NEW YORK (AP) — The physical pain of nearly dying when shrapnel from a roadside bomb in Iraq tore through his head 17 years ago was hard enough for ABC newsman Bob Woodruff.
Mentally, it was even worse.
That’s evident in talking to Woodruff and watching as he takes television viewers on a journey to where his life changed in an instant on Jan. 29, 2006. His first time back to Taji, Iraq, is chronicled in “After the Blast: The Will to Survive,” which airs on ABC Friday at 8 p.m. Eastern and begins streaming on Hulu a day later.
At age 44, Woodruff had reached the top of a competitive TV business. He had just been named co-anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight” and was sent to Iraq at the height of the war there to report on its progress.
Riding in a patrolling Iraqi tank, he poked his upper body out to narrate a report when the improvised explosive device exploded. A couple of inches either way, Woodruff was told, and he would have been killed instantly.
As it was, he was in a medically-induced coma for 36 days. When he awoke, he couldn’t remember the names of two of his four children, only a small part of what he had to relearn. Much of it came back and he recovered quickly during the first two years after his traumatic brain injury.
But as is common for those with aphasia, a disorder that affects the ability to communicate, he plateaued. Recovery was not complete. He still has trouble recalling words and particularly names, although, truthfully, that was barely noticeable in an interview with The Associated Press.
“I have lost, without question, my abilities compared to what it was before,” he said. “It’s never going to be perfect. I say sometimes that it’s not my disability but a different ability.”
He is upfront about the mental challenges of recovery.
“The challenge is to finally admit, to confess almost, that you’re not able to do what you’re used to do,” he said. “Most people want to hold a grip on it and never give it up — I WILL be back to normal. Really, the goal and hope is that you will just realize that you are on a different path and to figure out the way to go down that path.
“I think that’s finally happened,” he said. “It took me a couple of years.”
He still works as a journalist for ABC and other Disney properties, but his days of live TV reporting are over. That’s too tough. He concentrates on long-form stories, like a special on fentanyl last year, an upcoming trip to the Arctic he took with military veterans and “Rogue Trip,” an adventure travel series he does with his son Mack.
He has constant contact with veterans through the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which raises money for military families. Bruce Springsteen performs regularly at their annual benefits, including on Monday despite an illness that has kept him off the road.
Woodruff is “a walking miracle of determination, of resilience, and of absolute dedication to reporting the story, whatever and wherever it is,” said David Westin, who was ABC News president in 2006.
“He’s an inspiration to us all,” Westin said. “And, in the end, it’s made him into a different — and in many ways better — reporter than he was before, reaching millions with stories we otherwise may never have known.”
This time, when he drove into Taji, it was in the back of a white SUV.
He had several motivations to return, including guilt. Like some injured veterans, he shared the feeling of having to leave before completing the job he was sent to do — despite a reasonable excuse. So he spent part of his journey reporting on how Iraq had changed, even visiting an ice cream shop that he had been to 17 years earlier.
“I wanted to finish the work,” he said. “I wanted to see this country that had been a huge part of my life and I wanted to really say goodbye to it. To some degree, I wanted to prove to those who detonated that IED that they really couldn’t stop us from coming back. We were not defeated.”
As he rides in the SUV, Woodruff tries to describe his emotions. “I go both ways on this one,” he said. “It’s been my dream to come back and at least finally see the place and tell those who were there and witnessed it that we’re OK.”
Then he stops. The tears flow, and he covers his face in his hands.
Part of the emotion, he explained later, was that the man filming him was Mack. His son was only 14 in 2006 when he waited with his mother, Lee, and three sisters to learn whether their father would live or die.
“In some ways my son had been my therapist for so many years, and there he was going to the same spot,” Woodruff said. “What kind of irresponsible father would I be if something happened again while we were there?”
A dirt road when Woodruff had been in the tank, the Mosul highway is now a busy paved thoroughfare. That allowed for some gallows humor when Woodruff and Magnus Macedo, the sound technician on Woodruff’s 2006 trip, tried to cross it.
“Don’t get hit this time,” Woodruff told him.
Woodruff reunited with Saad Al-Dulaimi and Ghassan Al-Mohammadawi, Iraqi military men who had accompanied him in 2006. “We told you to duck down,” Al-Mohammadawi, who lost two fingers in the blast, reminded Woodruff.
Not everyone shared the desire to go back. Cameraman Doug Vogt, who was injured filming the 2006 report, declined an invitation to accompany Woodruff again. And while Lee gave the go-ahead, you get the sense that his family wasn’t unanimous that this was a good idea. Some rough memories resurface.
“I live in a world that I didn’t even know about before,” Woodruff said. “I didn’t even know what a traumatic brain injury was. I didn’t know what TBI stood for. I certainly didn’t, like most Americans, have a relationship with military units, people who served over there.
“Now I do,” he said, “and that has been an incredible trip for me.”