 2013 in Phoenix, shortly before a more routine presidential speech. Remsburg vowed they'd meet again at the White House and he would show off his improved speech and mobility.

Late last week, the call came: An invitation to attend the State of the Union address.

As they took their seats in the U.S. Capitol, Craig Remsburg started putting the pieces together. They were in the front row. They were next to the first lady. His son was an Army Ranger who cut a commanding presence in his dress uniform. "You sensed something special was going to happen," he said.

Presidential introduction

Toward the one-hour mark of the speech, the president started speaking about military families. He said, "Let me tell you about one of those families I've come to know."

At the mention of his name, Cory Remsburg seemed to sink in his seat a little. He looked over at Michelle Obama and smiled.

Television viewers saw a close-up of Remsburg as Obama detailed the dozens of surgeries the soldier has had over the years and his grueling hours of daily rehabilitation.

Obama then quoted Remsburg. It was a line from a May 2013 Arizona Republic story about his rehabilitation: "My recovery has not been easy. Nothing in life that's worth anything is easy."

Obama said, "Cory is here tonight." At that point, Remsburg readied himself to stand. Obama continued, comparing Remsburg to the country as a whole: Both, he said, have faced challenges, and both never give up.

At that point, the applause started. Remsburg, with the help of his father, stood. He waved. The applause continued.

The audience of lawmakers and generals and judges and officials was standing and looking up at the soldier.

He said one thought flashed into his mind: "Don't fall."

After nearly a minute, Remsburg looked from side to side. He smiled bashfully. Michelle Obama put her hands on his shoulders. The applause continued.

After about 20 more seconds, Remsburg shot a thumbs-up toward the president at the podium. Obama returned it with a salute. The applause continued.

Nearly another 30 seconds passed before Obama started speaking again.

In the Capitol, the focus remained on the speech. But in the instant punditry of the Internet, conversations stopped being about policy and turned to this soldier.

In a receiving line after the speech, Obama asked Cory how his rehabilitation was coming. Remsburg told him, "Look." He stood up, out of his wheelchair.

Remsburg's phone, left behind in the White House, started lighting up with messages from friends, some of whom were fellow service members. "Too many," he would say during an interview the next day, while his phone still pinged, signaling the arrival of a new message.

Remsburg's phone started getting messages from media outlets. Morning news shows invited to fly them to New York. Piers Morgan's people were the most persistent. The most surprising call was from "Meet the Press."

"I didn't see that one coming," he said.

The Remsburgs had a 10:20 a.m. flight the next day. Craig had to be back at work.

Hero's greeting at airport

A military escort wheeled Cory Remsburg through Reagan National Airport. They were stopped every few feet by someone wanting to shake Remsburg's hand.

Kathy Sykes, 54, of Washington was preparing to board that same plane when she saw Remsburg being wheeled up. She immediately recognized him.

Sykes said seeing Remsburg, and getting to say two words of thanks to his father, was one of the most memorable moments of her life.

"You know," she said, "to see a hero."

Lisa VanSusteren, 62, a psychiatrist on her way to Phoenix for business, said she felt like clapping when she saw Remsburg on her plane. But the mood didn't seem celebratory. "It was very reverential," she said.

On the five-hour flight the Remsburgs had time to talk about the speech, the reaction, the media requests and what it all would mean.

"We determined at the end of the day, it's all about Cory and his therapy and his medical treatment," Craig Remsburg said. "And we keep that at the core."

This week, Cory Remsburg has appointments with a therapy dog. That will take priority over the national media requests.

Upon landing, Remsburg answered text messages as an airport attendant wheeled him out of the gate area, into the Terminal 4 concourse and down to baggage claim. Craig Remsburg grabbed the two checked bags and called his wife, who was parked in a nearby lot.

The father and son waited curbside to be picked up and driven home to Gilbert.

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