Robert Warren “Bob” Woodruff is a renowned television journalist who has, quite literally, been to hell and back. On January 29, 2006, Bob and photographer Doug Vogt were reporting for ABC News on U.S. and Iraqi security forces near Taji, Iraq. They were seriously injured by a roadside bomb that struck the vehicle they were riding in. Bob received a traumatic brain injury that nearly killed him. The story of his amazing recovery and the manner in which the family was able to survive such a heartbreaking event serves as a model for coping with tragedy.
Bob and I first met during an ABC affiliates’ board of governors meeting in New York City on December 8, 2005. He and Elizabeth Vargas had just been named as co-anchors of ABC’s World News Tonight to fill the seat of the late Peter Jennings (see the Peter Jennings’ WINNER’s profile for more about the iconic news anchor). “I am honored and humbled by this new assignment,” Bob said at the time. “Peter Jennings set a standard that all of us aspire to meet. Following in his path as co-anchor of this broadcast is a weighty challenge but it’s also an opportunity for Elizabeth and me to help ensure the broadcast lives up to his ideals and continues his unwavering commitment to covering the world.” The affiliate board initially had some reservations about the first dual-anchor, male-female team on a network evening newscast since the low-rated pairing of CBS’ Dan Rather and Connie Chung a decade earlier. But Woodruff, Vargas and ABC News President David Westin alleviated those concerns as they discussed their vision for the future, including an ambitious plan to broadcast live in three time zones. I recall leaving the meeting impressed by – and happy for – Bob & Elizabeth, and relieved that the network and its affiliates were about to finally emerge from the holding pattern we’d been in since the death of Peter Jennings four months earlier.
Bob Woodruff would hold his dream job for only twenty-seven days. He set up a trip to Israel to report on the aftermath of the 2006 Palestinian elections, and then via Amman to Baghdad for a series of reports just ahead of President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address. It was there that he and photographer Doug Vogt were imbedded with the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. The armoured vehicle they were riding in was hit by an improvised explosive device, and they suffered serious injuries. They both underwent immediate surgery for head injuries conducted by a joint Army/Air Force neurosurgical team at the U.S. Air Force hospital south of Balad, located in Camp Anaconda. During the overnight hours, Woodruff and Vogt were evacuated to the U.S. Army’s Regional Medical Center near Landstuhl, Germany, the largest military hospital outside of the continental United States. Bob was kept in a medically induced coma for 36 days to assist his recovery. He would later undergo more surgeries at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland and at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City during what was a lengthy, painful and difficult process to recover from his devastating brain trauma.
Following months of recuperation and only a month after doctors had given him a new skull, Bob returned to the ABC newsroom for the first time on June 13, 2006. He was accompanied by his wife Lee, David Westin, and veteran ABC journalist Charlie Gibson (Elizabeth Vargas had previously announced her resignation from anchoring World News Tonight on May 23, 2006 due to her pregnancy and upcoming maternity leave, and a desire to spend more time with her family; Gibson was named sole anchor of the show on the same day –Ed.) “It felt like coming home,” Bob would later say about the emotional reunion with his caring colleagues. Coincidentally, I had been elected chairman of the ABC affiliates’ board of governors the month before on May 17, 2006. David Westin and I talked privately during those meetings about finding the right time for me to reach out to Bob on behalf of the entire affiliate body. It was later that summer when David provided a phone number for me to make just such a call, and I left a message for Bob to call me at a time when he was up to having a conversation. Bob returned my call a few days later, and I was able to express to him the ongoing concern and support from affiliates for what he and his family had endured. It was evident that having such a conversation was still an effort for Bob as he chose his words in a slow and deliberate manner. But what was even more clear to me was his undeniable determination and indomitable spirit. I would learn many months later that Bob struggled with expressive aphasia for more than a year, which is not surprising given the extent of his brain injury. Bob later said, “each day the words come more easily…” I concluded our call by conveying to Bob that, like his network colleagues, newsrooms at affiliated stations across the country were looking forward to his return to a profession that he loved so very much…and was so damned good at.
In February 2007, just thirteen months after being wounded in Iraq, Bob returned to ABC News with his first on-air assignment. To Iraq and Back: Bob Woodruff Reports was a documentary about his experience presented on ABC in primetime on February 27, 2007. Through interviews with his family, the military medical teams that miraculously saved his life, and the ABC News crew and soldiers with him on that fateful day, Bob told the story about his journey to Iraq and back. He also returned to the field to report the stories of brave young soldiers and marines who, like him, were recovering from Traumatic Brain Injury – or TBI – which would later become known as the signature injury of the Iraq war. Bob Schieffer of CBS said this about the documentary: “Then there is Woodruff, who went to Iraq to get one story, was badly wounded and after months of treatment recovered to find another: the unacceptable way that many who suffered the kind of serious brain injury he suffered were lost in a nightmare of red tape and going without the treatment they needed. The rest of us should have paid more attention…” It was a gripping hour of television, and Bob Woodruff was back!
It was also in February 2007 that Bob and Lee published a best-selling memoir about their journey. It was written by the two of them together in what had to be the ultimate “couples therapy” exercise. Their writing relied heavily on the daily journals Lee had maintained in the months following the tragic incident, while Bob contributed his nightmarish recollections of the experience in words only he could express. The book chronicled Bob’s injuries, and spelled out in very personal terms how their family persevered through such an intense ordeal. For more on Bob’s story, and the love and incredible support of his wife and family, read In An Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing by Lee & Bob Woodruff (Random House, 2007). Longtime NBC anchor Tom Brokaw contributed this praise on the book’s back cover: “In An Instant is a book for our time. Bob and Lee Woodruff give us a loving, terrifying, and ultimately inspirational tale of the perils of war, the demands of network journalism, and the strengths of a great marriage. We’re all the richer for their courage, their commitment to each other, and their willingness to share the many lessons of their ordeal.”
Even a cursory review of the facts surrounding the carnage caused by the January 2006 roadside blast could lead one to logically conclude that Bob’s injuries should have killed him. “The inspiring thing is that sometimes, there are better things that occur because of what happened,” he told PEOPLE magazine. “A lot got worse, certainly in the beginning, but some things turned out to be a little better than we thought. They just took us on a different path.” That so-called path led to the establishment of the Bob Woodruff Foundation (BWF) which raises money for injured service members, veterans and their families. On November 7, 2007, the BWF partnered with the New York Comedy Festival (NYCF) to present the inaugural Stand Up for Heroes in an effort to both raise funds for, and an awareness of, the foundation. The ABC television network and affiliate board happened to be meeting in New York that same week. We all gathered in the Good Morning America studios in Times Square for a reception beforehand, and then walked around the corner to the Town Hall Theatre for the show featuring Conan O’Brien, Robin Williams and Bruce Springsteen. It was interesting to note during the evening how Bob enjoyed a special bond with wounded warriors, and that unique kinship would develop further in the years to follow. In November 2016, the NYCF and BWF celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Stand Up for Heroes. Regular performers Jon Stewart and Bruce Springsteen were joined by Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K., and Jim Gaffigan. It was now BWF’s premiere annual event. “We look forward to Stand Up for Heroes each year not only because it’s grown into New York’s biggest night of comedy and music, but because a decade of laughter has translated into a lifetime of immeasurable support for our nation’s injured heroes,” Bob said. To date, the foundation has raised over $42 million, awarded more than 350 grants, and reached out to 2.5 million veterans and families.
There was a time when the annual meeting hosted by ABC for and with its affiliates was a grand, multi-day affair in Los Angeles or Orlando. In the mid-1990’s, NBC even held one of their affiliate meetings in Hawaii! But by the early 2000’s, all the broadcast networks had scaled them back to shorter regional meetings and/or annual meetings held in conjunction with other industry gatherings such as the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas or the Upfronts (the “Upfronts” are a series of presentations made annually in New York City by network executives to advertisers, agencies, and the trade press to announce the schedule for the upcoming television season – Ed.). As chairman of the ABC affiliates association from 2006-08, it was my view that the challenges and opportunities posed by emerging digital platforms warranted a return to longer, more substantive meetings. Or as I said to Broadcasting & Cable magazine in an interview around that time, a meeting venue that would provide for “an extraordinary opportunity for meaningful dialogue and genuine relationship building.” Anne Sweeney, President of the Disney-ABC Television Group, strongly agreed and came up with the idea of holding the June 2007 meeting on board the Disney Wonder cruise ship. She would later say, “It was very important to me that in a period of great experimentation in our industry that we go into it together” with affiliates. As productive as the meetings turned out to be, it was made all the more special by virtue of Anne having invited Lee Woodruff and twin daughters, Nora and Claire, to join us on the network-affiliate cruise. It was not lost on any of us how Lee and all four of the Woodruff children had their January 2006 vacation at Disney World in Orlando abruptly interrupted by the news that their husband and father had been seriously injured while on assignment in Iraq. So it was especially nice to see the two girls, 7 years old at the time of the cruise, enjoy this trip with their mother in light of what they were dealing with just one year earlier.
The Warrior Games were founded by the United States Department of Defense in 2010, and are now held annually to provide an Olympic-style competition for wounded and injured veterans. The Bob Woodruff Foundation and many Stand Up for Heroes supporters have contributed time and talent to the Games since the beginning. Jon Stewart emceed the opening ceremonies in 2016. He returned to do the same in 2017, followed by a concert featuring Kelly Clarkson and Blake Shelton. The official sponsor of the swimming competition that year was the Bob Woodruff Foundation. “The Warrior Games recognize the journey to recovery these men and women are on and promote the healing power of sport,” said Anne Marie Dougherty, executive director of the BWF. “We are honored to support the Games and to help show the world that these athletes are not defined by their injuries — they are measured by their spirit and resiliency.” It’s hard to imagine any organization being better suited to serve as an official sports sponsor of the Games than the Bob Woodruff Foundation.
In 2013, Prince Harry opened the Warrior Games hosted by the United States Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, CO. He was serving as a Captain and helicopter pilot in the British Army at the time, and the experience moved and inspired him to create the Invictus Games. Named after Invictus (Latin for “unconquered” or “undefeated” – Ed.), the goals and format are very similar to those of the Warrior Games. In fact, Prince Harry would later say that the Warrior Games were “such a good idea by the Americans that it had to be stolen.” Harry has demonstrated a commitment similar to Bob Woodruff’s when it comes to raising awareness for injured and wounded warriors, and the two have become close along the way. “I am extremely proud to be bringing an event like this to the U.K. for the first time and believe it can have a long-lasting impact on the well-being of those who have served their nations so bravely,” Harry told Bob in an interview prior to the inaugural Invictus Games which were held in London at Queen Elizabeth Park in September 2014. The second Invictus Games were held in May 2016 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando. An article in Forbes magazine (“How Prince Harry Brought A Glow To ESPN And Disney”) pointed out how this sports complex run by Disney was the perfect venue for the second ever Invictus Games. Medically-retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Randi Gavell shared her story about traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress at a symposium held in conjunction with the Games, and concluded her remarks with this statement: “Although you cannot see invisible wounds, please do not disregard the pain of those struggling through them. Oftentimes, they take the longest to heal.” Both the Warrior Games and Invictus Games serve a worthwhile purpose as they help those seeking to overcome such struggles. ESPN provided extended, live coverage of the Games and wisely added Bob Woodruff to the broadcast team which included Chris Fowler, Tom Rinaldi, Jeremy Schaap, and Marysol Castro. Bill Bonnell, ESPN’s coordinating producer, said, “We are thrilled to have a star-studded lineup of ESPN commentators bring this important event to fans. The Invictus Games is a chance to honor, through sport and competition, those who’ve willingly sacrificed of themselves for their country…” Bob was able to contribute personal observations and anecdotes which added a great deal to the compelling stories presented throughout the course of ESPN’s coverage.
Bob and I met up again in April 2016 during the annual National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) conference in Las Vegas, NV. He was presented the NAB Distinguished Service Award which recognizes significant and lasting contributions to the broadcasting industry. Previous recipients include Edward R. Murrow, Bob Hope, Chet Huntley & David Brinkley, Lowell Thomas, Walter Cronkite, Ronald Reagan, Charles Kuralt, Barbara Walters, Cokie Roberts, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Charles Osgood, Bob Schieffer, and Michael J. Fox (see the Michael J. Fox WINNER’s profile for more about this accomplished actor and great humanitarian). That’s a pretty impressive list of names, and Bob was a deserving addition to it. “Bob Woodruff is a shining example of excellence in television news reporting,” said NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith. “From Afghanistan to Iraq to North Korea, Bob has been on the front lines of the most important stories. The personal tragedy he has faced in pursuit of the news, in addition to this philanthropic efforts, make him more than qualified for NAB’s highest honor.” The award presentation was incredibly well done, and included an introduction and voice-over by his ABC News colleague and our mutual friend, Martha Raddatz.
In more recent years, Bob and I have occasionally stayed in touch via email or text. One event that has spurred such exchanges is the ESPY Awards (see the ESPYs WINNER’s profile for more on this annual awards show). Pat Tillman was a football player and soldier known for his passion, perseverance and determination. In 2014, the ESPYs created the Pat Tillman Award for Service to “honor an individual with a strong connection to sports who has served others in a way that echoes Pat legacy.” Sgt. Elizabeth Marks suffered a debilitating injury while deployed as a combat medic in Iraq, but overcame them to compete in the second Invictus Games where she won four gold medals. She earned attention when she returned one of the medals to Prince Harry, and asked him to deliver it to the doctors and nurses at one of the hospitals that had previously helped save her life — a request the Prince was happy to fulfill. Bob Woodruff lent his voice to the video played as part of Sgt. Marks’ introduction when the Pat Tillman Award for Service was presented to her at the ESPYs in July 2016. It was unfortunate that Bob was unable to attend the ESPYs in person to witness the presentation, but that was not the case in July 2017 when retired Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro Jr. was the recipient of the Pat Tillman Award for Service. Bob would not have missed that year’s ESPYs presentation as he once again did the voice-over on the presentation video and where Del Toro was given a standing ovation while accepting the award. Just two months prior to when Bob suffered his injuries in Iraq, Del Toro was injured in Afghanistan, also by an IED, suffering third-degree burns to 80 percent of his body, losing fingers on both hands and suffering nerve damage to his right foot and inhalation burns. Their experiences brought them together years ago and they have remained in contact ever since. During the 2016 Invictus Games, Del Toro told Bob, “Not only do I see myself, how I’ve changed, I’ve evolved. I’m stronger, more confident. I saw how you (Bob) were, how you evolved. It’s almost funny (that) we’ve been going toward the same journey together. We’d see each other here and there, and it’s been great.” Former Daily Show host, and longtime Stand Up for Heroes supporter, Jon Stewart presented the Pat Service Award for Service. It was gratifying to receive a picture of Del Toro, Stewart and Woodruff attached to an email from Bob after the ESPYs were over. His brief message concluded with, “DT is so happy.”
Bob Woodruff is a courageous WINNER who suffered unimaginable injuries in the pursuit of news, only to later make the most remarkable of recoveries. Shortly before returning to work at ABC News in February 2007, he reflected on how so very close he came to dying. He spoke about the marble-sized rock once lodged against a carotid artery leading to his brain. “Had that rock traveled one more millimeter,” he said, “I would have been dead. It’s a miracle I’m alive.” Since returning to the job he loves, Bob has reported from around the world. He has traveled to North Korea eight times, reporting on the growing nuclear arsenal in the hands of Kim Jong Un. Since 2015, Bob has been ABC’s primary correspondent throughout Asia. Miracle or not, it’s great to see him back doing the kind of work that has been honored with numerous Emmy, Alfred I. DuPont and George Foster Peabody Awards. Moreover, Bob and his family have shown how to make something positive come out of something so negative in their lives. As he and Lee said in the Afterword of their book, “Goodness and healing needed to emerge from such a devastating event” and their philanthropic efforts have cleared that bar. Bob is a WINNER and shining example of excellence in all aspects of life: work, marriage, family and giving back.
NAB “Distinguished Service Award” Presentation Video
Video Credit: ABC News/NAB
In An Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing by Lee & Bob Woodruff (Random House, 2007)
“Bob Woodruff” Retrieved from www.wikipedia.org
“Bob Woodruff Official Biography” Retrieved from www.abcnews.go.com
“Landstuhl Regional Medical Center” Retrieved from www.wikipedia.org
“To Iraq and Back: Bob Woodruff Reports” Retrieved from www.thedocumentarygroup.com
“Bob Woodruff Foundation – Investing in the Next Chapter for Our Veterans” Retrieved from www.bobwoodrufffoundation.org
“Warrior Games” Retrieved from www.wikipedia.org
“Invictus Games” Retrieved from www.wikipedia.org
“The Pat Tillman Award for Service” Retrieved from www.pattillmanfoundation.org
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Becker, Anne (February 22, 2008). “The Wonderful World of Sweeney” Retrieved from www.broadcastingcable.com
(March 6, 2014). “Prince Harry Admits to Stealing an American Idea” Retrieved from www.abcnews.go.com
Pearl, Diana (February 1, 2016). “10 Years Later: How Bob Woodruff Recovered from Being Hit by a Roadside Bomb in Iraq and Went on to Raise Million for Veterans” Retrieved from www.people.com
Cumming, Ann Marie (March 24, 2016). “Bob Woodruff to Receive NAB Distinguished Service Award” Retrieved from www.nab.org
(April 14, 2016). “Commentators Announced for Invictus Games at Walt Disney World” Retrieved from www.laughingplace.com
Michelis, Belen (May 2, 2016). “ESPN2 Gets “Up Close and Personal” with Competitors at Invictus Games 2016 Orlando Nightly Sports Science Features part of ESPN2’s Coverage” Retrieved from www.espnmediazone.com
Kille, Sam (May 10, 2016). “Conquering the Invisible Wounds of War” Retrieved from www.medium.com
Scott, Erica (May 10, 2016). “Injured Vet Talks Transformation With Bob Woodruff Amid Invictus Games” Retrieved from www.abcnews.go.com
Christie, Jennifer Cingari (June 28, 2016). “U.S. Army Sgt. Elizabeth Marks to Receive Pat Tillman Award for Service at the 2016 ESPYS” Retrieved from www.espnmediazone.com
Lewis, Hilary (September 12, 2016). “Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Louis C.K. Set for 10th Anniversary Stand Up for Heroes” Retrieved from www.hollywoodreporter.com
Miller, Stuart (November 1, 2016). “Stand Up for Heroes Celebrates a Decade of Raising Funds for Veterans” Retrieved from www.finance.yahoo.com
Sylt, Christian (November 2, 2016). “How Prince Harry Brought A Glow To ESPN And Disney” Retrieved from www.forbes.com
(June 9, 2017). “Bob Woodruff Foundation to sponsor swimming competition at 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games“ Retrieved from www.dodwarriorgames.com
Ungerman, Alex (June 28, 2017). “Jon Stewart to Present Service Award to Disabled Veteran and Invictus Gold Medalist at 2017 ESPYS” Retrieved from www.etonline.com
Hart, Danielle (July 14, 2017). “Injured vet: My son got me through everything” Retrieved from www.cnn.com