Bob Woodruff Addresses BC Class of 2012
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. (5-21-12)—Thank you Father Keenan, and thanks to Father Leahy, trustees, faculty, students and family members.
I’m very honored to be here, even though I am fairly certain you won’t remember a thing I say. When I graduated from Colgate University in 1983, my graduation speaker was Ted Koppel, a prominent journalist from the ABC News show "Nightline." And I honestly cannot remember one thing he told us. Years later, when I had the chance to tell him that story, he told me that he couldn’t remember his graduation speaker, let alone what he had said at my ceremony.
Now you may be asking yourself: who is this guy and why is he my graduation speaker?
I’m just a person with a story. I’m a person who has been where you are now—and I became a journalist because I fell in love with telling stories. Stories have the power to connect us as human beings. And they have the power to effect change.
So this is my story in a nutshell. I have an amazing family—a wife who is by far my better half; four terrific kids, one of whom goes to BC. I worked hard, I loved what I did and then the unexpected happened. I was critically injured by a roadside bomb while covering the war in Iraq.
I lost many things in that injury, but on balance I’d have to say that I gained many more.
By all rights I should have died on January 29, 2006. It is my “Alive Day,” as it is referred to in the military—the day the nurses and doctors and medics brought me back despite all of the odds stacked against me. And if I had died that day, I can tell you this: Short of watching my children grow up, and meeting my grandkids, by that point in my life I had achieved all of the things that truly mattered. I had the love of a good woman, children who are the center of my world. I had reached what is considered the pinnacle of success in my career: co-anchor of "World News Tonight," following in the footsteps of Peter Jennings. I had traveled the world and lived in enough other countries to understand how fortunate we are to be born in the USA.
Six years ago I was riding down a road in a tank outside Baghdad, when a 155 mm explosive device went off. Rock shrapnel hit my face, head and body, and the force of the explosion shattered my skull. I was not expected to live, and I was in a coma for 36 days. If I did survive, my prognosis was grim. One larger rock had cut across my neck and come to rest against the carotid artery on the other side. I was never expected to speak again, let alone be standing up here. I am a walking miracle and I am grateful for that every single day.
During and after my recovery, there were four truths that crystalized for me. They aren’t vast wisdom and they are probably things you’ve heard before, but in the years since my injury my awareness of them has only sharpened. And so I share them with you today, in hopes that maybe you will remember at least one of them.
Number one: FIGURE OUT WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY
I was a lawyer in New York City when I met my wife. But it was 1987 and the economy was pretty grim. Sounds familiar, right? There were no mergers or deals happening and I was bored. I had studied Mandarin Chinese during law school and when I married Lee, we left for Beijing, China in 1988, where I taught law to Chinese students.
The year that followed was a pivotal one. We would watch my students at the university begin to protest the communist regime, and the Tiananmen Square demonstrations blossomed. I took a job as a translator for CBS News, and when the tanks rolled into the Square and the Army began shooting at its own people, I witnessed the blood and the carnage.
Those moments on the Square changed the direction of my life. I fell in love with the idea of telling stories. I was hooked on journalism.
I found an entry level job in TV news and left the law and a nice salary behind. We qualified for food stamps in the state of California. We had a brand new baby and my wife supported us with her writing.
For the next 11 years we moved around the country to bigger and bigger TV markets, had three more kids and I continued to move up in my career. I was passionate about what I did. I learned something new every day. I worked hard, did whatever was asked or required, put in all the extra hours, kept my head down and the rest came. Figure out what engages you, what turns you on—because when you love what you do, happiness and even financial success can flow from that.
An education from BC is the perfect preparation for journalism and many other fields. There is no substitute for studying history, philosophy, theology, and literature. The kind of an education that you have received here will help you form the questions. And knowing how to ask questions is one of the most important tools in life, in every field.
Let me say that I do understand that not every single person gets to find passion in their job—for some people what they do is a vocation—but people find passion in other aspects of their life, whether it's playing music or writing books, building boats, cooking or running marathons. Whatever it may be, I urge you to find and feed a passion.
Number Two : EXERCISE YOUR FAITH
You’ve had the opportunity here at BC to be exposed to faith in many forms. Every one has a set of beliefs and they are calibrated in different measures. Some people don’t believe in God, and that’s their prerogative. But in what I’ve witnessed and experienced, having faith in something bigger than you can ease you through many things.
There are a lot of questions we can’t answer. And faith never promises you that it has all the answers. It simply eases the journey. A battle with breast cancer, a parent’s slow slide into Alzheimer's, the loss of a child, a husband kisses a wife goodbye and the World Trade Center falls. You will need faith in ways that may not seem important now, but at some point it will serve you well. Faith has the power to stop you from falling through the floor. Use it, explore it, tap into it from time to time and it will renew you in unexpected ways.
One of the memories I had when I woke up after five weeks in a coma was one that many other people have described who have had near-death experiences. I had fallen back in the tank and I remembered the sensation of floating above my body, looking down and seeing myself bleeding and being bathed in a white light. The light was warm and comforting. And I wanted to be there, but then I woke up hard on the floor of the tank. It was not my time, but the image of that light stayed with me, and to this day I am not afraid of death.
I’ll share with you one other story about faith. It was when I was visiting the injured at Bethesda Naval Hospital. There was a young soldier, alone in his hospital room, who had his foot blown off and he was angry and in pain.
A nurse came in and she said “Henry, have you talked to God today?" And he grumbled a little and said “I don’t believe in God.” She turned to him, tucking in the sheet, making him comfortable, and she said, “Well, that’s OK; I talked to him for you. He’s got your back today.” And you could see that soldier relax. He knew that someone else out there was including him in their prayers. Sometimes, just holding that hope for someone else is one of the greatest gifts you can give another human being.
Number Three: SERVE AND GIVE BACK
Your education here at BC has emphasized service in many important ways. It is a part of the Jesuit tradition. As we sit here today and as you’ve spent the last four years pursuing your education, young men and women are crouched in a tank somewhere on a battlefield, serving our country. These are the people who raised their hands when their country asked them to go and whether or not you believe these wars are just or you vote left, right or center, you have to respect the fact that there are people willing to go into areas of conflict so that you can make that choice.
And when they come home, injured or different or looking for a job or a chance, it is up to America to welcome them home in our individual communities. Our government will not be able to care for them alone. It will fall on the 99% of us civilians who allow the less than 1% of us in the military to do the heavy lifting in warzones and hot spots while we enjoy life here.
As a journalist I had covered wars for many years. People asked me why I liked going to areas of conflict and one of the things that fascinated me is that in wars you see both the best and worst of human nature. I firmly believe that as long as there are Americans overseas willing to put their lives on the line for us back home, there need to be people willing to tell their story – and that of the Iraqis and Afghans.
Returning veterans and their families are facing enormous challenges when they return home from the battlefield. And more than 360,000 have returned home with some form of a brain injury. The need for employment, a record-breaking suicide rate and broken families are just a few of the issues they face. It will be up to your generation to ensure that we—as a country—take care of our own. This is simply what a great nation does.
My family and I got an inordinate amount of attention after my injury and it was our time to stand up—to use our voice and pulpit to remind America about the families making sacrifices every day. We saw firsthand how lucky we were;we had resources and loved ones and friends. We started a foundation to help our wounded veterans. Giving back—doing something way bigger than you or your family—feels good. I know that many of you already know that feeling and are engaged in service in multiple ways. So I urge you—when it's your turn, give back.
Number Four: GET VOCAL WITH FAMILY AND FRIENDS
This last one is easy. The network of friends that you have hopefully made during your time here at BC will be an important gift throughout your life. These friends will support you and care for you, check in with you and be the webbing for the life you are about to launch. Your friends may change and morph over time—but I know that I could not have made the journey of my recovery without family and friends.
I hope today you get the chance to tell them that. Be vocal about it—tell your friends and your family at every opportunity how much they mean to you. Life is short. Life can change in an instant—I’m living proof of that—so don’t be stingy with love or friendship.
Journalist David Brooks wrote a great book I urge you all to read called The Social Animal, and one of the passages that rang true for me was about how we prepare our children for life with tests and learning and information—but that one of the most important decisions you will ever make in life is something we don’t exactly know how to prepare you for: who to be friends with and trust and love and spend your life with. In the end, those choices will be one of the most important indicators for your ongoing happiness and success. And knowing the kind of school that BC is, I know you have chosen well.
My injury changed many things. I lost the anchor chair at ABC News. I lost a photographic memory. I can’t always find the word I want right at the moment I reach for it. That roadside bomb that changed my world forced me to reconfigure my life, in many amazing ways.
But the big, awful thing that happened in my life can’t define me. It only strengthened my love for so many things. It recommitted me to what’s really important. What counts isn’t the title or the accomplishment. It’s not a medal or an award. It is the people, my friends and family—the ones who have been and will be there for the long haul. So give your family a big hug today and thank them for helping you get to this place.
So, to the class of 2012: Congratulations for what you’ve done and all the amazing and wonderful places you are about to go. Go Eagles!