Caring For Wounded Vet A Burden Family Gladly Shares
Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.
Craig Remsburg's son, Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, was serving in Afghanistan when he was wounded by a roadside bomb in 2009. Earlier this year, the father and son attended the State of the Union address as guests of President Obama and the first lady.
This past week, Michelle Obama hosted an event at the White House to highlight the sacrifices of those taking care of wounded vets. A recent Rand Corporation study found that more than a million Americans are taking care of a wounded veteran who served after Sept. 11.
Cory spent three and a half months in a coma after he was injured. Craig tells NPR's Rachel Martin what it was like the day Cory began to wake up.
"It was incremental," he says. "He opened an eye, just one eye, and then he moved [an] arm, then he moved a leg. It's not like you sit up out of bed and start talking; it took him eight months to talk."
Craig and his wife both had full-time jobs, but he says there wasn't a second thought about how they were going to do it, they simply committed themselves to the around-the-clock care that Cory would need.
For six months, he and his wife traded shifts at the VA hospital in Tampa. For two weeks at a time, one would be with Cory while the other was home in Phoenix. They'd have about an hour at the airport to swap keys and let the other know of any issues.
"We finally decided that [was] not healthy," he says. So Craig's wife quit her job of 22 years to become her son's full-time caregiver in Tampa.
The financial burden was high, but Craig Remsburg received some help for the flights back and forth from a charity that sponsors severely wounded veterans.
Cory's story received national attention when he and his family were invited to President Obama's State of the Union address and seated right next to Michelle Obama. When Cory was introduced and the president told his story, he received a massive standing ovation. Craig calls it "the applause that didn't stop."
When they sat down, Cory told his dad that it wasn't about him, it was about wounded warriors.
"He knew that the picture was bigger than him," he says.
Today, Cory is back in Phoenix. He does four to six hours of physical therapy a day and a certified nurse assistant takes care of him when he gets home. Each night either Craig or his wife stays with Cory. It's difficult, Craig says, but he and his wife make it a point to find time together.
"We do a date night ... every Friday, we make that a point," Craig says. "We [make] sure we go out and get away from all of the stuff."
In the long term, Craig says his son wants to find independence again and be able to function and live on his own. Craig's goal is to help Cory get there.
"We're going to get him as close as we can to that independence and make him feel that he's contributing back to society, because that's what he wants," he says. "He doesn't want to be a drain, he wants to do something. And he knows he's got to take care of himself first."
Are you caring for a wounded veteran? What's the biggest challenge? Tell us what you think on the Weekend Edition Facebook page, or in the comments section below.
CRAIG REMSBURG: The army was very matter of fact. Cory was hit with an improvised explosive device. He was hit in the head. He was hit in the eye. We found him underwater, near drowning, had to resuscitate, burns, shrapnel wounds. And the best news out of that whole situation was he was still alive.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
That is the voice of Craig Remsburg. His son, Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, was serving in Afghanistan when he was wounded by a roadside bomb in 2009. Earlier this year, Cory Remsburg and his dad, Craig, attended the State of the Union address as guests of the president and the first lady. This past week, Michelle Obama hosted an event at the White House to highlight the sacrifices of those taking care of wounded vets. A recent RAND Corporation study found that more than a million Americans are taking care of a wounded veteran who served after 9/11. We asked Craig Remsburg what it's been like to care for his son Cory, who spent three and a half months in a coma. Craig Remsburg is our Sunday conversation.
REMSBURG: We would play Cory's favorite movies on the TV set. We would have available the odors he liked. He loved vanilla extract, so we always had those type of odors available.
MARTIN: What was his favorite movie?
REMSBURG: He loves "Scrubs."
MARTIN: "Scrubs," the TV show.
REMSBURG: Yeah, yeah. TV show, he likes "Scrubs." And the VA, the technicians and therapists, start, you know, immediately. You know, in a coma and they're still, you know, trying to work him, you know, move him around and talk to him and drugs and all kinds of stuff.
MARTIN: What was it like when he opened his eyes? Were you there?
REMSBURG: I was there. And it wasn't really quite like that, but what was incremental is that probably after five weeks, six weeks he opened an eye.
REMSBURG: Just one eye. And then he moved a arm. And then he moved a leg. It's not like, you know, you sit up out of bed and start talking. It took him eight months to talk.
MARTIN: Meanwhile, you and your wife both had full-time jobs.
REMSBURG: That's correct. It wasn't even a second guess about how we're going to do it. We just did it. We committed to 24/7 care for Cory. That was our thoughts. We said, you know, somebody's got to be there, somebody in the family. And it was primarily my wife and I. We did two-week shifts. Somebody would be back in Phoenix and then the other person would be at the Tampa VA. We would swap keys at the airport at the gate and say where the car was parked and go over anything. We had - normally had one hour. We did that for six months. And we finally decided that that's not healthy.
MARTIN: No, for your relationship, too.
REMSBURG: Yeah, exactly. It just wasn't healthy. And so my wife decided that she'd quit her job after 22 years and become the full-time caregiver at the Tampa facility.
MARTIN: If you don't mind me asking, what kind of financial burden was this? I imagine that the costs were astronomical.
REMSBURG: So the - certainly, her not working, that definitely, you know, that hits. And we adjusted. And, you know, every now and again you maybe dip in a little bit into the savings. But we - it's interesting how things work out. I had gotten contacted by a charity, a startup charity in St. Louis, Mo. And that's where Cory graduated from high school. And they adopt the severely wounded. So they paid for my flights back and forth.
MARTIN: I do want to ask you about the State of the Union address. You and your son attended, sat next to first lady Michelle Obama. And at the end of the speech, President Obama introduced your son to Congress and the country and held him up as this example of America at its best, which had to have been an amazing moment as a dad. What did that mean to you?
REMSBURG: You know, the State of the Union was just one of those - it's not even a once-in-a-lifetime, 'cause, you know, people don't get those offers. And we really didn't know where we were going to sit at until it was literally right before Michelle Obama got brought in. And one of the - our escorts said you got, here's your tickets. You guys are in the front row.
REMSBURG: Look for your names on tape on the chair. And I see Dr. Jill Biden, Michelle Obama and it said Cory Remsburg. I said, oh, buddy, we're on TV tonight.
REMSBURG: And we started to look at each other, make sure we were cleaned up and hair in place. And that's pretty much how it was. But when he talked about Cory in the story, you know, he gives you that, you know, the goosebumps and that applause, the applause that didn't stop I call it.
MARTIN: The long applause. Yeah
REMSBURG: And it was - when we sat down, I looked at him. I said, what just happened? And he just kind of grinned at me and said that, you know - he goes, this ain't about me. It's about wounded warriors.
REMSBURG: And he knew that the picture was bigger than him.
MARTIN: How is Cory doing today?
REMSBURG: Cory is doing - he does great. He does 4-6 hours of therapy every day.
MARTIN: Is he living on his own?
REMSBURG: No, he's not. We have a CNA - a certified nurse's assistant...
REMSBURG: ...That waits for him when he gets home, part of the military respite care program since Cory is still active duty. And then my wife or I will then go over and spend the night for his safety. And so...
MARTIN: Every night, one of you two spends the night?
REMSBURG: That's correct.
MARTIN: That has to be challenging for your own relationship. How do you and your wife make time to see each other?
REMSBURG: So we do a - we've done a date night. And...
MARTIN: You keep that every week?
REMSBURG: ...We keep that. Yep, every week - every Friday, we make that a point. That we ensure we go out and, you know, just get away from all the stuff.
MARTIN: Life has obviously changed irrevocably, and I wonder what you want for Cory in the near and long-term, what he wants for himself, what he wants in life?
REMSBURG: Probably - sum that up in two words - find independence. He wants to be able to function and live on his own. And if you ask me what my goal is - find him independence. We're going to get him as close as we can to that independence, and make him feel, you know, that he's contributing back to society 'cause that's what he wants. He doesn't want to be a slug. He doesn't want to be a drain. He wants to do something, and he knows he's got to take care of himself first.
MARTIN: Craig Remsburg speaking about his son Army Ranger Cory Remsburg.
And you are listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.