June 02, 2014 12:00 PM

Saluted by President Barack Obama during January’s State of the Union address, Army Ranger Cory Remsburg rose slowly from his seat next to the First Lady. Unsteady at first, he managed a smile and a “thumbs up” to the cheering crowd in the Capitol building. Overnight, he became the face of America’s wounded warriors. “It was not by choice,” says Remsburg, “believe me.”

What the nation saw that evening was the payoff for years of hard work – and frustration – as Remsburg, 31, rallied back from near-fatal injuries. Hit by a roadside bomb in 2009 in Afghanistan, he suffered severe traumatic brain injury, two collapsed lungs, paralysis and damage to his vocal cords. He spent three months in a coma. After dozens of surgeries he remains partially paralyzed on his left side and has impaired speech. But those challenges have not dampened how he embraces life. Once an avid runner and soccer player – who also enjoyed skydiving in the buff – Remsburg now spends most of his days at Phoenix’s SWAN Rehab center, working toward “getting as close as I can to what I was before. I’ve never thought about giving up on that. Never! Not once!” So, shortly after he began to walk with assistance, he was jumping (clothed) out of a plane again.

A member of the elite Ranger corps, Remsburg enlisted at age 18 and served 10 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He now keeps in touch with his Army buddies via Facebook or text. “No problem [with texting], thank the Lord!” he says. Before his injuries he was also, says stepmom Annie, “very much a ladies’ man.” So being cared for by Annie and his father, Craig, has been tough. Both initially took extended leaves from their jobs, Craig as an executive VP for Telgian Corporation and Annie as a consultant with Kelly Services. In September, Remsburg will move into a house, donated by two charities for wounded military, that is outfitted with ramps and wall bars. “He could stay with us,” says Craig. “But would that help him? No. His desire to be independent is what got him where’s he’s at today.” Says Cory: “I cannot thank my family enough. They never let me slack.”

Every morning but Sunday, Remsburg wheels himself onto a bus and heads to rehab, where he spends up to six hours in a regimen of therapies – physical, occupational and speech – all designed to allow him to someday return to a self-sufficient life. “This is much more difficult than any military training,” says Remsburg during a recent session. “I have to relearn the simplest things. Patience is something I didn’t have before. I’ve had to learn that, too.” The staff is impressed. “Cory’s injury was the worst of the worst,” says therapist Kay Wing. “People with this kind of injury usually don’t come this far.”

Another source of help has been Remsburg’s service dog Leo, a Dutch Shepherd his sister Shelby found for him in a shelter. Leo assists Remsburg with tasks such as opening and closing a refrigerator or turning on lights. Leo may also be able to detect and alert for symptoms of PTSD. “One of the concerns with TBI, especially when the person is struggling to get back to where they were, is severe depression,” says Annie. “So we watch Cory very closely. But Cory remains a positive go-getter.” Asked if he ever gets depressed, Remsburg says: “Oh, no! I figure I made it this far for a reason. Why screw up now?” Still, he admits to not always understanding what the reason is. “I’m still trying to figure out why,” he says.

Since the State of the Union, Cory and his family are looking for ways to turn that attention into help for others. “There are people still coming back from the war injured, or worse, killed,” says Craig. “Let’s not forget.” Whether as an advocate for wounded veterans or as something else, Remsburg wants to be of service again. He has had to give up a dream of becoming an air marshal. “But I would like to find a vocation. And start a family. What I tell other people in similar situations is: the key is to want it. You have to want it.”

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