Ten years ago, Bob Woodruff’s role as co-anchor of “ABC World News Tonight” — and nearly his life as well — ended in a flash when he was wounded in a roadside IED attack while covering the war in Iraq. He was medevaced to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he was stabilized, then flown to Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he regained consciousness and began a process of recuperation that continues to this day.
These past 10 years have also been packed and productive. Woodruff established a foundation in his name that has channeled more than $30 million to wounded veterans so they and their families can “meet emerging and long-term needs,” both financial and medical, per its mission statement. (The foundation is funded in part by the Stand Up for Heroes concert series, most recently held Nov. 1 at Madison Square Garden.)
Woodruff, 55, is a correspondent for ABC News, and also network TV’s pre-eminent reporter on veterans’ medical issues. This week, he anchors and reports “Military Medicine: Beyond the Battlefield” (Wednesday at 10 p.m. on WNET/13). The PBS program explores advances in limb replacement, organ and skin regeneration, and — among the most intractable of battlefield injuries — damage to the brain.
A father of four, he’s married to Lee Woodruff, co-chair of the foundation. We spoke with him last week:
For the first time in a decade, you returned to Landstuhl for this film. What was that like?
I had nothing to compare it to, other than what I had read. It was quiet, so boring, so dull, which is good and bad news. What’s remarkable is that there are veterans who are still brought there by C-130s [aircraft] overseas, [then] back to hospitals in the U.S., like Walter Reed.
Even with U.S. troops no longer engaged in countries like Iraq, there are still casualties coming there?
There are still a lot of Americans in northern Iraq and Afghanistan — and numbers are higher than are essentially being reported. There are also a lot of private contractors in these countries.
You don’t address the costs for some of these extraordinary medical advances. Where is the money coming from?
I don’t know the exact number, but you can assume there are billions being spent — some of it is government-funded, but a lot of civilian investment and by companies. All of these projects involve both the military and civilians because . . . sadly, these same [types of] wounds are happening inside our own country, inside civilian areas.
Is there a cruel irony — or cruel paradox — that there are fewer options for the sort of technological advancements seen here because there are fewer wounded soldiers?
I don’t think the answer is that they would have never been developed, but they would have been developed more slowly over time, because all of these wounds do happen to civilians. There have always been different types of explosive devices — including cars.
To what extent have some of these medical advances — which include prosthetic hands with fingers that can move, or new organs grown from cells — become standard care in the civilian population?
I think almost everything that is in this hour has also been used for civilian patients — certainly no division, or rules that say this type of technology needs to be available only to the military or vice versa. But I have friends who are doctors in the military world and that’s one of their biggest goals right now — to get the worlds of civilian and military to work together. There was a lack of communications over most of history.
The documentary speaks of the enormous time lag in getting the grievously wounded back from Vietnam. How many of those would have survived with these advances?
We know that the percentage of survival in Vietnam was much lower than these wars. It’s remarkable the number of severely wounded who made it back to U.S. hospitals — 96 percent had survived. In my case, if I had been in an early war, 40 years before this, I would not have survived.
You are part of this story too, but you really don’t bring yourself into it at all. What would you say if you had?
Traumatic brain injury is traumatic, and never completely fixed. We haven’t figured out a way for a perfect prosthetic to eliminate depression or sudden seizures or epilepsy. It’s a complicated organ. We know a lot about kidneys and legs and bones, but we don’t know a whole lot about the brain and with TBI [traumatic brain injury] you don’t make a hundred percent return. I think I would’ve been back in the “World News” anchor chair if my brain had returned quickly back to the way it was. But I haven’t got back a hundred percent of my vocabulary. I had some memory loss to some degree. It’s very minor, and a lot of my friends don’t even recognize I’ve got a problem. I have to tell them once in awhile.
How’s your emotional outlook and disposition?
I’ve got a lot of frustrations. The way things changed in an instant — nobody wants their life to change too quickly. But good things and bad things. You’ve seen one of the good things. I tell people the most satisfying thing I’ve done in my life is what we’ve done with our foundation. I’ve become close friends with the severely wounded.
So be it. Some of those who were wounded and are profiled in this hour also know everybody is going to see the private part of their lives, and they said they can take that if it means something to a lot of other people. That was really the purpose of this hour.
The presidential campaigns barely touched on veterans’ issues. How do you feel about that?
I’m not going to take sides in this. I don’t have to. I’m not covering politics, which is not only nauseating, but it’s not something I want to talk about. But I will say not enough in the debates was being addressed, and within the military there is absolute frustration that neither side is doing enough.
How’s your career at ABC News going?
It’s great. We’re doing well at the moment. Years ago, we wondered how well we’d adjust to the changing platform, but we adjusted extremely well. I’m looking more into the digital world, and that actually has been really fun.