How life changed in an instant for the Woodruff family

Lee Woodruff, wife of popular ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff, was visiting Disneyland in late January 2006 with their four children when she got the horrifying phone call that changed their lives forever.

“It was Bob’s boss at the network telling me he had been badly wounded by an roadside bomb in Taji, Iraq, had taken shrapnel to the brain and was going into emergency surgery,” she says. “Bob was embedded with the Marines during the initial invasion of Iraq and was in the thick of the military action over there.”

Lee says the phone call, coming from “out of the blue” during a pleasure trip with her children combined with shooting a TV pilot for her own active public relations and marketing career, was beyond stunning.

But since that fateful day, well-covered by the U.S. and world news media, Bob has made an amazing recovery and is back to work in broadcast journalism, while the couple has started The Bob Woodruff Foundation, dedicated to assisting wounded service members and their families. That new design for living, though, came after a long, hard road.

“I held myself together as best I could and told the kids their father had been injured but was alive. I did not go into too many details. I knew that would come later. I chose to stay hopeful for their sake as well as my own and waited for more information to come through.”

Bob had initial brain surgery in Iraq and then was flown immediately to a U.S. military hospital in Germany.

“Seventy-eight hours after hearing the news, I flew to Germany to be with Bob. When I walked into his room, I was shocked at what I saw. He was missing half his skull, his brain was swollen beyond belief and he was unconscious and on life support.”

Lee said Bob’s doctor tried to minimize hopes of his recovery and normal functioning. “I believe he was being honest, because no one knows how a brain injury is going to turn out for the patient,” she says.

Bob was released from the German hospital and flown to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, with Lee following on a separate flight. 

“All of this, from the explosion to his arrival back in the U.S., happened in less than a week’s time,” Lee says. “The goal was to get him back here as quickly and safely as possible for the specialized treatment he could receive at Walter Reed.”

With their four children staying with family in Rye, Lee took up residence at a Washington, D.C. hotel. “Bob was unconscious for five weeks,” Lee recalls. “The kids, ages 14, 12, and 5 for the twins, didn’t see their father and I protected them from a lot of the details.”

When Bob finally regained consciousness, the family was elated. “He had obvious cognitive deficiencies but improved little by little,” Lee says. “I knew he was going to come back but didn’t know how far he would come.” 

Bob, however, surprised almost everyone. After extensive plastic and reconstructive surgery and having his shattered skull replaced with a large plastic prosthesis — he still has shrapnel buried in his face and neck, Lee says — Bob is now back working for ABC full-time as its Asia correspondent.

His first assignment, just 13 months after the roadside almost killed him, was an ABC documentary “To Iraq and Back: Bob Woodruff Reports.”

BEFORE THE BOMB

Lee, a native of Albany, and Bob, from Birmingham, Michigan, met while they were students at Colgate University. After graduating, they reconnected in 1986 in New York City. Lee was working for a public relations firm and Bob was in law school at the University of Michigan, working as a summer associate.

“The rest, as they say, is history,” Lee says. “We dated for a while and got married in l988 after Bob got his law degree and was working for a New York City law firm.”

But the financial crash of 1987 had sparked major changes in the couple’s life.

“Business slowed down for everyone and Bob, who had studied Mandarin Chinese in law school, decided to relocate to Beijing to teach law to Chinese law students. He stayed there a year and witnessed the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989. He was actually there when the tanks rolled in and did some independent reporting. He liked the action and was always a history buff, so this put his mind on a different track.”

Despite his taste of journalism and the international action, Bob came back to the States to fulfill an assignment in San Francisco from his law firm. The couple had their first child, Mack, and while Bob was committed to his law career, Lee says he still had dreams of journalism.

“Finally, he decided to leave the practice of law, taking a huge pay cut,” she says. “Our family actually qualified for food stamps. I helped support the family with my own writing while Bob worked for a variety of ABC network affiliates, starting out in Redding, California. He stayed there a year and then went on to Richmond, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and London.”

After working his way up through the ranks, Bob was assigned to the weekend anchor job at ABC in 2002.

The couple settled permanently in Rye in 2002 and Bob continued to advance up the ABC ladder, succeeding longtime “ABC World News Tonight” anchor Peter Jennings, along with Elizabeth Vargas. The war with Iraq was leading the news and Bob was one of several top journalists who went to Iraq to cover events behind military lines. Jan. 29, 2006, could have been the end, but instead it marked a new beginning.

A FOUNDATION FOR THE FUTURE

“The foundation was formed while Bob was still healing,” Lee says. Bob was getting a lot of attention in the news and the public was really rooting for is recovery. Lee says the couple wanted to do something beneficial with his story. 

“We and other family members decided to start The Bob Woodruff Foundation to give our injured soldiers access to the highest level of support and resources they deserve, for as long as it is needed.” That wish became the foundation’s mission.

As the foundation was taking shape, Lee and Bob wrote the best-selling book, “In an Instant,” which garnered critical acclaim for its chronicle of their family’s journey to recovery after Bob’s brain injury.

Since the 2007 publication of their book, Lee and Bob have put a spotlight on returning war veterans and other Americans with brain injuries.

“The foundation is now 10 years old and, through it, we raise money to help brain-injured service members and their families receive the long-term care they need and also help them successfully reintegrate into their communities.”

Lee says the foundation donates to many grassroots organizations that serve veterans and provides funds for medical equipment like wheelchairs, caregiver support and other aspects of improving the quality of vets’ lives.

The foundation staff navigates a maze of nonprofits, looking to fund innovative programs serving the estimated 320,000 veterans who have sustained a traumatic brain injury and another 30,000 with psychological problems.

Today, the four Woodruff children — Mack, 25; Cathryn, 23; and twins, Nora and Claire, 16 — are doing fine in school and in life. Lee is a contributing reporter for “CBS This Morning” and has written two more books. As a freelance writer, she has penned many articles about her family and parenting and is sought after as a speaker, electrifying the audience at The United Way of Westchester and Putnam’s recent Women’s Leadership Council breakfast celebration.

“We live in a world where a lot people have problems and a lot people have been tested,” Lee says. “A lot of people have ‘stuff’ they have to deal with. The point is that nothing in life is easy. You can get better or you can get bitter. Bob and I are not people for self-pity. We want to spend our time with people that are honest and positive about their lives and that’s what we are doing.”

A TIME FOR HEROES

The 11th annual Stand Up for Heroes — produced by the New York Comedy Festival and The Bob Woodruff Foundation — will take place at 8 p.m. Nov. 7 at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Stand Up for Heroes has raised nearly $40 million since 2007. Talent will be announced when tickets go on sale in September. Last year’s lineup included Louis C.K., Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart and Bruce Springsteen (who has performed each year). Funds raised from the event support programs for post-9/11 injured veterans, service members and their families. Sponsorship opportunities are available. For more, visit bobwoodrufffoundation.org or email Amanda Scott at amanda.scott@bobwoodrufffoudation.org.

For more, visit leewoodruff.com. For more about photographer Catherine White, visit cathrinewhitephotography.com or check out her Instagram, @catherinewhite.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *