To Hell and Back: One Woman’s Story of Surviving a Car Bomb in Iraq

Editor’s Note: Kimberly Dozier has been a CBS News correspondent since 2003. A Wellesley graduate, she started her career at CBS radio in Cairo in 1992. She moved to Israel, where she has had a home outside Jerusalem since 2003. Her new book, Breathing the Fire: Fighting to Report and Survive the War in Iraq, is about her surviving — and what it took to recover from — a car-bomb attack while she was on assignment in Iraq. She and her CBS News camera crew, Paul Douglas and James Brolan (both of whom were killed in the attack), were following a Fourth Infantry Division patrol around the Karrada area of Baghdad — touring streets that were about to be handed over to Iraqi security forces.

LESLEY: I’m here with Kimberly Dozier, my CBS News colleague who was hit by a car bomb in Iraq, and surely would have died if not for the heroic efforts of her military escorts and army medics. Before we begin, let me say up front that Kimberly is my friend, that when I read her book about her ordeal, Breathing the Fire, I was so impressed, I wrote a blurb recommending it. So – I am a fan. And now you all know where I’m coming from!

So, let’s begin. Kimberly, by all accounts, you should not have survived the explosion. You should not have survived the multiple operations … and the pain. Tell us how and why you think you were able to pull through.

KIMBERLY: The guys at the scene didn’t think I would pull through. Staff Sgt. Jeremy Koch (I heard his voice, didn’t ever see his face) ran into the bomb scene when his unit heard the explosion, and he saw me, with my broken legs all askew, riddled with shrapnel from head to toe. He started talking to me calmly and putting tourniquets on me — essentially, treating me as one of his own. He later said he didn’t think I’d make it, but he wasn’t going to let me die alone.

Why’d I make it? Paul Douglas, our cameraman, had similar injuries — though even worse to his legs — but he bled out at the scene. Our fourth ID medic had put tourniquets on him right away. And I know he fought to stay alive — I heard from the troops who stayed with him. I’ve read a few things about trauma research since in which scientists have found estrogen helps test animals survive despite severe blood loss. Was that it in my case? I survived because of my hormones? They say someday medics may carry vials of estrogen in the battlefield — and maybe save lives.

LESLEY: Estrogen? Saving your life? Who knew! Tell us more.

KIMBERLY: I heard a report on Public Radio International, and had to follow it up. Scientists at Chapel Hill, NC, are trying to figure out how to keep patients alive longer, despite massive blood loss. (I’d lost more than half my blood, so that was me.) They kept four test animals alive twice as long as they should have been able to, with only half their blood, by giving them continuous doses of estrogen.Who knew the hormones that plague us could also save our lives? It’ll take years of more testing before they field something like that though.

LESLEY: Well, there’s a headline! Peggy Noonan told me she thought your book was the best she’d ever read explaining what it’s like to be blown up, and then go through the suffering of skin grafts and all the other procedures. I kept saying, as I read the book, that I would not have been able to go through the pain. You also had to be your own protector against questionable medical advice. I marvel at how you did it. It sounded as though you were able to escape Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

KIMBERLY: I had no idea there could be so much pain, so many levels and so continuous. If it happens to you, it’s not like … you can decide whether you want to go through it or not. It made me understand what my grandmother went through all those years in a hospital bed, dying slowly. It was a horrible insight, and yes, it surely changed me.

But as for PTSD — I was in a way lucky. I had to deal with the emotional pain up close and inescapable too, because there was no escaping that hospital bed. There were no distractions. And in the end that helped, by forcing me to talk it through, and work it through.

Here are some of the normal symptoms of trauma: nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, numbing yourself to your family and loved ones to cut off the pain, bouts of uncontrollable grief. I had most of that in the hospital bed — but it stopped before I left Bethesda Naval Hospital. And that, I was told, was expressing “appropriate levels of grief.” Those symptoms did not haunt me afterward. PTSD is only diagnosed if those symptoms continue after the first 30 days after trauma, which for me would have been after I left the hospital.

LESLEY: I’m wondering, given how powerful the book is, and how honest you are about your suffering, how it’s been received. Not so much by the critics (I know you have been highly praised), but by soldiers who’ve been injured, and the military.

KIMBERLY: I’ve heard some amazing things from both currently serving troops, and from veterans from Gulf War I and Vietnam, thanking me for writing about it, especially writing about how “talking it out” helped me get beyond the grief, the guilt of losing my colleagues and the combat stress. One Veterans Administration psychologist even told me she’s been playing parts of the audiobook to troops there, and one woman soldier in particular was able to open up for the very first time about a horrible suicide car bombing she’d been through. That gives me great hope, and if that’s what the book does, it was worth writing about.

But some other vets — especially Vietnam vets who’ve been plagued for decades with PTSD — have really attacked me for daring to suggest that talk therapy helped me. They took it as some sort of lecture that they should somehow “get over” their PTSD. It wasn’t meant as that at all — it was meant as a message of hope. So hearing their anger, in blogs and in e-mails to my website, has hurt. I try to let that roll off my back a bit, but it’s still there.

LESLEY: I can understand your feeling the sting of criticism from vets who’ve been injured. You must feel you’re in a secret society with them all. But I actually did a story a couple of years ago on PTSD. It seems pretty clear that “reliving” the event helps – even decades later.

I’m wondering, as you’ve been going around the country on your book tour, what the overall reaction has been. Do people think that you showed your colors about the war itself? When I read the book I thought you were trying hard to maintain your objectivity as a journalist. Did you end up being against the war?

KIMBERLY: I’ve tried to scrupulously avoid making a for-or-against declaration on where the war should go — a strict timeline for withdrawal versus an open-ended commitment. I always thought the war was poorly thought out, that we didn’t take the advice of our regional allies — but we’re there now, and I know the rest of the world is watching what we do there. So I try to ask people to keep paying attention, because we’ll be judged by what we do next. We’ve made such an amazing and painful investment there in lives as well as financially … and I think it’s like the Chinese proverb — you save a life, then that life becomes your responsibility. We may as a nation be angry now that we got into this war, but we owe it to Iraq and ourselves to find a healthy way out that leaves that region at least as stable as when we went in.

LESLEY: There are something like 200 thousand women on active duty in the military, with thousands having been wounded in Iraq. You got remarkable care in military hospitals — maybe not always the best advice, but lots of attention. The Veterans Administration has admitted that women warriors are not getting as good care as the men, and they are opening a summit to explore how to improve. Do you think wounded women soldiers have a harder time recovering and fitting back into their old routines?

KIMBERLY: Well, I got great advice, but lots of it, but the patient and his/her caregivers often have to break the tie choosing among different options. That was sometimes hellish, but it’s just part of why it’s so important to have good patient advocates (in this case, my family) at your side. As for how wounded women are treated in the V.A., I never attended a V.A. facility, so cannot speak to that, but I do know from some of the women vets I’ve spoken to that they face unique problems in their recovery — how do you define yourself as a woman again, if you are missing an arm or are scarred in the face, when society still judges a woman in many ways by her looks? (Everyone kept saying about me: “How’s her face? It’s okay? Oh, good.” I was shocked by that.) The vets I’ve spoken to feel society is not ready for their war wounds — and in a weird way, they don’t get as much respect for them. So perhaps the V.A. system, too, is catching up with this new reality.

LESLEY: Well, your face was untouched. However, your legs were shattered. It’s a miracle that you’re walking now with only the slightest limp — which took months and months of rehab and a supreme amount of will power.

Once you recovered, you went to the bosses at CBS and said, “Send me back to Iraq or at least to the region.” They wouldn’t send you back – which, frankly, sounded like a wise decision to me. Why on earth did you want to go back to the scene of the crime, so to speak?

KIMBERLY: Well, everyone in the States, as they watched my stretcher travel from Iraq to Germany to Washington, DC, was saying, “Welcome home.” For me, as I’ve lived overseas for 14 of the last 16 years or so, I was leaving home. I’ve still got a house in Jerusalem, where I’ve lived in between Iraq assignments since 2001. It’s where I feel comfortable — same for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, the Gulf, Egypt, etcetera. And I miss it. But we only put it on the air, in the media, when it’s blowing up, as a general rule — so I suppose to everyone back here, it looks like sending me back to the fire.

As for going back to a war zone, well, heck, that is what I did before — I’m not letting the car bombers keep me from my life’s work. So I’ll be back. Eventually.

LESLEY: You really are an extraordinary person. Most of us reading this have never been close to the kind of danger you were in. You went to hell and back. Tell us – big picture – what you learned, how you’ve changed and what the rest of us can learn from you.

KIMBERLY: It’s more what we can all learn – what I learned – from this tragedy. I survived because I had so many people working on me, doing everything in their power to keep me alive — from the troops, to the doctors, to the nurses, to my family who got to me in Landstuhl, and stayed by my side.

And I also made it, and fought through the recovery, because of … all those things I fought so hard against over the years — the obstacles to the jobs I wanted, all the times I was ever told “no,” all the things that break your heart — as they tell you, those things that “give you character” … I now realize every single one was training to get through this. So that stubborn streak I developed — to put my head down and fight, and the grace I had to learn when things did not go my way, and the passion that fueled all of it — I’m now thankful for. It fueled the fight back to health. And I will always try to bring it to the fore in everything I do from now on — like writing this book, trying to make something positive out of a moment of hell, and turn it into something that can perhaps help someone else.

***

Kimberly is back at work, assigned to the National Security beat in Washington. She is still asking the bosses to send her back “home.”

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