Every so often, ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff feels a rock "emerge" from his face “like a zit," he says. But it's not a pimple; it's a not-so-subtle reminder of what he has been through over the past four years.
On Jan. 29, 2006, a mere 27 days after he was tapped to succeed Peter Jennings as the co-anchor of ABC World News Tonight, Woodruff was nearly killed when a roadside bomb struck his vehicle while on assignment near Taji, Iraq.
The details of the attack are still murky, but an improvised explosive device (IED) waylaid his convoy. Woodruff was wearing body armor and was in a tank, but his head, neck, and shoulders were exposed during the blast. The blast knocked Woodruff unconscious as rocks and metal pierced his face, jaw, and neck. Woodruff's cameraman, Doug Vogt, and an Iraqi soldier were also hurt.
"How I survived, we still don’t know to this day," Woodruff said in a speech this month in San Diego at the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery's annual meeting. The audience included the surgeon who rebuilt his face after the attack.
Road to Recovery
Right after the blast, no one thought Woodruff would survive. A medic told his wife, Lee, that a piece of paper that read "expected" was pinned to his chest. "I was expected to die," Woodruff says. When he survived, no one thought he would be able to work again -- especially as a broadcast journalist.
But Woodruff returned to the air 13 months after getting injured, telling his story in a documentary called To Iraq and Back: Bob Woodruff Reports. "I was nervous my first time back in front of the camera, and people were astounded that I was back at all," Woodruff says.
Upon waking up, "I could not remember my family members' names," Woodruff recalls. "I remembered [my wife] Lee and two of my kids. I could not remember my twins' names. I did not even remember having twins."
After that came multiple surgeries -- about nine, Woodruff estimates. His operations included the removal of part of his skull to relieve the pressure on his brain. Before going to Iraq, "I never had surgery other than dental surgery and a lot of stitches as a result of being raised with brothers," he tells WebMD.
Woodruff’s physical skills came back relatively quickly, but it took an intense cognitive rehabilitation program to regain some of the skills he had lost and relearn everything -- including the names of his then 5-year-old twins. "It took long-term rehabilitation to be able to live again and be back in their lives," Woodruff says.
Woodruff also suffered from aphasia, the inability to find words. Aphasia is caused by damage to one or more brain areas that handle language. "I couldn’t come up with words and I didn’t have a lot of synonyms," he says. "It was hugely frustrating."
The effects of his injury are still apparent. Woodruff occasionally has difficulty finding words or synonyms. He is blind in the upper quarter of both of eyes, and he has lost 30% of his hearing in one ear and 10% in the other ear.
Despite his injuries, Woodruff counts his blessings. The rocks narrowly missed the major arteries in his neck. "I am hugely lucky," he says.
The near-death experience has given Woodruff a new perspective. "I have realized how short of a time we all have on this earth," he says.
His daughter put it best when she told her mother, "Daddy has so many scars on his back and rocks in his face, and daddy doesn’t have words ... but I think he loves me more than he did before," he recalls her saying.
Woodruff credits much of his recovery to love and support of his family and friends, which he and his wife wrote about in their book, In an Instant: A Family's Journey of Love and Healing.
"I don’t know what would have happened to me without my friends and family," Woodruff says.
Paying it Forward
Today, Woodruff is an advocate for soldiers who have sustained traumatic brain injuries - the signature injury of the Iraq war. He started the Bob Woodruff Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a mission of providing resources and support for injured service members, veterans, and their families.
It is estimated that more than 320,000 U.S. service members have sustained traumatic brain injuries, according to the Foundation's web site.
Soldiers’ bodies are often better protected than in bygone wars. Their protective gear may save their lives, but it doesn't rule out brain damage, as Woodruff knows firsthand. "If this was five years earlier, I would be dead," he says.
The effects of traumatic brain injuries can linger. Soldiers and other people who sustain traumatic brain injury are more likely to experience emotional issues, including posttraumatic stress disorder, divorce, homelessness, seizures, and vision and hearing loss.
"Traumatic brain injuries have never gotten this much attention," Woodruff says. And he has a message for people with traumatic brain injuries: "There is hope and there is recovery."