August 10, 2011
Vol: 18 No: 31

Interview

The moment his life changed

By Rosette Royale / Assistant Editor

In 2006, journalist Bob Woodruff went to cover the war in Iraq. But when he suffered a brain injury caused by an IED, he became part of a different story.

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The Marines knew Taji, Iraq, was a bad area. The city, roughly 12 miles north of Baghdad, housed lots of insurgents. But the information didn’t stop the military convoy that rolled through the city on Jan. 29, 2006.

Standing up in the back hatch of a light-armored tank, the lead vehicle in the convoy, TV journalist Bob Woodruff prepared to tape a segment for ABC. He and his cameraman wore body armor and protective helmets. Without warning, an improvised explosive device blew up near the tank.

There was a BANG. Everything shook. Then it all came to a standstill. And Woodruff, who had succeeded Peter Jennings as ABC World News Tonight co-host only weeks before, fell over in the tank.

Shrapnel tore a hole in Woodruff’s neck. Another piece sliced into the left hemisphere of his brain. Convulsions shook his body. Trying to stanch the flow of blood, a soldier pressed his hand over Woodruff’s neck. “Come back!” the Marines yelled at him. “Come back!”

Indeed, for a brief moment, Woodruff came back and opened his eyes. He asked a question. Then he slipped back into unconsciousness.

He and the cameraman underwent emergency surgery in a U.S. Air Force hospital near Balad, Iraq. From there, both were airlifted to a hospital in Germany. In serious condition, Woodruff was flown to the Bethesda Naval Hospital, where he stayed in a medically induced coma for more than a month. Finally awake, he required months of therapy for brain-related trauma. (The cameraman fully recovered.)

More than five years after that explosion, Woodruff has become a spokesperson of sorts for others who have suffered brain injuries, particularly service members. The accident and injuries he suffered led to the creation of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which offers support to injured service members, vets and their families.

In mid-July, Woodruff came to town for a talk and a panel discussion entitled “Are We Serving Our Veterans?” Of particular focus that evening, which was sponsored by Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness, was a topic he speaks about with eloquence: homeless veterans. Prior to his arrival, Woodruff talked by phone about his recovery from brain injury, what service members suffering brain trauma can teach others, how vets from Iraq and Afghanistan differ from those from Vietnam and, with a tad bit of humor, the explosion itself.


Before you went to Iraq in 2006, what were your experiences with people in military service?

Well, I’d covered a couple wars. I was also embedded with the 1st LAR [Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion] of the Marines for the first invasion of Iraq—that was the first embedding that I ever did—but had done other stories with the military, including getting to know them in places like Kosovo. So I hadn’t spent long periods of time. But I think, like most reporters, embedding is something that became much more prevalent in Iraq and Afghanistan than it ever had before.


Had you had any personal interactions with military service people? Was anyone in your family ever in the military?

Yeah, my grandfather was: the Coast Guard, back in World War I. And my father was in the army in the Korean War.


So, I feel almost crass asking questions about what happened to you on Jan. 29, 2006.

Yeah. Jan. 29, 2006. I was actually with the 4th Infantry, up in Taji, which is north of Baghdad. And we were out, to see how the U.S. military was passing more control and power to the Iraqi military. Me and my team, we decided to ride along in an Iraqi tank and see how they operated. And that started a change in our lives.


Do you have any memories of the explosion? At all?

You know, it’s hard to [he chuckles] define “remember,” “memories.” I do remember sort of instantly going out. And I do know one other thing: When I woke up, I still remember what I saw when I opened my eyes—I was out for a minute—I looked up and I saw that one of my teammates was bleeding out of his face. And I asked, “Am I alive?” and they said, “Yes.” That’s the last thing I remember.


And when you came back to consciousness, where were you?

I was in Bethesda Naval [Hospital]. I had been unconscious for 36 days.


I had a friend who was ill in the hospital for two days and lost consciousness, and [she] went through this instance of trying to recall what happened those two days. So I’m going to ask you: How was it for you to

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