One of the missions of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, led by executive director Anne Marie Dougherty (right), is to bridge the divide between the military and civilians.

Photo by Joe Meredith/JMP, courtesy Bob Woodruff Foundation

Helping Veterans Help Each Other

Through her work with the Bob Woodruff Foundation, NationSwell Council member Anne Marie Dougherty knows that the best way to lift up returning service members is by building enduring connections among them.

In 2006, journalist Bob Woodruff had made the long trip to Taji, an hour north of Baghdad, to report on the Iraq war. Having recently been named co-anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight,” Woodruff’s life changed in an instant, when a roadside bomb struck his armored vehicle. The newsman was nearly killed, and after a long recovery, he eventually returned to journalism. He also started a foundation to help service members and their families. Overseen by NationSwell Council member Anne Marie Dougherty, the Bob Woodruff Foundation has raised more than $30 million to rehabilitate the injured, provide access to education and employment opportunities, and work to improve overall quality of life for veterans. NationSwell spoke with Dougherty about what veterans are facing as they return home from two Middle East wars.

How did Bob Woodruff’s brain injury shape the mission of his foundation?
After he was hurt in Iraq, he said, “We’re not special. People are suffering the same injuries, if not worse ones.” He was able to see firsthand the struggles of service members who come home injured. But Bob and his family were acutely aware that they had ABC News and [parent company] Disney to really make sure they were taken care of, in a way that’s maybe different from the resources a young enlisted soldier has.

In a weird way, the Woodruffs became this bridge across the military-civilian divide. They walk the walk. When Bob woke up from his coma and recovered, they could have quietly gone back to their lives. But they felt like they could use the extra attention surrounding their tragedy to raise money and awareness — and they don’t want any credit for it. That gives me energy, because it’s such an authentic commitment. It’s their way of expressing gratitude for his recovery.

As I understand it, the foundation’s mission is to help veterans recover from the war, both physically and spiritually. What does that look like to you, in the day-to-day?
We try to understand what’s going on in the active-duty military and veteran communities. We scan the landscape to identify what the policies are at the federal, state and local levels; what budgets are getting cut; what’s on the horizon with the next administration; and how all these pieces affect service members. Our role is to complement the resources the government provides. Once we know what’s needed, we go out and find organizations that have the relevant programs.

The Bob Woodruff Foundation supports the use of service dogs to help rehabilitate veterans. Courtesy of the Bob Woodruff Foundation

Why does this work matter to you personally?
Shortly after Bob was injured, my husband was getting ready to deploy to Iraq as a marine. He didn’t end up going at that time, but we were staring down the barrel. After following the Woodruffs’ story, I had this thought in the back of my mind, “What if this happens to us?” I followed the thread through a marine wives’ network and was connected to the Woodruffs when they were literally running a kitchen-table operation. I was particularly interested in building the brand and its reputation. Instinctively, it seemed like there was an opportunity there.

There are roughly 40,000 veterans’ nonprofits out there. What do you look for when deciding which are worthy of funding?
A lot of what we think about is how to get outside the small ring of vets who are very proactive about joining programs. There’s a whole universe of veterans who are not taking advantage of the programs that exist. In a way, it’s like connecting supply with demand. After that, we take our due diligence seriously. When you’re running an organization with living namesakes, there’s a responsibility to create and uphold a certain standard. Getting a grant is a seal of approval. As the leader of the foundation, I have to set that standard every day, which is to be rigorous and consistent, transparent and accountable.

What’s one issue impacting service members that doesn’t get enough attention?
We were at war for the longest time in our nation’s history, but only 1 percent of the eligible population volunteered to serve. Because the wars weren’t being fought on American soil, there’s a huge disconnect, and frankly, people are kind of over it. That, combined with the current political climate, means the country isn’t able to focus attention — and therefore, resources — on what returning vets need. The health of our all-volunteer force depends on how we respond to veterans transitioning back into civilian society. If you can get out front of some of these very predictable issues, the trajectory can totally change. We’ve made huge progress — we are a very generous nation after all — but the risk is that we have compassion fatigue and short attention spans.

Is there a book you’d recommend to people who want to better understand the challenges vets face upon homecoming?
Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe” is an incredible explanation of something we intuitively already know to be true. When veterans come home — whether they’re injured or not — they struggle with a sense of purpose and meaning. In the military, it’s very clear what your role in the hierarchy is; you have your tribe. But eventually you wander back into regular life. You might miss being deployed. We need to understand that’s a human response and a very real sentiment.

How do you repair that feeling of disconnection?
Veterans helping other veterans. They’re drawn to service, and we’re creating opportunities for them to continue to serve. We know that by helping others like them, vets get healthier. They just want that human connection. Banks and other companies will say, “We’re gonna hire veterans; that’s how we’re going to solve veteran unemployment,” which is a very important piece of the puzzle. But there are a lot of people who join the military so that they don’t end up sitting in a cubicle at a big company. So we’ve taken on the challenge of finding opportunities, especially for service members who have been injured, that lets them work outside, doing something with their hands. There’s an organization called the Farmer Veteran Coalition, and it’s so simple: If you help a veteran afford a tractor, they can get a plot going. One of the grants from this group went to supplying a young farmer with mating turkeys. He calls it “dirt therapy,” just to be able to plant things and be alone in the peace and healing of the outdoors. On top of that, they’re growing organic food and participating in a farmers’ market to share this food with other people, and they’re attracting more veterans to come and work there. It’s having a multiplying effect.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at chris@nationswell.com.