April 17, 2012

By Graydon Gordian

Helping Military Families Heal: A Conversation with Lee Woodruff

Lee Woodruff and her husband Bob, who was injured in Iraq by a roadside bomb in 2006.

Lee Woodruff is the co-founder of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, the mission of which is to provide resources and support to injured service members, veterans and their families. For years Lee, her husband Bob Woodruff and Sesame Workshop have worked together to help military families stay strong as they experience the many challenging transitions that accompany military service. On Wednesday, April 18, Lee and her husband will be moderating a Sesame Workshop panel on military families which will include such esteemed guests as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Patty Shinseki, board member of the Military Child Education Coalition and advisor for Joining Forces, a White House initiative that brings attention to the needs and sacrifices of veterans, service members, military families and their children, and encourages action to provide broad-based American support to them.

To learn more about the work Sesame Workshop does with military families, visit Sesame Workshop’s Military Families page. To watch the Sesame Workshop panel on military families live on April 18, click here.

Sesame Workshop: Tell me about the Bob Woodruff Foundation and the particular way it goes about bettering the lives of service-members and their families.

Lee Woodruff: We are really a grant-giving organization. We are the United Way of military causes. We raise money and turn around and look at small, grassroots organizations around the country. This year our grants are really focused on getting people back to work. Service-members need retraining, because most of these guys cannot be re-deployed. And we also give generous grants for mental health initiatives.

As these wars drag on, the needs of veterans and service members change. Five years ago our grants were mostly for rehabilitation. People were trying to get proper rehab. But the military has stepped up its game. We get to shift the lens of our resources depending on the needs each year. For us, if that’s an area that’s been taken care of this year, we can shift that bag of giving where the need is most dire. In this economy, the need is getting these people back to work.

SW: In 2006 your husband Bob Woodruff was wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Is that where your concern for the wellbeing of military families derives from?

Lee: Yes, absolutely. We were so fortunate in that, when this happened to us, we had such a strong support network. We had child care. Our kids were flying back forth [to Germany, where Bob Woodruff was hospitalized]. I didn’t worry about whether my job would be waiting. While in the military hospitals, we began to be cognizant of the families around us.

There’s so much of [Bob’s] recovery and healing that fed off having his children around when getting out of the hospital. It was so important the he knew they were taken care of and loved, and that their basic needs were met. That’s why we’re so laudatory of Sesame Workshop for taking the angle that helping kids heal is so critical to the entire family. We understand as a family how important children are to the equation.

SW: Tell me more about the challenges troops and their families are facing both while the parents are at war and when they return home.

Lee: Because we don’t have mandatory service these families are being deployed over and over again. Every time you’re there you’re open to post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple concussive effects and the trauma of the acts of war. Reservists who never expected to see active duty are undergoing extreme situations they never thought they would. Families are being ripped apart and are not prepared to welcome back home that same person.

I’ve heard people say, “My body came home. I was lying in my bed there next to my wife, but I never came home.” Dad or mom is present but everything has been tinkered with. I don’t think Americans are prepared to understand what these people have been through.

SW: What are the ways the average person can help members of the military and their families?

Lee: The troops are a proud population. They are the last people who are going to raise their hands and ask for help. But we really need to come together as a community around these families. It’s not going to happen from the top down. There are a number of deserving organizations that could use a check. If every American gave $5, we could solve so many issues for these families. You could also make a difference by volunteering. Go to a bedside of a service-member’s child and read. It’s so easy with the internet to figure out how to plug yourself in.

SW: Tell me more about the Sesame Workshop panel on military families you and your husband on moderating on Wednesday, April 18 in Washington, D.C.

Lee: It’s a pretty illustrious panel, so Bob and I feel proud to be a part of it. Sesame Workshop has such a collaborative spirit. That’s what I think is so nice about the panel. And it’s keeping attention on the issue. Most Americans are just going on their merry way, getting their oil changed. They’re forgetting about the less than one percent of the population who is serving in ways most people can’t imagine.

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