From chilling accounts of the roadside attack in Iraq that nearly took his life to a shocking investigation into the plight of military families dealing with injuries to their loved ones, Bob Woodruff returns to ABC News Tuesday night with a hard-hitting look at the human cost of war.
Thirteen months after suffering a traumatic brain injury when a roadside bomb struck his Iraqi army transport vehicle in Taji, Iraq, the ABC News anchor is back reporting, with the hourlong documentary "To Iraq and Back."
Amid highly personal stories of tragedy and triumph, Woodruff delves into the crisis of care faced by so many injured soldiers and their families, uncovering important new information about veterans suffering from brain injuries and the care the U.S. government provides. Woodruff meets soldiers who, after fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, must fight bureaucratic red tape before receiving the treatment they need, and others who may not even know they're injured, as traumatic brain injury can go unrecognized.
The Moment of Impact Relived
The start of the documentary shows Woodruff reporting from Iraq before President Bush's January 2006 State of the Union address. He had just started in his new role as anchor of "World News Tonight" earlier that month, and was embedded with the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, reporting on American efforts to hand over military responsibilities to the Iraqis.
Today, Woodruff told reporters at a press screening for the documentary that he has just a few memories of that day, beginning with his talk with soldiers before they set out in the convoy on the morning of Jan. 29.
"And then I remember driving along in the tank, up that road, and standing up outside through the open hatch at the top," he said. "When the IED actually exploded, I don't remember that," Woodruff continued. "But I do remember at that moment I saw my body floating below me and … a whiteness … I just saw something."
Moments later, he woke up in the tank and saw his cameraman Doug Vogt. "When I fell into the tank, I looked up and I saw Doug Vogt sitting right here across from me, and I know that I was spitting a lot of blood out of my mouth," he said. "And I looked up at Doug, and I saw his eyes big and afraid, and I saw the blood dripping down his face, just asking if we were still alive. And then that's really the last that I remember."
In the documentary, Woodruff's producer, Vinnie Malhotra, describes those terrifying moments after the attack: "Bob turned around and he looked right at me. And he said to me, 'Am I alive?' And I said, 'You're alive!' I said, 'You're alive. You're going to be OK.'"
The documentary then tracks Woodruff's long, trying medical journey. After fast-acting doctors in Iraq stabilized him, Woodruff was moved to Germany, where his wife, Lee, and brother David visited him for the first time.
Lee Woodruff recounts seeing her husband for the first time, saying, "When I walked around to [Bob's] other side, the left side, that's when I saw what just did not look like Bob."
Fourteen centimeters of his damaged skull had been removed. Four months later his skull was replaced with a plastic rendition.
Waking Up and Learning to Speak
With the aid of candid, never-seen-before family videos shot in part by his brothers, "To Iraq and Back" explores Woodruff's treatment for traumatic brain injury at Bethesda Naval Medical Center. The center has cared for more than 2,000 injured soldiers since the start of the Iraq campaign in 2003, according to hospital officials.
One of Woodruff's doctors at Bethesda, Cmdr. James Dunn, chief of trauma, describes the severity of Woodruff's injuries on a family video.
"If you look at the brain injuries we have at Bethesda," he says, "his was on the high end of being severe."
Lee Woodruff and other family members recount what it was like to sit in the hospital each day as Woodruff remained in a medically induced coma. She recalls how doctors could provide only vague information about her husband's condition; huge questions about his short- and long-term prognosis lingered and weighed on the family as the days turned to weeks.
Finally, after nearly five weeks, Woodruff wakes. Lee Woodruff recounts the moment she first saw her husband up and alert: "I walked in to his room," she says, "and I parted the curtains and Bob was sitting up in bed and he turned to me and he just said, 'Sweetie, where have you been?'"
Woodruff today told reporters that when he regained consciousness his first question was to ask how Vogt was doing, as he felt extreme guilt for bringing his crew to the dangerous region outside Baghdad.
In April, after three weeks of intense rehabilitation, Woodruff was finally able to move home to New York, where his recovery continued. In one scene, the journalist is seen relearning words by studying flash cards with his three young daughters as they help him negotiate words like "belt buckle."
Soon, Bob and Lee Woodruff returned to the Bethesda center, where they personally thanked the medical staff and began to film the experience for the project.
There, doctors and nurses marvel at Woodruff's amazing recovery. "I've seen probably less than five [people] that have actually been able to walk back into the ICU and thank us for what we did," says nurse Alison Bishoff. "So, to me, he's a miracle. His recovery was a miracle."
The doctors and nurses are seen hugging Woodruff as he begins to learn more about the condition he was in at Bethesda. He said today that learning what his family endured during that time was the hardest part of this past year, and that watching the documentary brings up a lot of emotion.
"It's difficult for me, there's no question about it," Woodruff said today. "There's been a lot of tears."
He went on to say that he nearly died several times in the first weeks after the attack, and as he began his recovery he could not lift his left arm due to a shoulder injury. He's now regained enough movement to play tennis, has been skiing with his son, adding that his wife requests he not play basketball or soccer.
Woodruff's rehabilitation continues at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York roughly once a week, and he says that his recovery may never end. He occasionally struggles to find words, and says that while regaining 100 percent of his abilities is unlikely, he jokes that if he could be somewhere in the 90s "that would be pretty damn good."
The Human Cost of War
Later in Tuesday night's hour, Woodruff returns to Bethesda once again -- this time in a more-familiar role: that of a journalist.
It's there he meets Army Sgt. William Glass, who, like Woodruff, was struck by an insurgent's roadside bomb in Taji, Iraq, and suffered traumatic brain injury. When Glass' wife, Amelia, asks Woodruff how long it took him to recover, the reporter says, "It's still going on."
Many of the families Woodruff met with across the country express frustration at the lack of care TBI patients receive once they leave specialized rehabilitation centers and return home. Woodruff asks Secretary of Veteran's Affairs Jim Nicholson about the ability of local VA hospitals to care for brain-injured servicemen. "We have organized the VA with this priority for these combatants returning back," Nicholson says.
But following brain-injured Army Sgt. Michael Boothby from Bethesda back to the soldier's hometown of Comfort, Texas, Woodruff watches Boothby's condition quickly deteriorate as he awaits the arrival of the paperwork that would allow him to continue his treatment.
While the U.S. Department of Defense says that there have been about 23,000 nonfatal battlefield casualties in Iraq, Woodruff discovers -- through an internal VA report -- that more than 200,000 veterans have sought medical care for various ailments, including more than 73,000 diagnoses for mental disorders.
Nicholson plays down those figures, telling Woodruff, "A lot of them come in for dental problems. … We're providing their health care."
Woodruff reports that even these numbers may not tell the whole story: According to unreleased data from the Department of Defense, at least 10 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans may have sustained a brain injury during their service.
The ABC News anchor reports: "That could mean that of the 1.5 million who have served or are now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 150,000 people could have a brain injury that may be undiagnosed and unrecognized by the casualty numbers from the Department of Defense."
While everyone with symptoms of a brain injury may not need extensive treatment, Woodruff learns that the Department of Defense is not screening all returning soldiers, despite recommendations from the Defense Department's own Defense and Veteran's Brain Injury Center.
Woodruff says that he and others at ABC News will continue to report on this story because "the human cost of war is sometimes overlooked," and injured veterans "need support that matches their sacrifice."
When asked today if would return to Iraq, Woodruff said his wife would have the final word. As he thought aloud about the idea, ABC News President David Westin chimed in: "I will not send him," Westin said. "It just would not make sense. He's more vulnerable than he was before. It would be the height of recklessness, from my point of view, to allow Bob Woodruff to go back to Iraq."
Woodruff joked that he would have to go "without" Westin.
Bob and Lee Woodruff have established a fund to assist members of the military who are suffering from brain injuries. To learn more, click here: Bob Woodruff Family Fund.