Books: 'Fighting to Report -- and Survive -- the War in Iraq'

Breathing The Fire
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Kimberly Dozier
CBS News Foreign Correspondent
Tuesday, July 8, 2008; 1:00 PM

CBS News foreign correspondent Kimberly Dozier was online Tuesday, July 8 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her book about her recovery from severe injuries suffered in a car bombing in Iraq, medical and psychological treatment for returning U.S. veterans, and the state of the war today.

The transcript follows.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Don't some of the returning Iraqi veterans face rather unique psychological problems that we need to recognize and handle? Don't some of the bombs create compressions around them that literally rattle the brain inside the head, which can create medical brain problems that aggravate psychological problems?

Kimberly Dozier: Hello, and thanks for writing. Greetings to all on the blog.

I believe both Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face unique challenges in that many have gone through multiple explosions and therefore may have some degree of traumatic brain injury -- which depending on the degree of it, you can recover from if you can detect it and give your bruised brain time to recover in the field. (I understand that some commanders now are keeping guys off patrol for a few days if their brain got rattled by an IED to give it time to heal.) The more severe injuries, however ... the military still is catching up on diagnosing. I keep asking every official I talk to about the subject: How about the folks with TBI from early on in this conflict, when we didn't yet recognize the severity/frequency of the syndrome?

There's a second problem -- the ambush nature of insurgent/guerilla attacks, and the very nature of counterinsurgency theory, which wins over the population by putting troops among the population to provide security.

All the time, U.S. troops must both be on their guard, and yet understanding of the people they are protecting -- their culture and motivations. They're not allowed to depersonalize them by calling them "hajis" or similar. They have to see them as people -- who are sometimes friendly and welcoming, but can in the next instant turn on them.

That must do your head in, in a unique way. Who is the enemy?


Harrisburg, Pa.: Thank you for participating in this discussion? How are you doing, and how do you feel looking back? Do you find many people willing to listen and help?

Kimberly Dozier: I'm back to 100 percent ... no limp, no pain, and I'm actually training for a 10K, and just found a decent aikido dojo, so life is good. I almost can do the child's pose in yoga again, though Lotus is a struggle. Then again, Lotus was always a struggle.

Re: The attack, I've had no bad memories, no flashbacks, no repetitive thoughts, no desire to self-medicate etc., etc. As many people in the public assume that everyone develops PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) after a traumatic incident, I've done what I can to educate people that there are ways to avoid developing it. (For me, talking about the incident with friends, family and anyone who walked into my hospital room helped; writing about it helped even more -- defusing the pain/nightmare of the original trauma.)

And if a soldier/Marine/airman/diplomat/contractor or journalist from a war zone does go on to develop PTSD, I also have tried to point out that there are some amazing treatments for it now. Many medical professionals believe you can get beyond it, or at least mitigate it so it doesn't affect your daily life.

My discussion of this has angered some in the Vietnam vet community, who thought I was lecturing them on the subject -- I hope they see I'm simply trying to use this tragedy to bring attention to an important subject, that a new generation of troops needs to hear about, so maybe they can avoid what happened to so many veterans who came home from Vietnam.


Washington: First, congratulations on your Peabody and Edward R. Murrow Awards for "The Way Home," a report on two wounded women veterans. That was remarkable work done by a journalist who truly has been on the ground in Iraq and has shared the story of America's troops injured in the frontlines. With that said, do you think that your injury has helped you to better cover the war in Iraq, or made it more difficult?

Kimberly Dozier: Being injured alongside U.S. troops opened my eyes to a story I thought I knew about -- but I had no idea how long and painful the journey of the U.S. combat injured was/is until I went through it. Four out of five injured troops from Iraq and Afghanistan have injuries like mine -- to the arms and legs. For many of them, as for me, it takes a year or two to rebuild a shattered body to get back to some semblance of "normal."

In a real way, I'm a walking good news story -- of the advances military surgeons and EMTs have made in trauma medicine, which are helping to save civilians lives back home now. (Trauma research is woefully underfunded in the states, though trauma is the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 20 and 50. Most medical advances in trauma come from wars.)

Here's what was wrong with me:

A 500-pound car bomb went off within 15-20 feet of me, sending a small shard of shrapnel into my brain, breaking both femurs -- one in three places -- slicing my femoral artery and studding my legs from hips to ankle with burning shrapnel, burning one of my quadriceps to shreds among other things.

I was on the ground for an hour, with a regular soldier, SSG Jeremy Koch, tying tourniquets on me, and calling for his medic Lacye Presley to give me IVs every time I stopped talking to him and "went under." I'd lost more than half my blood by the time I reached the Baghdad casualty hospital with the other injured troops. (And FYI, just by happenstance, I was last in line for medical aid -- there was no VIP nonsense, as some reported early on.)

I coded five times on the operating table. They thought about taking both my legs off, but a device a surgeon had rigged up a month before proved to the docs that I still had one working blood vessel to each leg. So they kept them on.

It's been put like this way to me: If I'd been hit in 2003, I'd be dead. In 2004, I would have lost both legs. In 2005, I would have lost my right leg. In 2006 -- I'm alive, walking and even running on two feet.

The journey through the military medical system, and through recovery, has made me committed to bringing awareness to the issues of the combat injured, sometimes through reporting but more often through speaking engagements, as I need to refocus my reporting on what I always have covered: foreign policy, military strategy in general and the Islamic world in particular. That's part of recovery -- not letting yourself be defined by your illness, but moving beyond it.


New Hampshire: Hi Kim, and thanks for taking my question. I am so glad that you have made such a remarkable recovery. I have heard you speak of the great care that you received, and for that I am grateful. Your work in Iraq was valuable to all of us here. I wonder if you could speak to the medical care available to the Iraqi people. I have heard that the rates of birth defects, stillbirths, malnutrition and water-borne diseases have risen dramatically (not to mention the injuries from violence and bombing). What is the situation for the Iraqis?

Kimberly Dozier: Medical care in Iraq is woeful, and not for lack of millions in investment by coalition forces/USAID/nongovernmental organizations, etc. When I was in Iraq under Saddam, you could see then that the hospitals had been gutted by sanctions, so it's not like they had much to build on when coalition troops entered in 2003. US troops frequently hold clinics, and have sponsored the ugprade/revamp/building-from-the-ground-up construction of many medical facilities, but there is so far to go.

An Iraqi with my injuries simply would not have lived out the day, much less made the recovery I've made. U.S. military medical centers on the ground treat many Iraqis who are brought to them, but that's on a catch-as-can basis.

A surgeon friend of mine, Dr. Andy Pollak, took a group of surgeons from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons to operate at the U.S. military medical center in Balad last year (where the shrapnel got removed from my brain). In a week, they treated 30 Iraqi civilians for blast and gunshot wounds. What became clear to him is that even if the U.S. surgeons can "fix" folks, they need follow-up care -- and many Iraqi surgeons don't know how to treat blast injuries any better than an American civilian surgeon could. He's working on a course for Iraqi surgeons, in which they'll be flown out of Iraq to train in the Gulf, to learn how to treat blast injuries.

But there is so much more that needs to be done.

My CBS colleague Elizabeth Palmer is doing a story on the subject -- which will air tonight, news permitting, on the CBS Evening News. So please watch!


New York: War is a very dangerous place; do you think it is appropriate for a woman to be in a war zone? Were you trying to prove something to somebody? You are a fine journalist -- why don't you stay at home in the states?

Kimberly Dozier: Actually, I never think about being a "woman in a war zone." I'd worked in Iraq since 2003, had visited there for a month to three months at a time under Saddam, and I've covered wars/conflicts etc. since my early 20s -- so that's two decades doing this. Surrounding me always were amazing examples of women doing the job -- my hero, CNN's Christiane Amanpour, my first boss, Pulitzer Prize winner Caryle Murphy for The Washington Post, Laurie Kassman of Voice of America, etc., etc. We always are surprised when we hear that you don't know we've been there all along!

And few people in that small cadre of 200-300 people who do this job on a regular basis go to war zones to "prove something." You're there for the first draft of history. You're there to report on people in a crisis -- which always reveals both the best and worst of a person's character -- and you get the privilege of reporting that back to millions of folks back home.


Washington: Do you have any upcoming book events in the D.C. area? I'd love to get a signed copy. Also, do you have a Web site?

Kimberly Dozier: Thanks for the question on the Web site. The next event is July 28 at Friendship Heights Village Center Book, a talk and signing at 7:30 p.m. (open to public).

After that, the next big thing is the National Book Festival on the Mall, September 27. There will be more to come -- check "events" on the Web site. You also can see lots of the other interviews and reports I've done lately on the book, and on the subject of Iraq war coverage.


Arlington, Va.: So here's the real question: Would you go back?

Kimberly Dozier: Hey, I've been driving my bosses nuts, asking to go back since May! I've contented myself at present at the Pentagon, back-stopping the award-winning David Martin, dean of Pentagon correspondents, whom in-house we call "Story Breaker." He'll hate me for writing that.

I'd like to go back at least to Camp Victory and the Green Zone, to talk to folks on the ground, to get to the bottom of what they think is working with the surge -- and what methods they think they need to transfer/apply to Afghanistan.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hello. Your story is inspiring. My dad just suffered a stroke. Do you have any advice to keep him motivated for his therapy? What advice do you have for negotiating the "health care" system? Thanks.

Kimberly Dozier: You are your dad's best ally when it comes to navigating the health system. Every patient needs a patient advocate, to go over everything from which course of care to chose, which medicine might work etc.

The daughter of a civilian patient who had contracted a form of Acinetobacter in a Texas hospital contacted me. She'd read that I had gotten it, most likely from combat hospitals in Iraq. I was able to put her in touch with a doctor at Brooke Army Medical Center who had been working on new drug therapies to treat it. He got on the phone with the daughter, and then their doctor. They changed the man's drug treatment, and he improved enough to go home.

So you can do the same thing for your dad -- be an extra set of eyes and ears both to help him, and his medical providers.

As for physiotherapy ... get your physiotherapist (or you) to remind him where he was, and how far he has come, and how far is possible. (Physiotherapists usually will be more encouraging than doctors.) Sometimes progress seems so slow, you feel like "why bother?" That's when my physiotherapists really came through for me, saying "yeah, but a month ago, you could only do x, y, z."


Fairfax, Va.: I understand you're based in Washington now. Will you be returning to Iraq? Do you want to? The war coverage seems to have died down a bit. Does that concern you? Would you go to another war zone?

Kimberly Dozier: Temporarily based in Washington!

For the rest ... see the answer where I talk about going back to Iraq, and giving the surge a once-over on the ground.


Chicago: Hey Kim. I read the London Independents' Patrick Cockburn for my reporting on Iraq. He often recounts harrowing tales of reporting and close calls. I don't think we appreciate how precarious reporting from Iraq is, if we still care about Iraq at all. It seems like most people are numb to it, and just want it over. What are the internal dynamics between foreign correspondents within Iraq? Is it collaborative or competitive?

Kimberly Dozier: It's very, very collaborative -- we share security info and keep tabs on each other. When I hear Lulu Navarro on NPR, I listen for the sounds in the background of her report, worrying for her if I hear gunfire. I tease Richard Engel over an NBC when I know he's headed out on an embed. "Wear your ear plugs! Wear flame retardant clothing!" He put my book on his Time magazine "what I'm reading this summer" list, and let me go on the record saying his book, "War Journal," is great -- a fantastic read.

As for the public being "numb to it" ... well, I partly understand that. They feel whipsawed -- first told "we're winning," then the steady drumbeat of bad news that built to the crescendo in 2006 (which happened to be when Bob Woodruff's team and our CBS team both were hit). Now they hear the surge is working ... and I guess they're all burnt by a sort of "cry wolf" syndrome.

That said, so are U.S. commanders, with so many false dawns when it looked like the violence was down and political change was taking hold. I understand from folks in Baghdad that Gen. Petraeus won't let folks use words like "triumph" or "victory" or say "we're winning." The most they'll venture is "we're aiming for irreversible momentum." I hope they get there soon -- for my friends from the day of the bombing who are back there on the ground, for everyone serving on what feel like endless rotations, and for all the Iraqis living through it all day by day.


Washington: Why do you think we should go on fighting in Iraq? What purpose does it serve other than weakening our economy and our troops?

Kimberly Dozier: I don't know any military commander who wants to go on fighting in Iraq any longer than necessary. As one said to a colleague of mine, Brookings fellow Michael O'Hanlon, "if the American public thinks they're sick of it, how do they think we feel?" (Or words to that effect.)

I look forward to what I describe as a changing of the tapestry, at first thread by thread and then row by row, from military intervention to diplomatic and nongovernmental organizations. I think everyone in Iraq does.


New York: Did any military commander refuse to allow you to ride along with them because of the added responsibility to have to protect a woman civilian?

Kimberly Dozier: Never.


Anonymous: I would think most people trained in the "art" of war would have trouble getting into the lotus position. God bless you, and good luck in life!

Kimberly Dozier: Thank you! Here's to reaching the full lotus position by next year -- and all in all, trying to turn at least some part of this tragedy into something positive, and to find a little bit of grace.

Thanks to everyone for writing in today.


New York: In your book, military doctors and nurses referred to the commute by wounded service members from Andrews Air Force Base to Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Medical Center on blue ambulance buses as "the diciest part of a trip." The physicians feared that patients would get all the way from Iraq to Washington and then lose them somewhere on the D.C. Beltway running out of oxygen while stuck in a traffic jam. Was there anything done to alleviate this problem? Did the military come up with a solution on how to better transport our wounded troops?

Kimberly Dozier: Oh, one last note -- Army surgeon general Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker told me a couple weeks back that they've just rolled out three brand new million-dollar-apiece ambulance buses to get injured troops through the traffic.

For those who might not have read the book, it was a hellish journey on 495 because no one would get out of our way. Our blue bus ambulance had a siren, but did not look like an 'ambulance' so drivers would hear the siren, but not see an emergency vehicle in their rear view mirror, so they wouldn't move. Our driver kept having to slam onto his brakes, throwing us forward in the gurneys. Painful.

The new buses are supposed to look more like an emergency vehicle...and have even better oxygen tanks, etc. inside.

I'm hoping to get a look at one of them soon.



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