Breathing the Fire:
Fighting to Survive, and
Get Back to the Fight
Excerpts of the book follow, as well as her Washington Post opinion piece on returning to covering conflict zones after recovering from injury.
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
The Night Before Memorial Day, May 28, 2006 | Baghdad, Iraq
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 three of us had done our pre-shoot 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.
Tonight as we talked about what I thought we might see tomorrow, Paul and James had no qualms about the assignment. And they were never shy about sharing their “qualms,” that’s for certain; only a week earlier James had told CBS Early Show anchor Harry Smith that he had misgivings about a daylong embed in Sadr City, so the embed had been cancelled. And Paul had turned down several recent shoots with other correspondent-producer teams.
Another bit of proof I cling to that tells me none of us saw what was coming: Paul always called up his wife and told her if he was going on a shoot he thought was dangerous. I found out later that he did call her, but he never mentioned the next day’s assignment.
We settled on an 0800 start, and I’ve settled in for the usual night of pre-embed brooding.
My subconscious mind knows all too well that we are about to go on yet another U.S. Humvee patrol, the kind of patrol we can see from our hotel rooftop each morning rolling out of the Green Zone. We watch the vehicles leave the sandbagged, barbed-wired, watch-towered gates and move toward their mission in town. And then we hear the distant booms and know many of the explosions are aimed at Americans.
This is the first embed of this reporting shift. For the past three years, I’ve rotated six weeks in Baghdad, two to four weeks out, and then I’m back again. It’s hard, dangerous, and often monotonous, the same sad story over and over. Even my own family thinks I’m nuts for spending so much time covering the war. I was first assigned to Iraq because no one else wanted it. I volunteered to cover “the war that was over.” (Remember “Mission Accomplished,” the banner on the carrier deck behind President Bush after the 2003 “Shock and Awe” U.S. invasion of Iraq?) At the time, a lot of reporters thought the Bush administration was right. So the network stars came home, their names already made and their reputations won with a victorious story well told.
That’s when, in June 2003, I was finally promoted to network as a Jerusalem-based correspondent and sent to cover a war my TV bosses couldn’t wait to get out of. Every few months I was warned of another plan to close the Baghdad bureau. But the war kept going, and reluctantly my bosses, like all the other TV bosses, churned more and more money into the war, turning bureaus into fortresses and hiring small armies of security guards and a fleet of armored vehicles.
Necessity was part of why I’ve stayed. Iraq just kept getting on the air, ergo, so did I. Job security, grim reaper-style.
Too, I simply couldn’t leave. Like a car crash on the highway—part needless tragedy, part heroes’ tale, almost all nightmare—I couldn’t take my eyes off the war.
So we’ve had our briefing, agreed on a time to meet in the parking lot in the morning to take our armored vehicles on the mile-or-so jaunt to the Green Zone to meet our interview subjects, and called it a night.
Like an overachieving schoolkid, I’ve laid out my clothes, my helmet, and my flak jacket for the morning. I cleaned out a lot of stuff from my flak jacket pocket to try to lighten my load. For some reason I had two casualty bandages. Our security advisors have taught us to carry one bandage with us at all times, just like the military. Two seemed redundant, so I decided to leave one behind. I remember thinking to myself, We’ll be with the military. If anything happens, they have plenty of supplies. I should have left well enough alone.
I’m finished packing, yet my near-obsessive-compulsive attention to details still hasn’t quieted my mind.
You’ve done this over and over again in three years, I tell myself. The explosions sometimes barely touch the Humvees. It’s a short trip. You’ll be back by lunch.
I still can’t sleep. … This has become a ritual: I list my worries. He listens, mostly mute. Then I get a few hours of sleep.
Dawn and the alarm clock drag me awake. …
Paul and James have beaten me to the parking lot, but not by much. Every minute we spend here gives anyone watching us from surrounding rooftops time to prepare an attack. I’ve been told that it’s better to get to the car and out of the parking lot within 15 minutes. I make it a point to be on time.
“Helmets?” I mother-hen. “Flak jackets? Earplugs?” I pull out a ziplock bag of disposable earplugs in case anyone has forgotten his. They protect our eardrums from the shock waves of roadside bombs.
“Have them already, love. Thanks,” James says, with his heavy London Monty Python-esque accent.
“OK, OK—like I could teach you guys anything about security,” I say, shoving the marshmallow-like earplugs back into my flak jacket pocket. Underneath them is my casualty bandage.
We load up and head out.
We drive to the Green Zone: fortified land that’s home to several small U.S. military bases, where the American and other Western embassies and a few Iraqi officials who have the good fortune, or political pull, to secure themselves a space in the base there. There are a few American fast-food places and a small, picked-over PX that’s still a draw for Americans in search of retail therapy in a war zone. The Green Zone is also the pickup and drop-off point for journalists on short or long embeds.
Our security men drop us off …. Paul cracks jokes with one of the Gurkhas at the guard shack where we wait. James has a last cigarette and adds a jibe or two. Our press officer, Maj. Mark Cheadle, picks us up and takes us to meet someone he calls “a really good guy”: Capt. James Funkhouser. We’re supposed to call him Alex, Cheadle tells us. He’s heading a U.S. team that is training Iraqis (they’re standing up so we can stand down, remember, I think to myself). And we’re going to the Karrada.
The Karrada? I feel relief. It will be boring, yes, I think to myself, but it’s a relief. Sure, the Karrada is technically in the Red Zone, Baghdad proper. It’s the neighborhood where we’d all first lived after the invasion. We know the streets. Heck, we know the best sandwich and ice cream shops in the Karrada. There are two dicey squares the insurgents seem to like to hit; but other than that it’s tame. I wonder to myself how we’re going to get this on the air, even on Memorial Day.
We are introduced to our host for the day. At first I think, Boy Scout. Rose-colored glasses alert.
No one can be this upbeat. He willingly dons the microphone James supplies and starts answering the questions—truly answering them.
He’s not a boy scout. He turns out to be an upbeat realist, and we’re all relieved. In the command center before we leave, Alex is candid about the serious challenges he and the Army face. I’m looking forward to hearing his thoughts throughout the day.
Before we go Alex shares that the hardest part of his job—as much as the mission and his men give him purpose—is being away from his girls, his wife, Jennifer, and his two daughters, Kaitlyn and Allison.
Alex gathers the men, and we move to the Humvees. I’ll ride with Alex, and Paul and James will ride in another Humvee. There’s some hubbub, and the word comes down that our joint Iraqi patrol won’t be coming with us. Great, I think. There goes the “As they stand up, we stand down” story. Instead we’ll be filming the instantly recognizable Iraqi-American theme: “They don’t show up, so we do the work for them.”
I’m concerned that they’re backing out because of us, that they think we’ll show their faces and get their families killed by vengeful insurgents who hate anyone who works with the Americans.
I make my way to Alex and tell him my concerns. I ask if there’s any way we can correct the situation, perhaps by promising not to film their faces. He tells me this isn’t the problem. The Iraqis simply aren’t ready, he insists. So they only send their liaison.
We pull out of the gates in four Humvees, snaking first through the diplomatic traffic inside the Green Zone and then crawling when we reach Baghdad’s early morning rush hour, which blends seamlessly into afternoon and evening rush hour.
Riding in the Humvees scares the hell out of me. These are magnets for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). I have my earplugs firmly shoved in both ears and shatterproof glasses wrapped around my head beneath my Kevlar helmet. I sometimes tuck my feet up, pulling them out of the Humvee wheel well, and think that if a bomb goes off under my feet, I’ll lose my legs.
I have my guard up until we reach our first stop, pull over, and get out.
I let my guard down.
I pull my earplugs out so I can better hear any exchanges between the young Army captain and the Iraqis he hopes to meet and gently interrogate on the street: “Were you here yesterday
Did you see the roadside bomb hit the Iraqi patrol? Did you notice anything out of place before that? Have any strangers moved into the area?”
But this is your typical wide-avenued Iraqi neighborhood, where every house is behind a high wall. Finding folks to chat with is going to take some effort. The soldiers fan out. They’re doing their yard-by-yard security checks. Do you see a threat within the first few feet? Something that looks like a wire or a hidden bomb? No? Another 10 feet out? No? How about 15 feet out?
One soldier later said something didn’t feel right—he didn’t like the way the cars were parked. But he convinced himself that nothing looked out of place. We walk down a dusty, deserted street with once lovely villas, some now bombed and burned out, others just shuttered against the sun.
The captain and I walk up the avenue a couple feet, and Paul and James gather their gear and catch up. “What are we doing?” Paul asks, looking unimpressed with the surroundings, a dusty, boring street, like dozens of others we’d filmed. “Looking for Iraqis to talk to,” I answer.
“Right, OK,” he says, scanning the soldiers for a good shot. He and James walk away and start filming the soldiers completing their checks, looking around cautiously, rifles ready—the usual.
The captain turns around, and I follow, walking on his right back down the way we’d come. On our left is a high wall, and behind it is a villa shattered by a much earlier blast.
“See that villa,” Funkhouser asks, “to our left?”
“Uh-huh.” I try not to stare directly at it.
“We think an insurgent cell has moved in there—the ones who were behind yesterday’s bombing. We think they’re using it as an OP [observation post]. They could be watching us right now,” he adds.
The captain spots his translator, Sam, half a block ahead of us, making his way toward an Iraqi tea stand. Finally, some Iraqis to talk to, I think to myself. The tea stand is the usual makeshift affair—a few battered bits of plywood with a cheap awning to keep off the sun, surrounded by a bunch of Iraqis taking a break from work . . . if they had work. Most didn’t.
Funkhouser jackrabbits ahead of me, outpacing me in a few strides. I trail, trying to scribble his last couple thoughts in my notebook.
As he strides forward I see above his left shoulder the mustachioed face of an Iraqi man in a crisp blue dress shirt and dark blue trousers. He’s raising a glass of tea to his lips, tipping it on a saucer he holds in his other hand. He’s looking over the tea glass in the captain’s direction, the expression in his eyes just a bit hostile and questioning—the same look any Iraqi male gives to a U.S. soldier in full battle dress who is striding toward him.
Out of the corner of my eye, on my right, I see Paul and James. They’re moving across my field of vision ahead of us, filming generally in our direction. I assume they’re trying to reach the tea stand to capture the classic shot: the Iraqi faces of mistrust and semi-fear dissolving into semi-smiles, as the American captain puts his hand to his heart in greeting and says, Salaam Alaikum, which means peace to you.
Capt. Funkhouser didn’t have to stride down that street ahead of me to greet those Iraqis. He could have kept walking at a leisurely pace, holding forth on his opinion of the world to a network TV reporter, and I would have kept pace with him, walking right up to the bomb. But his mission was more important than his ego, and that surely saved my life.
I watch him draw level with the tea stand, thinking I’ll hang back and let Paul get the shot before I step into the frame to listen.
In that moment, the world slammed backward into black.
Waking to Horror | Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany
Pinpricks all over my legs like little needles.
Blurry face looking up at me from where she/he is pricking my legs.
Trying to speak. Can’t.
Ahh, I get it.
My throat is blocked, my mouth wedged open, my tongue a swollen, wooden thing.
I’ve got a tube in my throat.
More pinpricks draw me back to the blurry person.
I think to myself, Something happened to my legs, and they’re treating them. Something bad happened recently, I remember that, but I can only pull at the edges of the memory. So my mind grapples with the physical sensation and tries to find some familiar context. …
I was to find out that it was days after the original bombing, and I had been in a coma, with shrapnel to the skull, both femurs broken, burns from my hips to my ankles, and my femoral artery had been cut. CBS had flown my far-flung family to my bedside in Germany, because the doctors told them I had little chance of surviving.
…I 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.
Nurse Nancy Miller 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. …
Learning to walk again | National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Md.
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.”
. . .
“So my heart stopped twice?” I asked my boyfriend Pete.
“Who told you that?” he asked too quietly. 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 neurological 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 post-traumatic 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.
Since I’ve written the book, much has changed. Mother Dorothy Dozier passed away in 2008, and we lost our dad Ben Dozier in 2016. (Thanks to CBS Cameraman-turned-Director-of Photography Chris Albert for filming and editing this interview of our dad.) My then-partner Pete returned to New Zealand to be with his kids soon after I recovered, and our lives took different directions.
And I did not go back to the Middle East for CBS News. The CBS-approved Washington Post Op-Ed above explains why I chose to step away from an organization that was like family, but was now over-protective of me, as families can be.
Thanks to the AP, The Daily Beast and TIME Magazine, I’ve been back to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan multiple times, including embedding with U.S., Iraqi and Afghan forces.
As for my health, I not only walk without a limp — I run. I have spent many years sharing the lessons of recovery with troops, veterans and the public. What I tried to teach along the way is that when a “victim” overcomes their traumatic experience—learning from it, changing through it, and moving beyond it—they develop post-traumatic growth. And they become a survivor.
“This story reminds us all that courage is often most evident after the battle, when the unwavering commitment of people to each other shows us what true heroes are.”— GEN. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL, RET.
“Kimberly Dozier has mastered the great art of storytelling in her brilliant book about how she survived an I.E.D. attack in Iraq. She writes of her ordeal without self-pity, dissecting and reliving the trials of Job: broken bones, burns, infections, unbearable pain and occasional medical advice that made things worse. What she did to survive is remarkable; her account of it is raw and riveting. You can’t put it down.” — LESLEY STAHL, 60 Minutes
“The bomb blast that Kimberly Dozier survived in 2006 took her out of Iraq but she never stopped being a war correspondent. Here is a rare, personal view—with all the attention to detail a great reporter brings to bear—into an experience shared by thousands of wounded Iraq veterans.” — DAN RATHER
“Breathing the Fire is a harrowing tale of courage, survival, determination, fellowship and the high price of covering a war. Kim Dozier is a master storyteller and one tough journalist. Her family is lucky to have her back – and America is lucky to have her on the front lines of reporting.” — TOM BROKAW
“Kimberly Dozier’s story, from her injury in Iraq on Memorial Day 2006 to her long recovery, is an important reminder of the tremendous sacrifices that our men and women overseas have made and are still making. By writing about her experiences on the battlefield and in recovery alongside our wounded warriors, she provides an inspiring voice for those both in and out of uniform who face the same challenges of injury, recovery, and loss. It is a compelling read.” — GEORGE W. CASEY, Jr., U.S. Army, U.S. Army, former commander of multinational forces in Iraq
“Because she’s a colleague of mine at CBS News, I thought I knew Kimberly Dozier’s story pretty well. I didn’t have a clue. The brutal honesty and unflinching detail with which she writes about the ‘rings of horror spreading out from the bomb’ that almost killed her is riveting. At one point during her recovery she tells a psychiatrist she doesn’t want drugs to ‘hide the pain.’ Instead, ‘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.’ That’s exactly what she’s done in this book. Along the way she provides a nitty-gritty account of what it takes to cover a war. Anybody with a jaundiced view of the press should read for themselves the determination and commitment and just plain guts it takes. It helps to have a sense of humor, and Kimberly uses hers to somehow make you laugh in the middle of a story about terrible, terrible loss.” — DAVID MARTIN, National Security Correspondent, CBS Evening News
“Dozier’s book is a searing, honest look at how one horrible bomb can change so many lives forever. It was hard for me to get through the chapters without having to set it down. Her words put me right back on our own family’s journey to heal after Bob’s IED injury in Iraq. This is a must-read for not only those who have had a loved one in the war, but for any family who has had to fight through the arduous journey to recover themselves after a life changing event.” — LEE WOODRUFF, author In an Instant, the memoir of ABC News Anchor Bob Woodruff’s injury in Iraq
“With self-deprecating wit, Dozier recounts her determination to recover, never straying into self-pity. Her wounds gave her an insider’s perspective on one of the top military stories on the homefront: inattention to veterans’ medical and psychological care. As a television celebrity, however, she faced the opposite problem: a crush of attention from other reporters. “I was a single representative showing [the public] in a horribly fresh way something they’d long been numb to.”” –The Washington Post (read the entire review here. Read Kimberly Dozier’s Letter to the Editor here.)
NBC’s Baghdad correspondent Richard Engel, author of War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq, writes about Breathing the Fire in Time magazine. (Dozier mentioned his book in her Washington Post blog.)
AMAZON READERS SPEAK UP:
“Writing in a crisp, clear, broadcast-news style, Dozier’s account of the Memorial Day, 2006, incident is both personal and visceral, describing her excruciating brain and burn injuries as well as the pain surrounding the deaths of her two CBS co-workers, a U.S. Army Civil Affairs captain, and his Iraqi translator…In the last third of her book, Dozier paints a vivid picture of what it is actually like to be a war correspondent. Her description of running military checkpoints and dodging Iraqi troops in the initial race to Baghdad crackles with energy and virtually leaps from the page.”–CAROL A. SAYNISCH, M.A. Military Review
5 out of 5 stars, “Breathing the Fire” breathes life into your vision of the war, November 2, 2008
By Joanna Daneman (Middletown, DE)
“This documentary of Kim Dozier’s experience as a CBS correspondent in Iraq is revealing; not only does she discuss the experience of wounded soldiers but she herself becomes wounded in a bomb blast in Iraq.
“From discussing frankly what it is like to be a woman correspondent with a major news network to the treatment as patient, first in Landstuhl in Germany, then in the US, Dozier learns the hard way about the medical system and about terrible wounds and pain. You’ll get very angry about her treatment in the US hospital (but from stories people I know here tell me, some of what she experienced is what happens day to day to anyone –from call buttons put out of reach, no one answering alarms on equipment to having her complaints–valid, ignored.)
“This is an unusual memoir–not only eyewitness to events in Iraq and the US but firsthand experience of being wounded. Though Dozier “becomes the story” rather than reporting the story, I think you can insert “any soldier” into her experience minus, perhaps, the experience of being a soldier sent into battle with a mission, and learn just a small amount about the terrible price our men and women are paying for volunteering for this duty. None of them will tell you about the pain and suffering but Kimberly Dozier can. A must read.”
Buy the book
Breathing the Fire can be found at Amazon.com and other fine retailers.
The first edition of the book is available as an Audible audio edition.