A Devastating Injury Spawns New Role for TV Anchor and Wife
Lee Woodruff's first book, In an Instant, is aptly named. She begins with this sentence: "There is a ride at Disney World called the Tower of Terror, and on the weekend of January 28, 2006, my four children, even the twin 5-year-olds, begged me to go on that ride over and over again."
The ride begins on a creaky elevator, and then it suddenly drops. "The descent is so rapid, so sudden, that it almost sucks your diaphragm up into your throat... there is a moment where you are literally suspended in air, too stunned to scream."
The following morning at 7 a.m., while her kids slept in their hotel room, the ride began anew when she learned that her husband, ABC News Anchor Bob Woodruff, was critically injured in Iraq.
While embedded with the military, the newsman suffered a traumatic brain injury when an explosive device went off near the tank he was riding in. Bob Woodruff's five-year recovery has been painful and protracted at times, and the experience led the family to take on an unexpected mission.
Spurred by the stories of brain-injured soldiers at Bethesda Naval Hospital, the couple created the Bob Woodruff Foundation (BWF) to aid injured service members and their families, with a special emphasis on the hidden injuries of war -- traumatic brain injury (TBI) and combat stress.
"Difficult experiences can't help but force life in new directions," says Lee Woodruff, who has written another book, Perfectly Imperfect: A Life in Progress.
In an interview with SecondAct, Lee Woodruff talks about her husband's recovery, her role with the foundation and her own second act.
SA: What sparked the idea for the foundation?
LW: When the bomb exploded, hundreds of pieces of rock shrapnel were embedded in Bob's face, neck and back, and his skull was shattered. Doctors were unsure whether he would ever be able to walk or talk again or regain much mental function. When he woke up after 36 days in a coma, his abilities were severely limited. I watched, devastated, as he could not identify words like "scissors" or "helicopter." But he was determined to recover, and he devoted himself to rehabilitation. Today, apart from mild aphasia -- little snatches where he says the wrong word or is searching for the appropriate one to use -- he is back as a husband and father and on the air as a journalist at ABC News. Bob recovered well, but so many others don't, or don't have the long-term support to help them do so. Because of our journey, we knew it was important to give something back -- to make something positive come out of something so negative. Goodness and healing need to emerge from such a devastating event.
The Toll: 10 Years of War
More than 2 million troops have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq since September 11, 2001. "With this increased exposure to combat stress, there has been a growing number of service members with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI)," according to a Department of Defense report.
- More than 19 percent of service members returning from combat have experienced TBI, or roughly 380,000.
- Servicemen have self-reported PTSD symptoms 9 percent of the time when asked 90 to 180 days post-deployment.
- More than 27 percent of service members have reported depression symptoms when asked 90 to 180 days post-deployment.
Source: U.S. Dept of Defense's January 2011 report: Strengthening Our Military Families [PDF]
SA: A foundation? Couldn't you just write a check?
LW: Through ABC, Bob had all of his health care and rehabilitation covered. I never saw a bill. It was pretty incredible care-taking, and that is not what servicemen go through. They pretty much have to fight every step of the way. Bob's neurosurgeon said to me, you're a writer, and nobody out there knows that this is happening to these young men...maybe you can write about this." So we did. After our book was published in 2007, people would come up to us at book signings, start handing us money, and say 'Please get this to a soldier.'
Sometimes there is just your moment, where you stand up and say this is my cause... this is what I have to do. What really got it off the ground, though, was about three years ago, we had an incredible $1 million donation from one individual -- Helen K. Persson of Palm Beach. The then-89-year-old former Navy nurse from WWII, who took care of the wounded in the South Pacific, and her late husband A. Theodore Persson, share Bob's and my alma mater, Colgate University. She had read the book and been following our story. That put us on the map.
SA: Your mission isn't pro-war, though?
LW: This is not a political cause. No matter how you feel about war, this is all about how we treat the wounded right here when they return. An overwhelmed Veterans Administration hospital system, lack of funding, and a dearth of professionals trained in the unique injury types have all meant that the very people who need them most are still unable to access services. Brain injury is a silent and misunderstood affliction. There is no simple fix. Insurance companies fail to recognize the long-term nature of rehabilitation. TBI, combat stress and other combat-related injuries require extensive long-term care. We believe the injured and their families need more than just the support currently provided by the U.S. Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
We want to ensure that the young heroes and their families receive state-of-the-art treatment options, education, employment opportunities, and other long-term support to enable them to move back into their communities.
SA: What does the foundation do?
LW: We educate the public about the needs of service members returning from war. We invest in national and community-based programs that connect our troops to the help they need -- from physical accommodations and medical care, to counseling and job training, to larger social issues like homelessness, substance abuse and suicide.
SA: Can you give an example or two of programs the foundation supports?
LW: In San Francisco, a group provides veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with one-on-one personalized career development and job placement counseling, case management, mental health counseling, vocational rehabilitation to include TBI accommodation, job training and bridge housing during their job search. BWF funds salaries and fringe benefits, and the remaining amount is designated to fund operations.
In St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a group provides free air transportation exclusively to wounded warriors, veterans and their families for medical and other compassionate purposes through a national network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots. BWF funding will help cover program costs associated with dispatching flights throughout the United States.
SA: Did you realize at the time this was not only a chance to make a difference, but also a turn in your own work life?
LW: Absolutely. This was a whole reinvention of myself. I gave up the public relations business that I had and really made a right turn into being an advocate, a public speaker and a full-time writer. I now give about 100 speeches a year to raise awareness of TBI and the sacrifices of our military troops and families and am working on a new book. Recently, I've been out drumming up support for our Stand Up for Heroes - Washington, D.C., A Night of Hope, Healing and Laughter on June 16, 2011 (shown left). But, in truth, it started as a personal transformation. A crisis often has a way of re-prioritizing everything.
SA: Are you involved with the nitty-gritty operations?
LW: No. I can't take credit for the boots on the ground, figuring out how to create a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization, and so forth. I'm on the board of trustees. We have an executive director, René Bardorf, who runs the show. She has steered the organization's evolution from a small family foundation to a national nonprofit.
SA: What's Bob's involvement with the foundation?
LW: He's the spirit behind the foundation, but as a journalist he can't be involved in the foundation's day-to-day activities.
SA: What surprises you most about your second act?
LW: I am the person who went into PR, where my job was to make somebody else look good. I didn't set out to be the person in front of the camera, or giving the speech. I suppose in some ways, though, it comes naturally. I have the Irish gift of gab.
The Bob Woodruff Foundation
Location: Headquarters in Manassas, VA
Efforts: National nonprofit has invested more than $9 million, reaching more than 1 million service members, support personnel, veterans and their families. The group has given more than 100 grants to 49 organizations nationwide.
SecondAct contributor Kerry Hannon is the author of What's Next? Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job and covers careers, retirement and personal finance issues for a variety of national publications. She is based in Washington, D.C.
Read more: The Soldiers Project Helps Vets Heal