ABC's Bob Woodruff: The Unexpected Life

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Bob Woodruff in 2014. (Getty Images)
Bob Woodruff in 2014. (Getty Images)

I'm comfortable to talk about anything, Bob Woodruff says. I'm lucky to be alive.

In January 2006, Woodruff stood on the precipice of stardom as the new co-anchor, together with Elizabeth Vargas, of ABC's World News Tonight, the heir in many ways to the legendary globetrotting anchor Peter Jennings, who had died of cancer the previous summer.

Woodruff had brought viewers stories from the "hermit kingdom" of North Korea and from conflict zones including the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. In that first month as co-anchor, it made sense for him to venture once more to Iraq.

"I never wanted to sit at that desk and be trapped there in any way. Peter Jennings was just, you know, a hero to many of us," Woodruff said in an interview. "And he really loved to be out in the field. In many ways that's what I wanted to do."

Everything changed in a blast and a flash for Woodruff near Taji, north of Baghdad, a decade ago today. He was struck by a roadside bomb lobbed at the Iraqi armored vehicle he was traveling in, casting his survival in doubt. After top-flight care at military hospitals in Iraq, Germany and the U.S., he would beat even steeper odds to return as a reporter after a long and wrenching recovery. But even then, Woodruff knew he could never anchor again, never quite reach those lofty heights.

"I do think about that every once in awhile. I certainly did back then," Woodruff tells NPR in an interview. "People fight to get back what they [had], and they have anger" when they fail to attain it, he said.

"There's no secret I had the same," he said. "In that sense, that's why I relate so well to those who've been wounded in the wars."

Vargas would last only a few months in the new co-anchor role, ultimately assigned to host the news magazine 20/20 once more.

What could be a grim anniversary of a dark period is celebrated instead by Woodruff's family, colleagues and friends as his 10th "alive day" — a recognition that he has cheated death.

For some of the nation's most prominent broadcast journalists, Iraq served as a defining period.

Richard Engel made a name for himself with daring coverage, first for ABC and then for NBC.

NBC's David Bloom lost his life, killed by a pulmonary embolism suffered while traveling in an armored vehicle with the U.S. Army.

Brian Williams sabotaged his career by exaggerating the risks he faced there.

And then there's Woodruff, who rerouted his life's path and found meaning along the way.

A Lawyer Turned Journalist

Journalism had been an accidental calling for Woodruff. Bored by corporate law, Woodruff took a leave as a young associate at a nationally renowned law firm to teach in Beijing in 1989. He served as an interpreter for Dan Rather and the late Bob Simon of CBS News during the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The seed was planted. With the support of his wife, Lee, Woodruff took jobs in local TV news. That led to a job with ABC in the mid-1990s covering the Justice Department. But he itched to head abroad.

"Bob was the first one wanting to be out on the front lines of any breaking news story," said David Westin, who became president of ABC News in 1997. "That was his first instinct."

Woodruff says he was dismissive of any risks he might be taking, at worst thinking he might be shot in the hand or break a foot. He says his denial matched that of the soldiers he was covering: Someone else might get badly hurt, but not them.

Woodruff and an ABC team traveled with a U.S. Army unit. Along with cameraman Doug Vogt, Woodruff clambered into the back of an Iraqi armored vehicle. They soon decided to tape a report standing up out of a top hatch to show viewers their surroundings. The first attempt was too noisy for him to be heard. Woodruff tried again, only to be warned by the Iraqi driver to get back inside. A few seconds later, Woodruff was later told, an IED explosion went off to the left of the tank.

"Metal and sand and pebbles and rocks all shattered the left part of my face and my jaw," Woodruff recounts. "Some of these little rocks went all the way through my neck — past the veins and the arteries — and ended up in the artery on the right side of my neck. [They] went past the esophagus, the trachea and didn't actually kill me."

Vogt was out of danger relatively quickly, but a series of near miracles had to occur for Woodruff to live. Soldiers and others scrambled to help despite the threat from insurgents. An interpreter pressed his hand over Woodruff's neck to quell the bleeding. Later on, military surgeons had to remove a chunk of skull to accommodate his swelling brain. Within a few days, Woodruff says, he was back stateside, receiving expert care while in a medically induced coma that lasted five weeks.

Colleagues, including Westin and then-Pentagon reporter Martha Raddatz, swung into action to monitor Woodruff's care in military hands and ensure its quality.

Was that story worth all the risk?

"I asked myself that — starting on that Sunday," says former ABC News President David Westin, now an anchor for Bloomberg TV. "I had said repeatedly, 'No story is worth dying for.' "

But Westin says in retrospect he may have been a bit flip about that.

"I said that to mean, 'Let's be careful. Let's use some judgment. Let's not be rash,' " Westin says. "Because if no story truly is worth dying for, I should have kept him back in New York." Westin concluded the shifts in Iraq needed to be covered — with care and caution.

An Incomplete Recovery

When Woodruff awoke he embarked upon a long course of physical and cognitive therapy. Among other things, Woodruff says, he suffered from aphasia, caused by the damage to the left lobe of his brain. Woodruff says he found it harder to find the right words.

"You know, I can always make my points, there's no question about it," Woodruff says. "Sometimes it's names that are really hard for me to remember, because there's only one of them. There's no synonym for a name."

The University of Michigan law graduate pegs his mental capacity at about 90 percent of what it once was. Woodruff says he could not have anchored nor covered a presidential campaign, the meat and potatoes of a network reporter's life.

Yet his passion for reporting persisted. With the support of his wife and his colleagues, Woodruff sought to return to the air.

A year after nearly dying, Bob Woodruff returned to the air to cover severely wounded veterans. Under tightly controlled conditions, he even went back once to Iraq, accompanying Adm. Michael Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Woodruff also undertook long-form projects with other outlets, including the Discovery Channel and PBS. He provided a special focus on the care troops receive as they return home.

While he was recuperating at what was then the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Woodruff's wife Lee learned that many families of severely wounded troops could not afford to take time off from jobs to be with them during extended recoveries.

Together they set up the Bob Woodruff Foundation, built in part on a yearly concert, called "Stand Up for Heroes," with performers such as John Oliver and Bruce Springsteen.

The foundation has given away more than $30 million in grants for programs aiding service members and their families. (A foundation spokesman says it gave away 87 percent of the money it received last year and public tax records show grants of more than $3 million annually.)

Last year, Woodruff returned to China as ABC's new Beijing correspondent. He'll spend six months or so in Asia a year, and the rest at home in the U.S. Among his stories: a piece on the country's epic pollution, a sit-down interview with Defense Secretary Ash Carter on U.S. policy in Asia and a deep dive into the brutal treatment of the Rohingya ethnic minority in Myanmar.

It may take him a little more effort than the typical reporter to turn a story. He's OK with that.

Woodruff says the lessons he shares with wounded troops apply to him, too.

"You've got to at some point just stop dreaming of being exactly the way that you were," Woodruff says. "A lot of moments in your life — or things that you're doing in your life — will be better than they were before. The work that we've done with our foundation. I think, is the most satisfying, fulfilling thing I've ever done in my life."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Ten years ago today, Bob Woodruff was at the top of his profession. He had just become co-anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight" when, back on assignment in Iraq, a roadside bomb changed everything. He beat the odds to survive and to return to the network as a reporter. Bob Woodruff recently spoke to NPR's David Folkenflik about his unexpected path.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: It made sense Bob Woodruff would venture once more to Iraq in January 2006, even in his first month as co-anchor.

BOB WOODRUFF: I never wanted to sit at that desk and be trapped there in any way. Peter Jennings was just, you know, a hero to many of us, and he really loved to be out in the field. In many ways, that's what I wanted to do.

FOLKENFLIK: Woodruff says he gave little thought to the risk.

WOODRUFF: Maybe I'll get shot in the hand or maybe I'll be tackled or I'll break my foot. Maybe something like that, but I don't think we really think about getting killed.

FOLKENFLIK: David Westin was president of ABC News at the time.

DAVID WESTIN: Bob was the first one wanting to be out on the frontlines of any breaking news story, whether it was the Balkans or whether - after 9/11, it was Pakistan. I mean, that was his first instinct.

FOLKENFLIK: So Woodruff returned to Iraq and traveled with an army unit. A military driver there pointed out the sites.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is the main artery going through Baghdad. It's known for IEDs.

FOLKENFLIK: Here's Woodruff in Taji, north of Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WOODRUFF: This is one of the fixed base areas that the Iraqi military is protecting.

FOLKENFLIK: Along with cameraman Doug Vogt, Woodruff clambered into the back of an Iraqi tank. They decided to tape a report standing up out of a top hatch. Woodruff was warned to get back inside.

WOODRUFF: And apparently three seconds or so after the driver said that, there was an IED explosion just off to the left.

FOLKENFLIK: Woodruff tells me precisely what happened next.

WOODRUFF: Metal and sand and pebbles and rocks all shattered the left part of my face and my jaw. Some of these little rocks went all the way through my neck, passed the veins and the arteries and ended up in the artery on the right side my neck, went all the way through and went past the esophagus and the trachea and didn't actually kill me.

FOLKENFLIK: Off the air, producers scrambled to prepare an obituary. Doug Vogt was injured but out of danger relatively quickly. Yet, a series of near miracles had to occur for Woodruff to live. An interpreter pressed his hand over Woodruff's neck to quell the bleeding. Military surgeons had to remove a chunk of skull to accommodate his swelling brain. He was back stateside within a few days receiving expert care in a medically-induced coma that lasted five weeks. When Woodruff awoke, he embarked upon years of therapy. Among other things, it was hard for him to find the right words.

WOODRUFF: You know, I can always make my points. There's no question about it. Sometimes there's names that are really hard for me to remember because there's only one of them. There's no synonym for a name.

FOLKENFLIK: Journalism had been an accidental calling. Bored by corporate law, Woodruff took a leave to teach in Beijing, and in 1989, served as an interpreter for CBS News during the Tiananmen Square crackdown. That led to local TV news and then to ABC in the mid-1990s. His passion for reporting persisted. A year after nearly dying, Bob Woodruff returned to the air to cover severely wounded veterans. He even went back to Iraq under tightly controlled conditions. Woodruff knows he'll never be anchor again.

WOODRUFF: You know, I do think about that every once in a while. I certainly did back then. People fight to get back what they got, and they have anger that why didn't they get that and why didn't they keep it. There's no secret. I had the same. In that sense, that's why I relate so well to those who've been wounded in wars.

FOLKENFLIK: Woodruff's wife, Lee, learned that many families of severely wounded troops could not afford to take time off from jobs to be with them during extended recoveries. Together, they set up the Bob Woodruff Foundation, built in part on a yearly concert called Stand Up for Heroes, with performers such as John Oliver and Bruce Springsteen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORKING ON THE HIGHWAY")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Working on the highway and laying down a blacktop.

FOLKENFLIK: The foundation has given away more than $30 million in grants for programs aiding servicemembers and their families. Woodruff says the lessons he shares with wounded troops apply to him, too.

WOODRUFF: You've got to, at some point, just stop dreaming of being exactly the way that you were. There's a lot of moments in your life or things that you're doing in your life will be better than they were before. The work that we've done with our foundation, I think it's the most satisfying, fulfilling thing I've ever done in my life.

FOLKENFLIK: Last year, he returned to China as ABC's new Beijing correspondent. It might take him a little more effort than the typical reporter to turn a story. Bob Woodruff is OK with that. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.