ABC's Bob Woodruff: The Unexpected Life The ABC News correspondent was almost killed in Iraq 10 years ago. His recovery and return to network journalism beat all the odds.
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ABC's Bob Woodruff: The Unexpected Life

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ABC's Bob Woodruff: The Unexpected Life

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.

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