February 13, 2006 12:00 PM

Bob Woodruff already knew war was hell. In 2003 his close friend David Bloom, an NBC reporter, died while embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq. At the time, Woodruff was also in Iraq, traveling with a division of Marines. Shaken by the loss of his friend, Woodruff rushed home. “I couldn’t recognize him, he looked so different,” says the newsman’s Arabic translator, Fadel al Ghazawi, who saw Woodruff shortly afterwards. “Bob said, ‘I didn’t know it would be so bad.'”

Still, the experience didn’t stop Woodruff from returning to Iraq—and putting himself in the line of fire. On Jan. 29, as the new coanchor of ABC’s World News Tonight and in pursuit of a story about the training of Iraqi soldiers, he was seriously wounded when a roadside bomb detonated near the Iraqi military vehicle carrying him and cameraman Doug Vogt, 46. The pair had chosen to ride in the lead vehicle in the U.S.-Iraqi convoy instead of in a safer Humvee farther back. The blast fractured Woodruff’s skull and shoulder, broke several bones and injured his jaw. Airlifted to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and then to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., both men were listed as stable. Vogt, a Canadian-born news veteran who lives in France, was alert and asking when he could go home. Woodruff, 44, however, remained heavily sedated in order to maximize healing his doctors say could take weeks or months. “They told us everything points to a great chance for recovery,” says Woodruff’s older brother David, 45, who arrived at Landstuhl a day after the explosion. “We’re very hopeful.”

Woodruff’s wife, Lee, 45—with whom he has a son, Mack, 14, a daughter, Cathryn, 12, and 5-year-old twins Nora and Claire—also flew to Germany to be with her husband. By her side was David Bloom’s widow, Melanie, 43, who provided moral support—just as Lee had been a rock for her close friend after Bloom’s death, when Bob Woodruff became something of a surrogate father to his friend’s three young daughters. He even accompanied one to a father-daughter school dance.

Popular among his colleagues “He’s smart but not pretentious; the kind of guy you could watch football with or discuss the nuclear ambitions of Iran with,” says ABC’s Kate Snow—Woodruff and co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas had been tapped to fill the seat left by Peter Jennings just eight weeks before the explosion in Iraq. Raised in Bloomfield Township, Mich., Woodruff gave up his job as a New York City corporate lawyer to try his hand in TV news after Dan Rather hired him as a translator during the 1989 Tiananmen Square riots. (Fluent in Mandarin, Woodruff was in China to teach a law class.) He worked for CBS News before signing with rival ABC in 1996. “He has a voracious curiosity about people and places,” says former ABC reporter Alex Travelli, who worked with Woodruff in Kuwait. “When news broke, he’d shoot like a rocket to be there first.”

The hard part was leaving behind Lee, whom he met as an undergraduate at Colgate University, and their children. A public relations consultant and freelance writer, Lee “understands his passion and his professionalism,” says Kate Snow. “But Lee has said, ‘Every time the phone rings when Bob’s in a war zone, I jump.'” Woodruff often discussed the fine line between aggressive reporting and taking undue risks, say his colleagues. “He is devoted to his family, but he’s also someone who truly wants to get the story right,” says ABC anchor Robin Roberts. “Sometimes that puts you in harm’s way.”

Initially knocked unconscious by the explosion, Woodruff—who was wearing a protective vest, helmet and glasses briefly opened his eyes and asked, “Am I alive?” before getting medical attention. No one at ABC knows how long it will be before he returns to the anchor chair, but his friends and family believe his twin passions will help him recover quickly. “I saw him in the office right before he left on this assignment,” recalls Robin Roberts. “He had two rollerbags, and he was having trouble getting through the doors because he also was carrying this piece of art that one of his twins had made in class. He was flying out at 3 in the afternoon but he stopped by the office first to put up this drawing that he was beaming about. That is a snapshot of Bob.”

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