A STORY OF LOSS . . .
THE NIGHT BEFORE MEMORIAL DAY, MAY 29, 2006
I hate these nights. Stare at the ceiling, turn left. Turn right. Can’t sleep. Dread tomorrow’s assignment, as usual. In the morning adrenaline will pull me through, as it always does. Tonight worry is getting the better of me, as it always does.
The aircon is noisy, and the thick hotel drapes (of cheesy pseudo-velvet) block out the spotlights on the catty-corner mosque nearby and the lights from across the river. The drapes are meant to catch any flying glass, should a rocket hit the side of the building. But that’s only ever happened once, so in my mind that’s not the problem. The problem is the next day’s patrol.
I’m “safe” here. I’ve transformed the 12- by 15-foot room into a cocoon fortress—a yoga sanctuary in this half-star hotel floor turned network bureau. I live here about two-thirds of the year. Over three years my personal possessions have migrated to join me. The place is like the Big Brother house crossed with a rusting, peeling, leaking Soviet-era submarine, where the carpet sticks to your feet. We’ve sealed the corridor with steel doors and installed cameras to eyeball would-be visitors.
A ragtag crew of CBS and Iraqi hotel guards protects us (when they bother to stay awake). Our foreign security advisors try to sneak downstairs at odd times of the night to ensure the perimeter guards are awake. They have to make it past the slumbering upstairs guards; otherwise the game is up—the Iraqis upstairs furiously dial their cell phones and wake up all their colleagues at the hotel gates below.
Sleep, damn you.
Tossing and turning is a personal tradition I despise. It happens when I do embeds. I will spend tomorrow morning with a U.S. Army patrol. My two-man crew—my colleagues and friends, cameraman Paul and soundman James—will film the U.S. Army patrol, and I’ll trail them. The truth is, after three years as a late-comer network reporter, I’m still a newbie to the two of them—someone they put up with between assignments with “the boys,” such as news legend Dan Rather, with whom they’ve worked for years.
For this shift, they’re stuck with me: a workaholic news nerd. They’ve watched me climb my way from radio to affiliate to network TV. No matter what I think I am, to them I’m the former wannabe who is still trying too hard.
I’m also the only reporter I know who has a family with a U.S. military background. My father was a Marine in World War II, surviving the campaigns of Guam and Iwo Jima.
That’s probably why I went on assignment with the military a lot, which didn’t always make me popular. Sometimes crews said no to my ideas.
But to those of us involved right now, tomorrow’s assignment makes perfect sense: There is no other place to be on Memorial Day in Iraq than with U.S. troops.
The three of us had done our preshoot security briefing this evening, not that I could provide much detail. The military press officer who had set up the embed couldn’t tell our producers much over the phone, except that the patrol would take place in central Baghdad (so we could get back in time for the 7 a.m. eastern time live shot on The CBS Early Show, which airs at 3 p.m. local time). You can’t say much over the phone because the insurgents are thought to be monitoring the phone lines.
We don’t know exactly where we are going or what we’ll see, but the story has something to do with U.S. troops training Iraqis. Since tomorrow is a patriotic day, I suspect the story will be along the lines of “As they stand up, we stand down”—the mantra of the U.S. commanders.
My crew and I suspect this will also be what we call a “dog and pony show,” something so sanitized for our cameras that it will be hard to get anything more than an Uncle-Sam-knows-best commercial out of the troops.
But we know that whatever we film will air on the morning show and almost certainly on the CBS Evening News. You can’t NOT make air on a patriotic American holiday when you spend the day with U.S. troops.
And Paul always said, “Don’t risk my life unless we’re going to make air.”
God, what a horrific way I kept that promise.
A STORY OF SURVIVAL . . .
I also became aware of the countless other souvenirs left behind, lodged in my body. In my right hand and arms, I could see red and black flecks of shrapnel floating under the skin. In my X-rays you could actually see some marble-size chunks of molten car metal floating in my hip, a couple in my leg. There was even a small speck on the bridge of my nose and a couple tracing the outline of my right jaw.
In Landstuhl, I wanted it out—all of it, immediately. The doctors explained that unless it was a large piece or located in a spot where it could do damage, most of it would stay right where it was. They told me it actually did more damage to dig around the soft tissues to remove it.
Nancy brought in some of the chunks the doctors had removed from my leg. She had them gathered in large plastic bags and specimen cups. The first—a flat piece of metal, twisted by the heat of the blast, which spilled over the sides of my hand—was recognizable as some sort of car part. It had been embedded in my right leg.
A second piece was a completely intact metal wheel weight from one of the tires, about the size of the top of a finger. I never even noticed that part on a car before. Every time I spot a wheel weight on a car now, I think of the one that was lodged somewhere in my thigh.
What Nancy didn’t explain then was just how close I’d come to losing my right leg. I didn’t learn that until months later when I revisited Landstuhl with Nancy to film for the CBS News program on the bombing, Flashpoint. She said in the first 24 hours, my right leg turned nearly black. As I mentioned earlier, doctors in Baghdad had relieved the pressure in my lower right leg with the fasciotomy, when they’d sliced open the skin from knee to ankle down to the muscle in 2-foot-long cuts on either side of my calf.
But the blood circulation was still far from normal. The black color could mean my leg was bruised and still struggling to flush out the bad blood from so much damage. Or it could mean my circulation system had been irretrievably destroyed, so there was no way to oxygenate the leg’s muscle tissues, tissues that might already be dying.
My doctors were faced with a stark choice: They could gamble and hope what they were seeing was temporary bruising. But if the tissues were actually dying, that meant the doctors were giving the bacteria breeding in the dead tissue a chance to course through the rest of my body and kill me.
Many doctors new to the field will take the more conservative course of action. They’ll amputate the limb and save the patient. But my surgeons had been deployed in a war zone for about two-thirds of their yearlong tour, some of them for more than that. They’d gambled before and won. Nancy explained that after some debate, they took a chance with me, putting heating pads on my legs, changing them frequently, to help stimulate the circulation.
After about 36 hours, the gamble paid off. By the time I was awake enough to be aware of my legs and what had happened, the risk of amputation had mostly already passed.
It remained a possibility the doctors wouldn’t openly share with me, though. The jagged, burning chunks of shrapnel had done major damage to my quadriceps, the four major muscles that power my upper leg. So many muscles were shredded that by the time the dead tissue was painstakingly removed from the living, my broken femur bone was exposed. In later surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital, the remaining muscle had to be rearranged to cover it. And then doctors could only hope the grafts they put on the massive burn, a foot and a half by 8 inches, would take. If they couldn’t cover the femur again, they’d have to consider taking the leg off. (They opted not to tell me about that possibility until after the surgery had been carried out and had worked.)
In order for my muscles to heal and for those later grafts to take, the surgeons at Landstuhl knew they had to clean the area of the damaged flesh, dirt, and bacteria that the blast had blown in. Otherwise the area would contaminate any future grafts and slow or stop healing.
So, according to my mom, every day at Landstuhl, surgeons would powerwash the dirt and dead, burned tissue from my legs. Picture strapping a patient to the operating table and turning a fire hose on her at full blast. It was Nancy’s bandage change on overdrive. These “washouts” were so painful they had to be done under full anesthesia and each one counted as surgery. By the time I was discharged from the last hospital weeks later, the surgeons had lost count of how many procedures I’d undergone. The guesstimate was “at least two dozen.” Detailed records hadn’t been kept at the Baghdad or Balad trauma hospitals. The doctors fixed me and moved me on.
A STORY OF RECOVERY . . .
With the dozen or so surgeries to close me up now over and all the progress I was making, you might think I’d feel a huge sense of relief: The danger was past, I was out of the woods, except for the healing and recovery.
Instead whenever I wasn’t doing physiotherapy, I was ambushed by all the other things I’d been able to silence until then or at least muffle in my psyche.
Now I had nothing but time to think about the bombing, Paul and James, and their families. Images of them repeatedly hit me, and each time my mind said no. I didn’t see their bodies at the bomb scene. I hadn’t seen their funerals. For me they remained frozen in time, doing a Memorial Day shoot.
And I saw every memory through the fisheye of narcotics, intensely magnified and leavened by the multiple nerve depressants that were meant to control my physical pain. From hour to hour my emotions roller-coastered, mostly crashing down.
Mornings were the worst, when physical and emotional pain would one-two me the moment I opened my eyes. They hammered me my third and fourth weeks at Bethesda Naval Hospital. I never slept much, and the nurses and doctors interrupted my sleep periodically from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. or so as they did their morning rounds. After their rounds I’d try to catch another hour of sleep before breakfast arrived and I stirred. I’d realize that opening my eyes meant facing the day, so I’d try to shut them and will myself back into unconsciousness.
Finally I would be forced to rise, blinking, looking around at the IVs, the tubes, and the bandages. Reality would hit, and I’d start sobbing.
The nurses and corpsmen were unfazed by my tears. I was just one of many on that hallway who had lost someone. The women corpsmen, especially, told me it was tough sometimes to walk into a room of a strapping, tattooed 6-foot Marine who was bawling his eyes out because he just woke up from a nightmare about his buddies. “You never know what to say,” one told me. “When someone who looks that tough and that strong is sobbing like a baby, it breaks your heart.”
Or the corpsmen would find a soldier propped up in bed with tears rolling down his face because he’d opened his eyes in the morning and locked on the stump where an arm or a leg used to be. So the corpsmen would walk into my room with my morning meds, catch sight of my tear-streaked face, and ask, “Anything I can do?”
I’d usually mutely shake my head, and they’d nod, walk out, and leave me be.
When the hearing specialist stopped by to assess the damage to my shattered eardrums, she got as far as “I’m the hearing specialist, and I . . . ” Midsentence she saw my red-puffed face and stopped halfway to my bed. “And I won’t be doing your hearing test today,” she said with a small, sad smile. She neatly turned and walked out.
. . .
“So my heart stopped twice?” I asked Pete.
“Who told you that?” he asked too quietly. I’m glad Schieffer had left the building by then. Kiwis aren’t diplomats. They bluntly say what’s on their mind, and Pete would have done just that.
That’s when I realized my own family was keeping details from me. They’d been told I wasn’t capable of handling it, and they believed it.
So I was on my own, holding the line against the medicate-it, make-it-go-away therapy when a team of visiting psychiatrists came to my room to offer me drug therapy. They wanted to discuss my options regarding which drugs might help and why. I was already on an old-fashioned upper, amitriptyline, but not for mood treatment. Dr. Burns had explained that I was receiving a small dose but not enough to have a mood-lifting effect. He said the drug had a secondary benefit: alleviating nerve or neurologic pain throughout the body that comes from the breaks, the burns, the grafts, etc. But I thought even the little I was getting was enough. I didn’t want anything else added to the chemical soup in my system.
“No psychotropic drugs, no antidepressants,” I said. “No Prozac Nation nonsense. All it does is hide the pain, not treat it. That’s not for me.”
“But, but,” was their reply. “You should be aware of the options . . .”
I was resolute.
“I want to talk about how I’m feeling, why I feel like bawling my eyes out, how freaked out I am by how my body’s been shredded, how I feel about losing my friends,” I told them. “I don’t want to cover it up.”
I asked them if I could talk to a counselor or join an injured troops support group, where everyone in the room would understand because we’d all gone through the same thing. The psychiatrists didn’t reply. Maybe they thought I was avoiding the issue by avoiding drugs. Or perhaps there are no such support groups. Or maybe there are, but they thought an outsider, especially a reporter, would make it even harder for injured troops to open up.
“Well,” one of them began. “You might want to consider antidepressants for a short time.”
“No,” I said, and I meant it. Now I was going to have to explain. I told them I’d learned that talk therapy worked for me, helping me cope after being beaten, menaced, and threatened both as a child and an adult in the Mideast. Then it helped me figure out my divorce and ultimately gave me the coping skills to survive the ever-present tension of living in Baghdad’s Red Zone for three years, without developing posttraumatic stress disorder.
“Ah, our patients don’t usually come in with that kind of background, nor those types of coping skills,” one of the delegation said. They might not have believed I was making the best decision by rejecting their expertise, but they respected my choice.
Thankfully, two visitors appeared who were of like mind regarding talk therapy. First was Brother David, a Franciscan monk who stopped by in full brown-robed wool regalia and a painstakingly trimmed white beard. I always felt bad when he had to put the disposable surgical gown and gloves over his already hot outfit to visit my often-sweltering room. I wasn’t Catholic, and it didn’t matter. Brother David had worked with 9/11 victims, and in a former life as a fire chaplain, he’d seen plenty of loss and grief. He’d already guided many others through what I was dealing with. He told me about the people he’d met and how they’d managed. He told me about some of the other troops on my hallway and how they were coping and not coping.
Most of all, he reminded me in the gentlest way possible that “God has a purpose, and you’re part of it. You know that.” He handed me a Franciscan prayer that basically said: This will pass. And with faith, you’ll get through it.
When I doubted my ability to turn this experience into something more positive, he said, “After all these weeks of talking with you, there’s one thing I know: You have a great internal compass. Listen to it.”
And he told me to write as soon as I could. I wasn’t ready to step back and absorb the whole story yet, so I started with smaller bites. I answered the 1,500-plus emails, which had piled up since Memorial Day, from friends and hundreds of people I’d never met, except through being on TV.
Since I’ve written the book, much has changed. I did not go back to the Mideast for CBS News. The CBS-approved op-ed below, first published in The Washington Post, explains why. The op-ed led to a fantastic new job covering intelligence and counterterrorism for the Associated Press. I’ve been back to Afghanistan and Pakistan to report since then, including embedding with U.S. and Afghan forces.
My mother passed away in 2008; my dad is still with us. Pete returned to New Zealand to be with his kids, and our lives took different directions. Our friendship will always remain, cemented by the time he helped pull me through hell.
I not only walk without a limp; I run. I try to pay it forward, which is why my profits from this paperback will go to wounded warrior charities, like those that helped my family in our time of need. I try to keep putting my head down, and pushing through, to be a positive example for others coping with the same thing. There are flashes of anger in the original book that will produce knowing nods from other patients. I left them in, though now the anger is gone, and I’m on to the next chapter in my life.
One thing I know I’m not: a victim. That’s what anyone is called when he or she suffers major trauma: assault victim, car crash victim, Baghdad car bomb victim. But “victims” have no independence. Family, friends, and colleagues, all with good will, coddle you. They tend to you when you first need it, but they don’t know how or when to let you out of your cotton-cushioned cocoon.
What I found is that, it is harder to prove you’re not a victim than it is to recover. Thanks in part to the media coverage meant to help troops, I fear we’ve taught the U.S. public to pity more than respect those who return from war zones.
You have to teach those around you that when the “victim” overcomes the trauma—learning from it, changing from it, and moving beyond it—she becomes a survivor, physically, mentally, and spiritually. I survived. This book I wrote is a survivor’s tale, like so many who have come back — and we keep writing it.
Copyright Kimberly Dozier
MY ROAD BACK TO BAGHDAD
Last month, I finally made it back to Baghdad. I’d left on May 29, 2006, unconscious on a stretcher after my CBS News team and the 4th Infantry Division patrol we’d been covering walked into the path of a 300- to 500-pound car bomb.
The wall of shrapnel that tore through us took the lives of my colleagues, cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan; the officer we’d been following, Army Capt. James Funkhouser; and his Iraqi translator, known as Sam. The explosion badly injured four other soldiers on the patrol.
It took many months of physical therapy and rehabilitation to get me walking and running again. It took painful hours of reliving the attack to begin moving beyond the trauma of that day. What I could not know then was how much work it would take to get back to the job I loved, as a foreign correspondent, if only for a few short days.
My chance came when Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, invited me to join him and other journalists on his annual USO trip last month — including eight days of nonstop meetings and briefings with commanders in Afghanistan, Pakistan and, finally, Iraq. For someone who hadn’t been in the field in almost four years, it was like breathing again.
I’d asked to go back several times before, but my employer had been loath to put me in harm’s way again on the network’s behalf. So with CBS’s permission, I took the opportunity the admiral offered to go as a private citizen.
While my employer was keenly aware of the public response to me and my injury, it took me years to perceive and then understand what that response meant to my future. It’s common to other people injured in combat and, to a lesser extent, those who have served in war zones: Once you’ve been hurt, people become protective and think you should stay where it’s safe. I still get letters and e-mails admonishing me never to go back.
This return trip to Baghdad was a bittersweet glimpse of what used to be, but also a chance to show people that it is possible to heal from the level of injury that I sustained and resume doing whatever you used to do, wherever you used to do it.
I’ve tried to send that message in other ways. I wrote a book about the bombing and my recovery, and I regularly speak to groups large and small, military and civilian. I’ve even run a couple of 10Ks, partly to raise money for Fisher House, where my family stayed during much of my hospitalization. And partly I ran, like many of those who’ve been injured, just to show that I can.
That’s where my experience dovetails with that of many of the wounded warriors I’ve met. After proving to yourself that you’re whole, whatever your new definition of “whole” might be, you then have to prove it to your loved ones. And you find, if you tell people that you want to go back to doing what you did before, that their reaction isn’t always one you want to hear.
In 2008, a year after I came back to work, I told a New York tabloid that I looked forward to returning to the field, including Iraq. I’d lived overseas covering crises for 14 years. My home was in Jerusalem. I would not be driven away from my life’s work by an al-Qaeda splinter group’s car bomb.
“Bomb girl wants back to Iraq,” screamed the next day’s headline. It wasn’t meant as an atta-girl compliment. The subtext of the article was clear — this woman is touched in the head. How dare she consider risking her life again?
And then there was the companion question: What might happen if she does go back? Even close colleagues ventured that seeing Iraq again would trigger some sort of emotional tsunami.
But it’s not as if the trauma was locked away somewhere, to be released only when I set foot again in the country where I was hurt. I never locked it away.
The emotional weight of losing Paul and James had been with me for years — from the moment I opened my eyes in Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Their picture is on my office wall, and every week or so, I’ll run into someone who knew them, or I’ll see a story from a country or city we once covered together, in Europe or the Middle East.
When a tube was still down my throat, keeping me from speaking, I poured out everything I could remember from the bomb’s aftermath, scrawling it on a pad of paper with a marking pen. And I kept writing, “Where are Paul and James?” I had to be told that they had died at the scene.
In that first month, I had post-traumatic stress, with my brain processing the trauma through nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance and roller-coaster emotions. But I never developed PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder — which is diagnosed when those symptoms become coping mechanisms that stay with you. The more I talked about every detail I could remember, the more the symptoms faded, never taking hold in my psyche.
Yet many people assume I have PTSD, and they assumed going back to Baghdad would make it worse. Few people seem to be aware of post-traumatic growth, which is the far more common response from people who have been in the field. It’s the idea that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, especially when it makes you go back over every aspect of the experience in order to move on from it.
I’d had ample opportunity to keep “processing” the experience, by meeting just about everyone I could find, or who could find me, who was there that day, and giving hundreds of speeches and interviews about the bombing and my recovery.
Reliving every part of the attack and grieving for my colleagues was the hardest part of my healing — not traveling down the airport road in Baghdad again last month and thinking about how it still might be mined with improvised explosives and car bombs. In the previous 3 1/2 years I had gone over far more dangerous emotional territory — like trying to apologize to Paul’s widow for surviving, saying the wrong things and only making her more upset.
I also met Capt. Funkhouser’s widow, Jennifer, who I knew had felt fury toward me for a time. She knew that her husband was chosen for that patrol because he was an articulate spokesman for the U.S. Army’s efforts to train the Iraqi police. If I hadn’t asked for a Memorial Day interview, perhaps he would still be alive. I walked into her house with fear. Instead, I found the grace of a woman who had decided that, if she was angry that her husband had been on that patrol that day, she was dishonoring his memory and his mission.
As tough as that meeting was, tougher still was meeting James’s 16-year-old daughter a couple of months ago when she visited D.C. from London. I’d never met Paul’s and James’s families in person before. I had offered to through friends, but this was the first time anyone from James’s family agreed.
I didn’t know what to say. After blurting out surely inappropriate things, I asked her what would most help her to hear. She asked me to walk her through the bombing, detail by detail. I’d been there, and she’d had no one to ask until then.
I told the story of the day of the patrol. When I got to the part where the bomb goes off, I spoke of my anger that James — one of the smartest people I had ever known — hadn’t had any warning before it hit him, killing him instantly. His daughter’s face crinkled up, and her eyes filled with tears for a moment. I thought maybe I’d said too much. But she breathed out and wiped the tears from her face. “I thought the same thing,” she said. “I was so angry. And then I decided it was better because he felt no pain.” There aren’t too many people to whom either of us could have said those things.
She told me her dad would have wanted her to turn this loss into something positive. So she’s planning to come to the United States to study journalism or diplomacy, or some related field, so she can speak up for those who can’t, just like her father used to.
She also related what she thinks her dad would have told me: to stop feeling guilty that I’m still here and that he and Paul are not. Her father died doing what he loved. She wrote that in an e-mail that I must have stared at for hours.
These journeys were behind me before I stepped on that C-17 headed for Baghdad. And therefore, so was much of the pain.
The trip became, instead, a small measure of redemption — a chance to be immersed in the action again, following the chairman and his staff as they sized up life-and-death decisions made, and those yet to be made.
I reveled in my front-row seat, again getting to witness a slice of history. I tried to come up with a way to describe the sense of purpose that gives, the same I’d experienced while working with Paul and James, shooting a story despite all the complications of a war zone.
It was a veteran friend of mine, an Army intelligence officer injured in Afghanistan, who found the words for me. She said she too wanted to go back, and that doesn’t make her crazy. “We do what we do because it is who we are and we understand it,” she said. “No one really understands why a soldier wants to deploy again after being injured . . . except us.” She did me the honor of including me in that “us.”
By the time I got to Baghdad, the most painful issue left to be examined had nothing to do with my injuries. It was this: why many people can’t accept that I want to return to what I used to do, and why I, like so many survivors of combat injuries, often trigger a reaction of pity tinged with wariness, instead of respect. That’s a slog I’m still on, together with some amazing survivors, both military and civilian, trying to get back to doing what we love.
This one short trip gave me hope that it can be done. When I met some of my tribe along the way — be they officers, diplomats, aid workers or journalists — their greetings were everything I’d hoped to hear: “It’s about time. Welcome back.”
Copyright Washington Post