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Painful Life Lessons From Journalist Who Nearly Died in Iraq

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Surviving a near-death experience and enduring a painful life-rebuilding process is one way to develop an appreciation for what matters most in life.

A far more agreeable way to acquire such knowledge is to learn inexpensively from others who paid dearly for it.

That is what LPL has done for 5,000 advisors and guests attending its annual LPL Focus conference in San Diego this week, where they heard from former ABC newsman Bob Woodruff and his wife, Lee.

The two described the roadside bomb blast and resulting traumatic brain injury Bob suffered while covering the war in Iraq that would forever change their lives.

As is standard for financial services conferences, LPL established a theme this year: “What Matters Most.”

And while the broker-dealer has endeavored to show that the tools and services it offers matter exceedingly to its affiliated advisors, or that helping clients realize their life aspirations rises to that lofty standard, the capstone session in the three-day event was the Woodruffs’ talk because nothing can better demonstrate the value of something than its near loss.

With both humor and poignancy, the Woodruffs described their early life together — meeting, marrying, establishing a family and Bob’s long ride up the career ladder as a broadcast journalist from an unglamorous and botched beginning in a small California town.

But in January 2006, right after achieving the pinnacle of his career — having become co-anchor on ABC’s World News Tonight just 20 days before — he and cameraman Doug Vogt, reporting from a combat zone in Iraq while traveling in an armored vehicle, were hit by an improvised explosive device that put Bob in a semi-comatose state for 36 days.

Only the rapid action of two young medics and a military neurosurgical team saved the then 45-year-old’s life.

“When we were hit…the insurgents opened fire,” Bob recalled. “Our guys fired back, pulled us out of the tank I was in. Blood was pouring out so fast…I asked Doug: ‘Are we alive?’ he said, ‘We’re alive.’ That was my last memory” before emerging from the coma.

He learned a year later that after the Bradley military vehicle got them to a helicopter that could bring them to a field hospital, the pilots got word from their commander not to land because it was too dangerous.

“They turned down the radio and took us anyway; that’s what [they do] to save lives.”

With shrapnel lodged in Woodruff’s brain and his brain so swollen that doctors had to remove 15 centimeters of skull to give it space to heal, time was of the essence.

“In a head injury, every second counts,” his wife Lee said.

Lee was at Disney World with their kids when she received the fateful call about her husband.

“Life became a blur,” she said of the new uncertain life awaiting her.

It was something of a blur for Bob as well during his coma.

“The last thing I remember: I saw my body floating underneath me. It was peaceful, it was painless, sort of white; there was no pain whatsoever, no nightmares,” he recalled.

“The next five weeks of Bob’s coma were surreal,” said Lee. At around the same time, the husband of a close friend died suddenly.

“In that loss, there was a bottom, a finality” that was wholly missing from the grief and uncertainty she was then experiencing. “With a five-week coma, no one was able to tell me what he’d be left with, if he’d love me, if he’d remember me.”

But 36 days later, at 3 a.m., Bob suddenly sat up and said to a Navy corpsman attending him, “Where is my life?”

His meaning, Lee explained, was “where is my wife,” but the trauma had affected his speech. For some time thereafter he was speaking what sounded like gibberish, though apparently he was speaking two languages he had previously known, Mandarin Chinese and French.

“His brain was reaching into other language files to communicate,” Lee said, adding that he would also sometimes sit up and announce, “Bob Woodruff, ABC News.”

In Bob’s long recovery, he struggled to relearn language; his children helped him say words like “belt buckle.”

“Watching the brain put itself together has been an incredible miracle,” Lee said.

The Woodruffs recounted some of the lessons their experience taught them, first among them Lee’s ability to cope, which she attributed to what she calls the four Fs: family, friends, faith and funny — the last one signifying that a sense of humor about life is needed to get through difficult times.

A fifth F, which she did not enumerate as such, but did explicitly underscore, was her financial advisor:

“Our financial advisor was someone who understood our priorities, understood our goals and dreams. It was so important to have that person have our back,” she said, recalling that in the early most difficult days “I was worrying as a wife what would I do, go back to [her previous work in] benefits [administration]?

“To know that that person was there as a backup as a spouse was to me incredibly valuable,” she said, telling the thousands of advisors in the audience:

“You’re giving back in a million different ways; you need to know how important it is to have the kinds of relationships that I imagine you have with your clients.”

As for Bob, the former newsman learned that “life as you know it…can’t be scripted.”

He and Lee have occupied themselves with establishing and running the Bob Woodruff Foundation, helping veterans particularly in areas of reemployment and suicide prevention.

If that work can help injured veterans cope and eventually thrive upon their return home, then perhaps, he says, his difficult experience “will have been worth it.”

Another lesson Bob learned is that “it is not so much in life where you are, who you’re with, what kind of wealth you have, it’s what the direction is. I was never happier in my life when I was young and not making much money because I knew the next day I’d be making more,” he said.

That lesson was reinforced by the story of an acquaintance who, because of a shortage of space on a flight to Paris, was bumped up to business class. “He was thrilled, drinking fine wine,” he said.

But at the same time First Class was oversold, and another passenger who was bumped down was sitting next to the guy who was bumped up; he was depressed the whole flight.

Amid many tales of endurance and resilience in the struggle to recovery and rebuild, perhaps the most poignant was the story of one of the Woodruffs’ then young children, Nora, that illustrates “the good things that happen out of disasters.”

Recalls Bob:

“A few months after I came out of the hospital, Nora says to Lee: ‘Daddy’s face is still all scarred with metal, his back is scarred, his shoulder is all broken. Lee said ‘Daddy is getting better every day.’

“Then Nora said: ‘You know what, Mom? I think Daddy loves me more now than he did before.’”

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