By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
NEW YORK, Feb. 26 -- At the moment of impact, when the roadside bomb sent shrapnel and rocks hurtling into his face, Bob Woodruff says, "I saw my body floating below me, kind of a whiteness."
"Am I alive?" the ABC anchor asked the crew accompanying him in the Iraqi tank 13 months ago.
He was, but just barely.
When Woodruff awoke from a 36-day coma, he couldn't remember his brothers' names, couldn't even remember that he had twin 6-year-old daughters. The top of the right side of his head was missing, after surgeons were forced to remove part of his skull.
By contrast, the man who met reporters here Monday was upbeat, lucid and funny, if still unable to fully comprehend what happened. "In so many ways it's a miracle," Woodruff said.
He was, like any journalist, determined to tell his story. But in an hour-long special that airs Tuesday night at 10, Woodruff does more than that. He visits with Iraq veterans who also suffered traumatic brain injuries, documents their painfully slow progress and accuses the Pentagon of withholding information about how widespread these debilitating wounds have become.
Woodruff's reporting packs an emotional punch because he is, quite simply, a man who cheated death. Never before had an anchor for an American broadcast network been injured in war. Woodruff instantly became a symbol of the dangers that journalists face in Iraq, and is trying to use his higher profile to illuminate the plight of soldiers who struggle with these injuries far from the spotlight.
When he talks to these men, when he calls them "brother," when he hugs their loved ones, the bond is unmistakable.
Woodruff, 45, is launching a multimedia campaign that includes appearances Tuesday with Oprah Winfrey and on "Good Morning America," and the release of a book ("In an Instant") written with his wife, Lee, about their ordeal.
Lee Woodruff is the emotional heart of the television special as she recalls, in a narrative punctuated by home video, talking to doctors about her husband's condition. "I remember asking if he was going to be blind or deaf, and they didn't know," she says.
Each day, she says, she tried to "calibrate how much hope I was going to have that day." Before Bob came out of the coma, she worried that he would not recognize her. "Will he still love me?" Lee recalls asking a doctor.
After a screening of the program Monday, Bob Woodruff said: "Every time I see my wife crying, it kills me a little bit."
In January 2006, Woodruff, a lawyer who had switched to journalism in hopes of becoming a foreign correspondent, had just begun as co-anchor, with Elizabeth Vargas, of ABC's "World News." The plan was for them to alternate on the road.
"Bob was on top of the world," Jon Banner, executive producer of "World News," says on the program. "He was riding this wave."
When Woodruff arrived in Baghdad for his seventh visit since 2002, he and three crew members embedded themselves with an Iraqi unit to examine whether the country's soldiers were ready to assume more of the burden from the U.S. military.
Woodruff was taping part of his report Jan. 29, standing in the turret of a tank, when an improvised explosive device, or IED, went off. He and cameraman Doug Vogt, who was less seriously injured, were airlifted to a field hospital in Balad. Woodruff was in surgery 37 minutes after the explosion.
A CT scan of Woodruff's skull taken two days later showed rocks and debris lodged in his face and neck. One half-dollar-size rock narrowly missed severing a key artery. The explosion damaged the part of the brain that controls speech.
Woodruff continued his recuperation at Bethesda Naval Medical Center. In the documentary, he begins to cry when he returns to the hospital months later to thank the staff, and his wife shows him the bed where he was confined.
Woodruff is seen with his four children, struggling in the early months of his recovery to relearn everyday words. Looking at flash cards, he cannot remember what a hammer is called until prompted with the letter H. He struggles, with the children's help, to pronounce "belt buckle." At first he could not lift his left arm.
When physicians gave Lee a pessimistic prognosis, she recalled saying: "You don't know my Bob. He's a fighter."
His progress, which stunned his doctors, contrasts sharply with that of the other brain-damaged veterans who struggle to speak when Woodruff interviews them and their families. Some of that footage is hard to watch.
The ABC program says the veterans receive good care at the Veterans Administration's regional medical centers but that local VA hospitals are often ill-prepared to deal with traumatic brain injuries. The patients have, in the bureaucratic language of an inspector general's report, "sub-optimal access to care." One young man, who had been making progress at a larger VA facility, is seen losing some speech and motor skills as a paperwork snafu blocks his admission to a hospital back home.
VA Secretary Jim Nicholson tells Woodruff that his agency is devoting considerable resources to brain-injured patients. But the program charges that military officials are withholding information on the extent of such injuries among Iraq veterans, and that many soldiers also suffer from "invisible" brain injuries that go undiagnosed for long periods. A veterans' advocate accuses the Pentagon of issuing "gag orders" on discussing traumatic brain injuries, and Woodruff reports that the department declined to release some information for "operational security reasons."
Woodruff, for his part, still fumbles occasionally for the right word. At Monday's press briefing, he said he had "news" when he meant "knowledge," then stopped and corrected himself.
Woodruff said he did not regret having gone to Iraq, but that he would "have to be an idiot" not to think about what he could have done differently.
Asked if he would return to Baghdad, Woodruff refused to rule it out, but ABC News President David Westin did it for him. Given Woodruff's brain injury, Westin said, "it would be the height of recklessness. . . . It would be insane." Westin praised Woodruff's "resilience and strength of character."
Woodruff's facial scars are no longer visible; doctors glued a synthetic piece of skull where the missing piece had been. He plays tennis, swims and skis -- limited by blindness in the upper-right corner of both eyes -- but his wife has barred him from basketball and soccer.
While he may try to return to anchoring one day, Woodruff said, "I love reporting, and that is plenty for me." He plans to keep focusing on the problems of veterans.
"Will I get back to 100 percent? Probably not," Woodruff said. "But if I get in the 90s, that's pretty good."