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'Rogue Trip': Bob Woodruff and son's travel series finds hope in the world

"Rogue Trip," is a new limited Disney+ series where Bob and Mack Woodruff venture to six countries torn by war. Credit: Disney+

 Father and son are unmistakably father and son, although at 58, Bob Woodruff would unmistakably be the dad, while Mack, 29, the son. 

Other than that: Same eyes, same eyebrows, almost same voice. And to hear both speak in that voice, same passion for the great world beyond. 

The Woodruffs appeared tother on a recent Zoom hookup to discuss "Rogue Trip," their new limited Disney+ series where both venture to places like New Guinea, Colombia and Ukraine. It's a hot day in Phase Three New York, where they find themselves presumably bound in by the same limited horizons as everyone else. That great world seems far away. (The series launches Friday, July 24)

 Bob Woodruff still travels widely for ABC News as a correspondent while Mack is just back from Australia, where he was on an assignment for his photography and video production company.

Nevertheless, this is a lousy time to be afflicted with wanderlust. Back in 2005, when he was co-anchor of "World News Tonight" with Elizabeth Vargas, Woodruff was in the field more than in the studio, with reporting trips to Iran, Israel (twice) and Iraq in his first four weeks on the job. Part of that had to do with the nature of major league anchoring, but most of it with the nature of Woodruff. A wandering man then, he wanders still. 

"Rogue" is both familiar and unique. We've all seen TV travelogues which are the most fundamental and foundational of genres. What's so unique here is that generational aspect. It's really about a father and son who share this epiphany by the end of each episode: There's hope for the world after all. 

Bob Woodruff says they wrapped the series just before the pandemic hit but that "I wanted viewers to know that as a country, while we are in a very difficult time right now, that history shows that countries do come back from horrible moments, that there is hope, no matter what happens."

"Hope" might seem a contrivance for any travel series, but maybe not for this one, certainly not for this host. Bob Woodruff and his cameraman Doug Vogt were nearly killed when they were hit by an improvised explosive device riding with an Iraqi army unit on Jan. 29, 2006. Woodruff suffered a traumatic brain injury, then returned to ABC a little over a year later to anchor a documentary about veterans who suffer from such injuries. In 2006, Woodruff and his wife, Lee, launched the Bob Woodruff Foundation in support of "long-lasting positive outcomes for our nation’s wounded, ill, and injured veterans," per its mission statement. The Foundation's annual benefit, Stand up for Heroes, fills up Madison Square Garden every November (Woodruff says this November's show will stream online only.) 

    The six countries "Rogue" visits (which include Ethiopia, Pakistan, Lebanon) have been torn by war in their recent history but "we had this idea to go back to some of these countries where I've reported from and on mostly negative topics — war or environmental collapse — to see that they were not exactly what they seemed to be," says Woodruff.

"I wanted [viewers] to know that these countries are filled with beautiful places and remarkable people, and to show that they're not exactly the way they've been reported." 

In the New Guinea episode, dad and son head up the Sepik River into one of the world's most remote regions. In Colombia, they hook up with former FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) combatants who are trying to lure tourists to the country. Wherever they go, people are kind and generous, the scenery resplendent. The past troubles, euphemistically speaking, have vanished. 

    For Woodruff, travel has long been both a compulsion and obligation — a reporting life dedicated to the Mark Twain decree that "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness." After college he got into corporate law, hated that, then headed to China to teach. After learning Chinese, he became a translator for Dan Rather during the Tiananmen Square uprising, then suddenly a new world opened up for Woodruff — the whole world, in fact.

Joining ABC News in 1996, he later became a war correspondent, then anchor, and promptly fused both roles. His predecessor, Peter Jennings — -who died in 2005 — had as well early in his tenure, although not nearly to the same degree. Woodruff's compulsion to report led him to a dusty road outside Taji, about a dozen miles north of Baghdad.

The attack left Woodruff with a vestige of guilt because "there was the impression inside my house, with my family, that these are dangerous places and why would a father go to them? What's the attraction of doing that?"

    A father of four, Woodruff says "I didn't want [my kids] to descend into fears" or "feel like I was a bad father because I did take these risks." 

He says he also "wanted to show Mack that these places are fascinating and beautiful and that it's important to report on parts of the world that Americans don't know about. ['Rogue Trip'] wasn't necessarily a way to get rid of my guilt but for Mack to better understand the attraction."

Asked how his father's near-death affected him almost fifteen years ago, Mack says, "oh man, it's tough to know what I would have been like if it had never happened. It made me realize the reality of what my dad did on a day-to-day basis. You saw him on TV [before the attack] and thought 'everything's fine,' or that just because he's there in the middle of a war doesn't mean the war was actually going on there.

His dad "has taught me that the human spirit is incredibly resilient. [He] came back from an accident that nearly killed him and that's given me the confidence to step out into the world and to not be intimidated. If anything, it made me want to see more of it." 

THE DAY WOODRUFF'S LIFE CHANGED

Bob Woodruff hadn't been to Iraq in nearly two years but "I am a firm believer that to cover a story, you have to get out in the field and see it with your own eyes," he recalled in the memoir he wrote with his wife, Lee, "In An Instant."

By January, 2006, both story and field had changed dramatically.

In a few hours, President George W. Bush would tell the American people that the Iraqi military had begun the process of taking over the country's security. The "World News Tonight" co-anchor and his ABC News crew decided to see for themselves.

They were told the town of Taji was a "good model" — relatively safe, with a water filtration plant secured by Iraqi forces. They got an offer to ride there with an Iraqi armored column, although safety became a troubling questionmark after the bullet-riddled body of an informant was found by the side of the road.

The ABC News crew decided "it would have been rude" to cancel on them.

They got into an armored personnel carrier — an APC — then after a few minutes, realized something had gone wrong: The APC had moved to the head of the head of column, where journalists were not supposed to be. Woodruff and his cameraman, Doug Vogt, debated whether they should do the shot as planned, with both standing above the hatch.

Woodruff ducked back into the tank, then up again, then back down. When he popped up the next time, an IED in the road that had been packed with rocks exploded. A hundred of them, some marble-sized, hit the left side of his head. One rock punched a fist-sized hole in his back.

Woodruff fell back into the cabin, his head bouncing off the metal stanchions. "Omar," the translator, told Vinnie Malhotra, Woodruff's producer, to plug the gaping wound in his neck. A U.S. soldier, maybe 19, "calmly" told Malhotra to "just keep talking to him, keep the words coming …"

Those three — Malhotra, Omar, the unnamed teenage soldier — likely saved Woodruff's life in those early, critical minutes.

I asked Woodruff how the attack changed him: "It always takes a lot of time to finally reroute yourself, to find a different path [but] nobody ever thought I'd be alive right in those first few hours, nobody thought I'd be able to sound like this again, not be able to return to work. In some ways, it was a great gift to go through this [recovery] and find another way to be able to travel the world and do stories."

He smiles: And to do them with his son. — VERNE GAY

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