Instant News: Bob Woodruff Back from the Brink

April 13, 2007 | 2 books mentioned 3 6 min read

Last week we remembered the death of journalist Michael Kelly four years ago near Baghdad, and examined his 1992 book, Martyr’s Day, chronicle of the first Gulf War.

On to Bob Woodruff, ABC newsman, who was critically wounded on January 29, 2006, while reporting in Iraq. Exposed atop a patrolling tank, the 44 year-old Woodruff was preparing to shoot the day’s segment on the security handover supposedly taking place between U.S. and Iraqi forces. Twenty-seven days prior, Woodruff had taken over as co-anchor of ABC Nightly News, successor to the late Peter Jennings. It was not to last: a roadside bomb exploded, and Woodruff suffered multiple shrapnel wounds and a massive traumatic brain injury.

coverTwo declarations, the second more of an admission: first, I had by January of ’06 come to recognize Bob Woodruff, watching ABC Nightly News on a semi-regular basis, and I liked his reporting. Like many, I was saddened by the news of his injury and cheered by the news of his recovery. Second, when I took my first cursory looks at the book about the ordeal that he wrote with his wife, Lee Woodruff, In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing, I was nonplussed. For whatever reason, I didn’t trust it.

A third declaration: the fact that Bob Woodruff is alive, let alone writing books, is miraculous. His personal courage and strength, along with that of Lee Woodruff and their family, and the dedication of the medical professionals who saved his life and then rebuilt him, shall not herein be diminished. But we are here to talk books, and so return to the difficulties of how to approach In an Instant.

The book’s release early this year attended Woodruff’s tentative return to the ABC newsroom. Woodruff appeared on TV talk shows and other media outlets as well. Here was a man who had been forced to regain, through therapy, the ability to speak – no small thing for anyone, let alone a network news anchor. In an Instant is his story.

But there was twinge of something darker hiding in the inspirational folds of the Woodruff family saga. The book seemed to validate the notion that, in this day and age, if you live to tell the tale (and sell the tale – In an Instant has been near the top of national non-fiction bestseller lists since its release), no matter how personal it is, you will do so – and right quick. It also made me think of the American men and women who have not returned from Iraq alive. Of those that have lived through injuries, many do not have what the Woodruffs are lucky enough to have, a loving, wide-ranging community of family and friends. Others have not received what Bob Woodruff received, the finest medical care money can buy.

Despite these implications, the book, and its two writers, did ultimately win my trust, if not my unbounded critical admiration. As inspiration, In an Instant has infinitely greater value than your standard issue Dr. Doctor self-help schlock. It is told in the alternating voices of Lee and Bob, mostly Lee, as Bob was in a sedated state for five weeks before fully regaining consciousness. The writing is straightforward, and there is quite a lot of information packed into the pages. The Woodruffs recount concurrently both the story of recovery that followed that fateful Instant, and the story of their lives together from the instant they first met, their marriage, the birth of their four children, and Bob’s rise through the ranks of TV journalism. Woodruff bounced around a lot as a young newsman, from China in June of 1989, where he got his first taste of reporting, to San Francisco, Richmond, Phoenix, Chicago, D.C., and then London, where he was a lead foreign correspondent for ABC on 9/11/01 (Bob and Lee’s 13th wedding anniversary.)

These movements mirror the rapid movements and decisive actions that immediately followed his injury. From the road outside the town of Taji, Woodruff was taken to a military hospital in the Baghdad green zone, then airlifted to a U.S. army combat field hospital in Balad that took the most severe casualties. These unnamed military doctors saved Bob Woodruff. Without hesitating, they sawed through his cranium to relieve the pressure on his brain. Woodruff was then flown by Critical Combat Air Transport to Landstuhl Germany, where an army surgeon, Dr. Guillermo Tellez, removed the shattered left half of his skull. From Landstuhl, Woodruff was flown again by CCATT plane to Andrews Air Force Base and rushed to Bethesda Naval Hospital outside D.C., where he would lie in an induced coma for over a month. The military’s impressive advances in combat triage are on full display here.

Forced to perform her own family triage, Lee Woodruff describes in detail the shock of the news, and her own rapid, unflagging response. Lee’s ability to handle the immense weight of her family’s crisis, to inform but reassure her four children, and keep herself going as she attended her quiescent and disfigured husband, these efforts are just as heroic as Bob’s inner fight to survive. And there’s a fine payoff. Walking into his room at Bethesda Naval on the morning of March 6, expecting to find her husband unchanged, she instead found him awake: “‘Hey Sweetie,’ Bob said lovingly, with a little note of surprise. ‘Where’ve you been?'”

For me, the most interesting aspects of the book are the details of Woodruff’s recovery, highlighted by some telling photographs. The image of this man, recognizable to so many people as a vigorous and handsome face on their TV, here smiling bravely into the camera with his two eldest kids, Cathryn and Mack, on either side, his face scarred, his head dented, says it all. Late in May, now in the care of neurosurgeons from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, Woodruff underwent another risky procedure, a cranioplasty surgery, in which the doctors bonded an artificial skull-piece to his existing bone. His head outwardly rebuilt, Bob Woodruff then focused on the task of rebuilding what was inside. Like so many others with traumatic brain injury, he had to relearn his life, especially his speech. This process is fascinating, and the rapid progress that Woodruff made, astounding.

Political opinions and philosophical conclusions are not for the TV reporter, whose job it is to present the story, an impartial witness to events. It is understandable, then, that In an Instant is a book about a family and not a war. The Woodruffs do address some of the thornier issues that lie buried in their story, if only very briefly. Bob discusses what it means to be a war correspondent putting himself in harm’s way, though his conclusions are that covering war is, for him, “a strange addiction,” and that war itself is “an affliction of the human race.” These are sterilized, apolitical, and not-so-penetrating insights.

And what about the wife of the addicted war journalist? While Lee Woodruff does discuss the strain that her husband’s profession placed on their marriage before Bob was injured, she rarely reveals any crack in her facade of nurturing support and union during Bob’s recovery, other than understandable and unsurprising anxiety, depression, and fear. She frets about what might befall the family if Bob were to die or be unable to work again, and about the long-term effects that the traumatic event might have on her children, but acrimony has no place in this tale. Even in remembering the death of David Bloom, Bob’s friend and colleague who died outside Baghdad of a pulmonary embolism in April ’03 while covering the war for NBC, there is surprisingly little soul searching by the authors about the potential effect this strange addiction, embedded war reporting, can have on a family. Does Bob Woodruff have regrets? The answer will not be found in In an Instant.

In an Instant carries a relentlessly positive message of triumph over adversity, and hope in the face of tragedy. Appropriately, the Woodruffs do acknowledge how lucky they are to have had the resources, both human and monetary, of a large corporation to see them through. There are many people to thank, and they thank each and every one. They have done something else, too, which is to establish a charitable trust to benefit the 1.4 million Americans a year affected by TBI, Traumatic Brain Injury. And they note that many such men and women, in the care of the U.S. military medical system, “are not receiving appropriate cognitive rehabilitation, for whatever reason.”

So there you have it, and time marches on. I myself hope to see Bob Woodruff back on the air with regularity, and would consider it yet another amazing addendum to the story if he were to return to the anchor chair at ABC News. I would also understand it if he walked away from the news altogether, though it would surprise me. No matter what the future holds for Bob Woodruff, his life was nearly taken in an instant, in a war he was risking his life to cover. His is, as Tom Brokaw writes, “a book for our time.”

is a writer, musician, and amateur sportsman in Manhattan, living on the Harlem side of Morningside Park near Columbia, where he recently picked up a degree from the Journalism School.


  1. Nice review. I thought this was a great book. I found it motivating, but I'm slowly getting into journalism.


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