by Kimberly Dozier, Award-Winning Journalist and Alumna
Thank you very much. Before I open this, I want to say I’ve been to two Wellesley College commencement speeches. A wonderful wise woman stood up here, and spoke to me, out there. And I remember thinking, each time, when will she shut up? (Laughter.) So I’m going to try to keep this to under 15 minutes, closer to eleven. Eleven is about the time, when in any audience, you can see this thing happen. The crowd is like an animal. You start with a yawn, and it becomes like a wave. So when I see the 11 minute wave, I’ll know it’s time to start wrapping this thing up.
Now, I want to thank the Class of 2009 for inviting me here to speak. Congratulations! You made it! Though I think your choice says a lot about how this class sees their future. I’ll explain.
You chose a Wellesley grad who spent the first decade of her career broke, begging for freelance work, who constantly heard she was under-qualified or later over-qualified (that means old) or basically just plain wrong for whatever it was she wanted to do.
She eventually ended up with a really great job, doing exactly what she wanted to do, exactly where she wanted to do it — in the Middle East.
And she got hit by a car bomb, they nearly took her legs off, she had to come back from the dead, roughly five times, and learn how to walk again.
So it tells me a lot about you and your current state of mind that you all thought you needed to hear from me, with whatever lessons I had to offer from those experiences, as you leave college for the rest of your life. In short, you all want to know how to be bomb-proof, right?
So you’re right – I learned a lot. Most of all that every time I ran into a wall, I had two choices on how to face it – hope or fear. That would be the fear part. You don’t always choose what happens to you – or where you end up. But you can chose how you respond to it—and why you do what you do.
Now from the headlines about the economy, for which I, as a member of the media, am partly responsible, you would all think you are going to end up, let’s see, waiters, bartenders, Kelly secretaries. Does anyone know what that is? It’s a temporary secretary.
Now I need to tell you, I’ve been all of those. Now the good news is, in every single one of those jobs, I learned something incredibly valuable in terms of skills. I also learned that the jobs did not have to define me – how I did them defined me, and each one simply became sometimes a sideways step, but a step toward something I was ultimately aiming for.
What I hope you find, or choose, is that you are not defined by your job or your major but by an internal compass of your own making – and that wherever you end up—and believe me, you will end up in jobs that you think are beneath you, pitted against bosses or professors you think don’t appreciate you or understand you. I hope that when you run into those walls, you will learn to do what I’ve had to learn the really hard way: You step back and say, okay, why am I here? Was it for the title, or the prestige? Or is it what I hope to accomplish in this job, on this planet? Your work becomes just part of a mission.
So I’ll tell you how I found my mission, so to speak, and how that process got me through that car bomb you might have heard about.
I stand before you, able to walk without a limp, and run, when they originally considered taking both my legs off. I healed better than any of my doctors ever predicted, and they tell me part of that is their skill…part of that is that, like Mona was saying, I had my loved ones next to me, they support you through…and the rest is whatever you bring with you into that crisis, or in my case, into that operating theater.
I brought a certain amount of quiet, determined attitude… honed by years of being told “no,” or “not possible,” when it came to my job. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong voice; boy, I got a lot of “wrong face.” Then there was always one person who was willing to give me a chance – a long shot, like the Stevens fellowship, and I always took it.
So when I woke up from the bombing at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and the doctors told me, “You may never walk properly again,” I looked at him and said, “Thanks. But I have heard something like that before.” The doctor left, and this amazing nurse I’ll never forget, walked in – Nancy Miller – she was taking care of me most of the time. And she said, “You know, he’s just trying to be realistic but he doesn’t know what you are capable of. You don’t know at this point what you are capable of. Take it one step, one hour, one minute at a time.” And so last fall I ran the 10K of the Marine Corps Marathon. This year I’m supposed to run the whole darn thing. I’m going to be happy with half.
A little back story — you heard some of it.
I started out in print, in Washington, D.C., and I was writing for a newsletter. Somebody at The Washington Post called me into his office, and said, “We won’t hire you from a newsletter. We’re snobs. We don’t care how many stories you break. You’ve got to quit your job and go back to school or go overseas.” Now I ended up doing both. I got a master’s in Mideast studies, thanks to Wellesley, and I went to Egypt.
Before going to Cairo, my mom said to me I was making the biggest mistake of my life — same thing she said before I quit my D.C. newsletter job. And I quote her, “When will you ever get a job that pays 30,000 dollars a year again?”
(Thanks, mom.) Parents out there, don’t do that. Now is the time we are supposed to be broke.
Within just TWO months of arriving in Cairo, Egypt, I was writing for, front page, lead story, in the industry words, wait for it, The Washington Post. And I called my editor of the newsletter, who also said I wouldn’t get work. It was New Year’s Day, and I’d been out the night before, and it was five minutes to 8 a.m., when I knew he’d be good and groggy, and I said, “Hey, Boss! Go outside to your front porch and look at the Washington Post. Lead story. Happy New Year!” Click! Good moments.
From Egypt, I went to London, and as newspapers started cutting back, I moved over to radio. You know, I was terrified doing radio, it wasn’t my first choice. But I got better at it and then I ended up in a front seat of history. I was there when Milosevic gave himself up. I was in Tora Bora as Osama Bin Laden disappeared in a puff of smoke off the back of a mountain.
Every time I’d end up in a hot zone, I’d look to the left or right and see these amazing television teams, sharing the burden of working in those hell zones. And they also had resources; I could afford a $50 a day translator and there’s was a lot better. So I got broken English and they got The New York Times. I wanted that.
So I went for it, even though I was told time and again, I was not a natural for television. If you’d seen some of my early stand-ups and my particular shade of red I chose for TV, you’d understand.
But someone gave me a chance, so I squelched that fear I’d fail, and I took that long shot. But again, somebody gave me a chance, took a long shot.
And I ended up in a front row seat post-invasion Baghdad 2003. Story I wanted to cover, place I wanted to be.
I had no idea what I was letting myself in for — thank goodness I had a hard time coming up, because it was a little bit of preparation of what was to come.
This war divided America like no other, and a lot of the blowback landed on me and whatever we chose to report.
Initially, the euphoria back in the states over the apparent ease of victory meant it was very hard to put anything critical on the air.
When I publicized Iraqi frustration at the U.S. inability to keep the lights on, turn the water back on, even Saddam hadn’t been able to do those things— didn’t matter. Iraqis were angry. I put it on TV. We got a lot of right-wing blowback.
But when I went out with U.S. civil affairs teams trying to rebuild the infrastructure, I got slammed by some on the left. This is my favorite quote of all. One blog site called me a “corporate pimp for George Bush’s illegal war in Iraq.”Wow.
Then, as the insurgency emerged and grew, and car bombs started hitting one neighborhood after another, I’d go into the middle of a neighborhood and stand next to a screaming father, in literally pools of blood and would be shouting at our cameras, “You were supposed to bring us security.” With his dying child there, he was rushing to the hospital. I put that on the air and I heard comments like, “She’s a terrorist cheerleader, tearing down our men and women in uniform in Iraq.”
I felt like a ping pong ball – which am I?
A corporate war pimp or a terrorist cheerleader? You have to have black humor in these situations because it’s the only way to get through it.
In the meantime, it was getting more dangerous to report. And, the audience was literally turning off. You put it in the front part of your news show and we measure ratings minute by minute. People would see a story on Iraq and they would change the channel. So my boss is like great – it’s costing us like a million bucks a month to run the bureau, people are in danger, and no one wants to see this story. It became harder and harder to go out the door. Every time I’d weigh story choice, I’d say, this is life or death.
One of my cameramen, Paul Douglas, put it best. He said, “Don’t risk my life unless we’re going to make air.”
In a horrible way, I kept that promise.
Memorial Day 2006, we planned to spend a few hours with a Fourth Infantry Division patrol, and a captain named Alex Funkhouser. We thought, great. Slow news day back in the states, we will make air. Early show, evening news, we can make people pay attention on a day like this.
Paul and our soundman James Brolan and I were going on what we thought would be a short, safe shoot in a safe neighborhood.
But for our first stop, Funkhouser wanted to talk to some Iraqis on a street where a roadside bomb had gone off the day before. He said they know who operates in their neighborhood. Some insurgent cell has moved in there, they’ll be able to tell me who it is, where they are. So that’s how we ended up outside our humvees. Our guards were down. Safe neighborhood, maybe a mile from where you all saw that statue fall down. And we’re walking toward a tea stand. Someone knew we were coming. They’d left a 500-pound car bomb, 10 feet from the tea stand. They were watching from an apartment block above with a remote control trigger. Waited until we were all within about 20 feet. Detonated it. Sent a wall of burning shrapnel through the entire patrol .
Captain Funkhouser and his translator were killed instantly. So was my soundman. Paul fought to stay alive for an hour. It took them a long time to reach us with emergency crews. And in the meantime, my attitude was kicking in.
Now I was lying there on the ground, didn’t know what was wrong with me. I’d lost most of my blood, I had shrapnel to the brain, both eardrums were blown out, both femurs shattered and there was burning shrapnel studded in my legs from my hips to my ankles.
Now they say your true nature is revealed at a time like that. I immediately started alternately asking questions… and then a bit later, bossing my poor besieged rescuers around. I’m O positive. I have extra bandages. They are right here. Do you need them? You don’t need them. Is my helmet on? If my helmet is not on, I think you should put my helmet on because I can hear some ammunition burning off and that’s not good if it hits me. The poor guy is trying to put tourniquets on me and probably thinking, Lady, that is the least of your problems.
But before he even got to me, I was asking questions. Initially when the bomb went off, I’m lying, looking at the sky thinking, hmm, burning legs, I need to call for help. No, I can’t call for help. The ABC’s of triage—airway, breathing and circulation. If you call for help, you’ve proved to your would-be rescuers that you have an airway and breathing, you’re fine. They go to the quiet people. You start their heart, their airway.
BUT…I was able to lift my head…I saw that there was a burning car nearby and felt the burning and thought, that’s burning me and therefore, I am in immediate danger. Therefore…I am allowed to call out for help. I started calling for help.
Medic Izzy Flores was walking by me, it’s his first combat casualties scene, mass casualties scene. He’s doing his job, evaluation. He said, “Yeah, I remember I walked by you and you started talking to me and I said, ‘Oh yeah, she’s good.’” And he went on to somebody else. So sure enough, my big mouth did get me into trouble. But one of the things it did do, I was later told I was the last person to receive medical aid. So I know that I did not live, and others died, because I got help first. And that comforts me every day.
The other thing they tell me that in my delirium, as I lost my blood, and went hypoxic – it means your brain starts losing oxygen— I kept asking about my guys. Where are Paul and James? And they said, you were asking about your guys like we were asking about our guys. So that’s one of the reasons we were fighting so hard to keep you alive. You were like us. You cared. And when you feel guilty about being the one who survived, it’s one thing you can take comfort in. At the worst possible time, I was thinking the right thing.
Now I’ll skip the gory part in the hospital where they almost took off my legs a few times. They’re here.
The next battle, and I see I’ve kind of shuffled things; stay with me, this is the last two pages – so the next battle was recovery— a long, hard process, and most of it was mental.
What I learned: again, you face the choice – you can respond with fear, or you can respond with hope.
Now two of my caregivers — my mom and dad — represented that in the opposite poles. My mom, fear, my dad, hope.
My mom obsessed every day over what would be wrong with me the rest of my life. And she wanted my pain to stop—and she had the doctors doing all these phantom tests. She would tell them, “but don’t tell her what you’re doing.” And the doctor would say, “Oh, yeah, right,” and then go lock her in a room and come back and say, “Okay, here are the tests we’re running.”
I had to do physiotherapy. Now because they hammered titanium rods through my legs, and I had a head wound. Some bizarre things happen with these injuries. Bones overheal. My bones were overhealing with like flakes of coral bone that were going into my joints and fusing them. There was one way to fix this, otherwise they would fuse and I would walk like a peg leg for the rest of my life. I had to pick up my legs, and crack the knees, and break the flakes of bone. They would have to give me extra painkillers and it still hurt like hell. You would scream through gritted teeth. They had to lock mom in the waiting room, behind two closed fire doors, to allow this to take place.
My dad, meanwhile, knew this had to be done, would stand next to me, hold my hand and listen to me scream. Both of them are just absolute love, just different ways of expressing it.
Now I came out the other side.
I spent three months learning to walk again, half a year to get back to running…and oh, I went back to that doctor in Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, we were filming there. It was so much fun to walk down the hallway and say, “Hi Doc! Walking! Just hi.”
I came out the other side of this with many things I never anticipated. The military used to be very suspicious when they saw me coming. Especially working for CBS News, which most of them called a rather biased network.
The fact that I’d risked my life made many people look at my work again with a new eye. That fact that I risked my life, and how many reporters out there are. Well, I looked back at my work too, and I saw the stories I took such grief for in 2003 to 2006 were all pieces of a puzzle that became part of the success (so far) of the surge – you had to deal with both sides, providing Iraqis services AND providing them security, something we had only done a patchwork of in those first few years.
Many of the military commanders I’d worked with have now asked me to explain to their people BOTH why it’s important to be critical as a member of the fourth estate. They’ve had me talk to the young captains. I’ve walked into a room where everyone’s said to me, “We all watch Fox, but our bosses have said we have to listen to you for an hour.” Eventually, I usually win them over.
The other thing that happened is I talk to their people about what it is like to be injured and recover. I talk about getting out of the injured box. When you are injured, everyone just remembers that you’re broken. They don’t remember that you healed. They don’t know how hard you fought to become whole again. They think of you as a victim, not a survivor. Now most young soldiers will not tell their commanders this. They won’t tell their commanders where to go. I will. And that is what I’m frequently asked to do. Look: Treat your people with the dignity they deserve once they have put themselves back together.
I never thought when I began this journey that I would end up doing that duty. But looking back at my internal compass, I was trying to speak out for those who couldn’t. And that’s what I ended up doing.
I never banked on being in Washington, D.C., covering national security. I still want to do what I used to do – covering my other homes of Jerusalem, Baghdad, Islamabad or Kabul.
And there’s a far more famous Wellesley grad who is in that same boat, in a sense, who thought she’d have a different job right now – and I like her, I’m still following my internal compass and doing what I can, where I am, to speak out for those who can’t and hopefully change history for the better.
When I run into a wall, I ask myself what I’m doing this for and remind myself of my particular goals—and most of all, to set out every day to live with grace, honor and a certain degree of stubbornness – hopeful stubbornness, but stubbornness, in everything I do.
And believe me, whether it’s in the dirt in the aftermath of a bomb scene, or in a hospital room, or temporarily making coffee at an office (before you take the place over), well, all I can say is, if I can do it – I know, so can all of you. So congratulations, good luck, and go get ’em.
to Commencement 2009