The Colgate Scene
May 2002

On the front lines
What happens when one member of a parental team is reporting from a faraway war zone? The other stays home and — in this case — reflects on the experience.

Lee McConaughy Woodruff and daughter Nora

I was grocery shopping on November 19 when the news broke that four foreign journalists had been routed out of their car and shot simply for being "Western." Blissfully unaware that anything had happened, I returned home to a full answering machine with messages from concerned friends and family members.

My husband, Bob Woodruff '83, is a foreign correspondent with ABC News, based in London. On that day he was in Kabul, trying desperately to reach me and let me know he was all right. When he finally got through to me, I felt such a wave of shock and relief pass through me that I physically had to sit down. Bob's ABC colleague, Jim Wooten, was in that convoy and had gotten away unscathed. If I hadn't fully faced it before, the events of that day drove home the fact that my life and the lives of many others who are on assignment for this war had taken a new turn.

Covering a war, journalists do not enjoy the normal immunity to be observers and documenters of the world's events. They are occasionally hit by crossfire, or ambushed when traveling with soldiers. Yet in this war, they have actually become targets.

When Bob initially left for Pakistan on the day of the terrorist attacks, I spent the next few weeks dutifully switching on the TV each morning in London to view the previous night's events on ABC. There was no reason to wait until our two older children left for school. My ten-year-old son, Mack, and eight-year-old daughter, Cathryn, were very aware of what had happened and also needed to see their father's face for reassurance. Despite some of the graphic images, it was comforting to them to be able to turn on the TV, see Bob and hear his familiar voice. Even my two-year-old twins, Nora and Claire, yell "Dada" when he comes on the screen, sometimes followed by footage with a fusillade of bullets.

How much is too much information for our children, and how much is important? It's a struggle parents all over America are facing right now with the news of the world. It is also a question Americans abroad are dealing with as our kids overhear anti-American remarks or encounter the sentiments on the street. But when you are married to a foreign correspondent covering the war in Afghanistan, the balance of information becomes even trickier.

While most people I knew were filtering the news for their kids, my kids were watching their father reporting under police protection from the Serena Hotel in Quetta, Pakistan, penned in by an angry mob outside the gates. When the school bus pulls up in front of the house, they dutifully shrug on their backpacks and sweetly kiss me goodbye, on some level unaware of the very real danger they've just witnessed.

The Sunday following September 11 I took my children to the American Church in London. The pews were overflowing. The American ambassador, as well as Fergie, Prince Andrew and the princesses were in attendance as a show of support to the Americans living in England. As expected, the sanctuary was cram-med with TV cameras and reporters all covering the reactions flooding the expatriate community. Before the service began, Mack swiveled his head around, took it all in and asked, "Do you think all of these people came today because they wanted to be on TV?" I didn't know whether the fact that the attack was not foremost in his mind should be interpreted as a failure or a triumph on my part.

While it's the correspondent who lives in the limelight, appearing to have the glamour job heading to exotic places and war-torn areas, it's the spouses, usually the wives, who are left behind to hold everything together in a foreign country. Like many wives before us, it is our job to buffer the children from some of the horrors Dad is reporting on and keep the home fires burning. Now, more than ever, we have much in common with military wives in times of war. We are charged with learning how to be single mothers with a paycheck. Foreign correspondents' wives must do what they have always done: shoulder the burden of being both mother and father and blot out the very real chance their husbands might not return.

Sept. 11 happens to be our wedding anniversary, and on that day Bob had pulled it together and made reservations at a trendy London restaurant. At the time of the attack I was with my daughter's therapists, focusing on what I thought was the biggest issue in my life at the time, her recent diagnosis of deafness. My cell phone rang and it was Bob, hastily explaining that two planes had hit the World Trade Center. He was coming home immediately and leaving for Afghanistan. Not having heard the news, I was confused after hanging up as to why an event in New York would require Bob to travel to Central Asia. When I arrived home, my 80-year-old British neighbor, a war widow who immediately grasped the enormity of the events, was waiting on the front stoop to console me. It wasn't until we both went inside to switch on the TV that the magnitude and horror of what had happened began to sink in.

Minutes later, Bob pulled up in a taxi, threw clothes in his bag and was gone. Just like that; before either of us had a chance to hug and hold each other and try to comprehend the magnitude of how our world and lives had just changed. While other mothers and fathers around the world, stranded in strange towns or airports, began making plans to get home, my husband was heading into the crucible, one of the first at the war zone. Although I pretended to share his disappointment, I was secretly thrilled that night when Afghanistan closed its borders, forcing him and the other journalists to initially cover the story from Pakistan.

By the time Bob returned home six weeks later, so numbed from being "pressed up against the glass looking at all that hate," in his words, neither one of us wanted to revisit the horror of early September. Without discussion we simply tried to achieve as normal a family life as we could, knowing he would be heading back to Afghanistan any day.

It has been surreal being an American overseas during this time. You at once feel the need to be in the States among friends and family, while at the same time being relieved you are not. As Americans it is interesting to live amid the European perspective on what has happened. Yes, there is still outrage, but also a slightly different awareness of where our country fits into the world view and the West's complicated role in all of this hate. I have never been more proud to be an American as I have watching my country's patriotism flare up on the news reports and in the pictures. I have been in tears and close to tears more times than I can count.

For the Brits and many Europeans, the specter of terrorism is part of their everyday life. Here in London they have learned to live with IRA threats, bombs in the subway and blown-up bridges or buildings. The reminders of the WWII Blitz hang over the heads of many who are still alive. The events of Sept. 11 renewed a special bond between Britain and America, one that stretches back to the allies' ties in WWII. There was a palpable resignation in the days after the tragedy as all of England watched our nation's protective Saran Wrap of complacency roughly torn off forever. America was truly the last great, safe place on earth.

Bob had traveled the world extensively before meeting me. I knew for a long time that his dream was to become a foreign correspondent. When he got that opportunity with ABC News in 2000, despite the fact that we had five-month-old twins and two older children, I wasn't about to stand in his way.

I was also up for the adventure. While a part of me wished he would accept the White House reporter position for a competing network (no need to move), I knew that he would always have regrets about missing the chance to cover international events. Quite simply, I knew my husband well enough to understand this was something that he had to get out of his system.

I had visions of us living in London, taking weekend trips to walled cities, strolling through Mary Poppins-like parks with our pram, my kids developing sweet little British accents. The reality was a bit different. I knew Bob would be on the road a fair amount, but he was warming a plane seat more than his place at our dinner table. In our first year he covered stories like the sinking of the Russian Kursk submarine, the fall of Milosevic, the downed U.S. spy plane in China and the brutal Albanian sex trade, to name just a few. What I hadn't envisioned was the total unpredictability of a foreign correspondent's life. He has missed holidays, family vacations (we went on ahead), visiting friends, an anniversary get-away (I went anyway) and even his own 40th birthday bash (we freeze-framed his face on the screen with a "hello" sign). In the past six months we've seen him exactly six weeks. Most days our life together is not romantic; it is lonely and tiring and one-half of my team is not only missing in action, but missing out.

I have to admit, I had a pretty good idea of who I was marrying. When Bob and I were dating, I knew that if I ever became his wife it would be a very interesting life. And so far, our life together has lived up to that promise, even though Bob's gypsy feet have proven far larger than mine. In 13 years of marriage we have lived in nine places.

Bob was in his final year of law school in Michigan when we met and he was studying Chinese as well. His goal was to be an international lawyer, so the seeds for wanderlust were sown before we took our vows. When the law proved to be much drier in the office than in theory, he grabbed at an opportunity to teach law to Chinese students in Beijing. He asked me to marry him and come along for the adventure.

We pulled off a wedding in three months, left behind all of our possessions and I got a job with an American marketing firm in Beijing. Whatever I had expected of my new life in China could not have prepared me for how rudimentary our living quarters at the Chinese law school were. One tiny concrete room, no hot water, concrete floors and live chickens in the hallways. It was Peace Corps living and yet it was the most liberating year of our lives.

The Woodruff family in Sept. 2001: Cathryn, Lee, Claire, Bob, Macklin and Nora
The Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 happened while we were in Beijing and while Bob's students were protesting, he got a job as a "fixer" for CBS News, running around with the camera crews and translating. That experience transformed him. With bullets whistling over his head and the sheer terrible excitement on the square the night the tanks rolled in, Bob decided he had found his calling in life. The legal profession would never look the same.

After returning to his law firm's San Francisco office for two years, he'd had enough at the age of 30. I gave my blessing for his first, last and only mid-life crisis -- no cute blondes, no red cars. When our son was two months old in 1991, Bob switched careers and took a six-figure pay cut, starting at the bottom of the TV ladder in Redding, Calif. with a reporter's salary of $12,000.

During this peripatetic life I ran my own freelance writing/marketing business from home and, for a number of years, supported the family. I loved what I did and my job was portable. I hung out my shingle as a writer in six different towns and always had more than enough business. Through three pregnancies and four kids Bob and I were a team. In the early days he'd finish his job and come home and help me with mine, doing the grunt computer work and editing my writing. Yet when his career hit the network, life began to change. No longer was his orbit so close to home as it had been in local city newsrooms.

I had an unspoken deal with Bob that there were certain things that were simply his responsibility -- garbage, grilling, computerized bill paying, grass cutting and bringing out the heavy boxes of holiday decorations. As long as he had jobs to do, I reasoned, then he was still a part of the household.

As we moved on to each larger TV market, the stints away from home became longer and longer. Little by little I had to take over what I saw as his domain. Last fall, for the first time, I hauled out the ladder and climbed up to the tiny attic crawlspace to drag down the boxes of Halloween decorations and then the Christmas ones. I told Bob on the phone that night from Kabul that I had just crossed the last line. Now all I really needed from him was a paycheck.

Ever since Bob's network job began to bring him further out of orbit with the family, I have felt a sense of loss at not being part of the team anymore. I had to reconcile myself with the fact for the most part, my husband was having the time of his life. But that life didn't include me or the children. War correspondents do what they do because it is their mission in life. It's immediate and action-packed. On a good day it's an adrenaline high. While Bob is off pursuing the action, it has taken me a while to fully recognize that I have a different role within the team now -- keeper of stability, the person who forges ahead when the plans have just blown up in the family's face.

It wasn't until a few days after Bob returned from Pakistan the first time that I finally broke down. The little I had left in reserve just cracked; I was simply so relieved that he was home. My outburst started over some long-forgotten subject. In fact, I think I actually picked a fight. I ended up blithering and laying my head against his chest saying, "Don't you see? I was so scared, only I had to be strong for everybody." It wasn't until that moment that I realized just how much pressure I had been under, how much energy it had required to hold it all together.

Bob is one of the few war correspondents with a young family. In many ways, it's a job for a single guy. Shouldering the guilt of being away from kids and missing out can be a heavy load on the road. When he returns, it takes him a few days to remove his mental flak jacket and re-enter normal household life. But in the end, Bob would tell you that his family grounds him. We make it impossible for him to take himself too seriously or get lost in the story. He comes back to a real life and people who depend on him instead of an empty apartment. He gets poopie diaper duty with our babies just like everyone else. During his last, short furlough home, he filled in for me at a Brownie meeting. One of my friends told me later that when she saw him sitting cross-legged on the floor sewing Padding-ton Bears, she thought, "Now that's a dad doing some serious payback."

As hard as it is on Bob to miss us when he is on the road, he tells me there is nothing like hearing your little girl say, "Hi, Dada" on the satellite phone when you have been crashing on deadline all night, going live for the morning show and then feeding a story for World News Tonight. Despite many of his remote locations, we're able to chat by phone almost every day. In fact, one of the most bizarre things about talking to Bob in Afghanistan is the ABC on-hold music, courtesy of parent company Disney. It is definitely a surreal experience to listen to the incongruous strains of "Whistle While You Work" or "M-I-C-K-E-Y" while waiting for the assignment desk to patch me through to Bob to learn if he made it safely into some war-torn destination in a rickety Northern Alliance helicopter.

We also talk via e-mail, and I forward many messages so Bob can keep current with our family and friends. At tense or frustrating times, I'm not proud to admit I've taken pleasure in picking a "cyber fight", ranting and raving about the twins' ear infections or my incredible lack of sleep that week. It's great because he can't talk back and I don't hear the guilt in his voice about not being home. There are also chances for cyber-love too. Checking my e-mail in the morning before the babies awake and finding a quick mushy note from Bob undercuts some of the loneliness.

Bob once made the mistake of telling me he was tired. "Don't ever tell me you are tired," I hissed. "When you go to bed at night you are only responsible for yourself the next day." Now, this is a guy who currently isn't getting a regular shower, works pretty much around the clock and can slip on his unwashed socks like boots. Needless to say, I sheepishly ask him now how much sleep he is getting.

After being gone all fall, Bob spent a week in November helping to co-host Good Morning America with Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson on board the USS Enterprise. While he was having a blast mingling with the sailors and pilots for the week, dining with the admiral and flying the planes on and off the aircraft carrier, the Father/Daughter Dance at the school was looming on Saturday night.

As he continued to waffle about whether or not he would be able to make it off the ship in time, I remembered some advice Tom Bettag, executive producer of Nightline, gave me before we left Washington for London. "Many a journalist's marriage has not survived the road," he cautioned. "Don't ever hesitate to tell Bob when it's time to come home." He relayed a tale of the network anchor who covered the Vietnam War in the '70s and had been gone for months, sporadically commuting back on some long weekends when he could get out. One weekend he called his wife and told her he was too tired to make it, he was going to spend the weekend in another city. "There is going to be some hot loving in this house this weekend with or without you," she said. "So you'd better get yourself home if you want to be a part of it."

When Bob was still unsure of his schedule two days before the dance, I fired off my first ultimatum. "I don't care how you get your hindquarters back to London," I sputtered. "I don't care if you have to swim ashore. Your daughter is in tears about this." He got on that overnight flight and they danced inseparably for two hours.

We aren't special, those of us married to these overseas correspondents. We certainly don't deserve any kind of medal. Save those for the military wives who don't see their men for months at a time or for the single parents who work full-time and come home to their second shift. The real medals go to the victims of Sept. 11 and their families and loved ones. My life does not seem so difficult when I think of them.

And when friends and acquaintances ask me almost daily if I am worried, my stock answer is, "He has to come back. He has four kids." Call it blind faith, dumb luck or total denial, but right now it's working.

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