|Lee and Bob Woodruff established the Bob Woodruff Family Fund to aid wounded US troops. (peter kramer/associated press)|
NEW YORK - In the darkest days, when ABC's Bob Woodruff was just beginning to recover from the Iraq roadside bombing that tore off part of his skull, drove shrapnel into his head, and almost killed him, his wife says they told each other jokes to keep from falling apart.
As in: "I'm the only wife who can say her husband has rocks in his head and really mean it!"
"Laughter has been such a great part of our healing," Lee Woodruff says now. "If we hadn't been able to laugh, we would have just cried."
Now the couple is using humor as a healing force again, this time in a high-profile benefit for wounded US troops - a cause that has become a passion for Woodruff and his family. Conan O'Brien, Robin Williams, and Lewis Black are just a few of the personalities scheduled to appear at a benefit tonight for the Bob Woodruff Family Fund. And none other than Bruce Springsteen will provide musical entertainment.
"Stand Up for Heroes," a partnership between the fund and the New York Comedy Festival, is expected to net upward of $2.5 million, organizers say, for a cause the family embraced just less than two years ago, when their world was shattered by that roadside bomb.
Since then, Woodruff, who spent 36 days in a medically induced coma, has made what many call an astonishing recovery.
"It's pretty miraculous," says Lee. "This man should not be alive." Though his doctors say he will never be 100 percent again, and he still searches for words at times, the former "World News" anchor has returned to work full time as a correspondent, traveling to places like Cuba, Syria, and recently Angola.
"It's coming back remarkably fast," Bob said in an interview this week. "But I know there are going to be moments, when I'm reporting a story live, that I forget the name of the person I'm interviewing. It might be a campaign, or it might be a hurricane. I might forget the name of the mayor of the town I'm in. But I think people will understand that."
Part of the mission of Woodruff's fund is simply to raise awareness of what wounded troops are going through. Until January 2006, the Woodruff family was like so many others that have had little or no contact with the military and its families.
"None of us had had any experience with the military at all," says Dave Woodruff, Bob's brother, who lives in Detroit and is chairman of the board for the fund. "None of us had ever been exposed to what it means." First in Germany, where Woodruff was first treated, and then later at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., "we were just so impressed to see how these guys support each other," Dave says. "We felt like we needed to give back. And Bob also felt like he needed to do something."
In his advocacy for wounded soldiers, Woodruff has also become a spokesman of sorts for the broader issue of brain injuries, which afflict 1.5 million Americans a year, according to the Brain Injury Association of America. The Woodruff Family Fund is part of the organization. "They've been looking for a spokesperson for 25 years," says Lee.
"Brain injury is a stigmatizing thing," says Dave. "People don't understand why people act the way they do when they've been injured. Bob has the incredible blessing of having come back from this injury, and being able to communicate."
Tonight's benefit at New York City's Town Hall is the brainchild of Caroline Hirsch, founding partner of the New York Comedy Festival, who watched an ABC News special about Woodruff's recovery and the plight of other brain-injured Iraq veterans. "I was crying," said Hirsch. "I thought, maybe we can do something together." She arranged a meeting with Lee, who recalls that they were "both crying at lunch, talking about some of these wounded troops."
A major coup was getting Springsteen to perform. The singer took an early interest in Bob's plight, and sent a note of support while he was in his coma. Lee decided to embellish on the note, telling her unresponsive husband - a huge Springsteen fan - that the Boss had promised to come perform for him and the troops when he awoke.
When he did awake, Lee says, Bob made a strumming motion, and said: "I gotta be ready to play when that Boss man comes." He had remembered.