Road to Notre Dame, Iraq and back leaves scars, but soldier sees a higher plan

South Bend Tribune

First of two parts

It was 115 degrees that afternoon in Baghdad -- 10 years ago today -- as Danielle Green settled on the roof of a two-story police station to begin her shift working security.

But the military policewoman had a funny feeling something wasn't right.

Normally, her Army unit was greeted by children and other Iraqi civilians, and the Iraqi police officers they trained. This time, the others were missing, and an eerie quiet mingled with the heat.

The soldier who had first drawn roof duty was feeling stressed, so Green had taken her place, saying, "You have to have your wits about you."

The unit was shorthanded, so instead of two or three soldiers on the building, Green was alone.

"You're thinking, 'Wow, this looks suspicious,' but you don't question anything. You follow the chain of command in the service," Green said recently.

Later, when the Iraqi soldiers did return, Green would think to herself, "They set us up. This was a sabotage."

"I believe it," she said. "I still believe that."

Green sweated on rooftop duty about 30 minutes before she heard small-arms fire. Two rocket-propelled grenades missed the Humvee in the street two stories below.

The 27-year-old soldier grabbed her weapon, steadying it on her left thigh -- she's left-handed -- as her right hand prepared to switch the lever from safety to fire, when she was hit.

She never heard the RPG that ripped off her left arm and swiped the top of the leg that had steadied her weapon.

At that point, she didn't even know her arm was missing.

Green was conscious but could no longer feel her body.

"I'm just waiting to die," she said, describing those moments on a Baghdad rooftop. "'I'm gonna die at 27 years old, in Iraq, in the sand, and it's hot.'

"Even today when I think back, it just seems so surreal, like it never happened. But it did."

Defying the odds is perhaps what Danielle Green does best: first as a girl growing up poor in Chicago whose dream to attend the University of Notre Dame came true, then as a young woman who ultimately turned a painful experience into a way to help others.

Mending old scars

Danielle Green recalls early lessons that she couldn't depend on her single mother, a successful, good-looking woman who lost her job in the mid-1980s and with it, her footing, sliding into drug abuse and moving the two of them from home to home.

At the age of 11, Danielle took a job working at a candy store, beginning with cleanup and gradually taking on larger responsibilities. She describes being exposed to the many street life temptations.

But she had loftier goals.

"The old scars are just a broken heart, just a 6-, 7-, 8-year-old kid just hurt that her mommy wasn't there for her emotionally," Green said. "Gangs did cross my mind, but I always had Notre Dame in the back of my mind."

As a girl, Green discovered pro football, then college football, and in the course of watching Notre Dame games on television, images such as Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Dome loomed large.

"I'm thinking, 'Gee, there must be something special about this place,'" Green said, then laughs, "Of course, they were winning back then, too."

At 16, Green quit her job at the candy store to concentrate on her schoolwork and basketball. She played two seasons on a summer team to improve her chances of becoming noted by college coaches.

Sometimes, she considered joining the military.

Naysayers looked askance at the 5-foot-8 teen, but Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw did come knocking.

And when Green arrived on campus with a scholarship, she brushed aside more naysayers, those who suggested she was taking remedial classes or that she wouldn't graduate. She did graduate, in 1999, and earned a fifth year of eligibility.

It helped, she said, that she was introduced to a sports psychologist on campus who helped her adjust and was a mentor.

"Notre Dame's not the easiest place. You know, I'm coming from the inner city of Chicago, it's mostly blacks. And then you come to Notre Dame and it's 87 percent Caucasian, you see very few people who look like you," Green said. "And then I have to play basketball on top of it."

And play basketball, she did, becoming the team's third-leading scorer by her senior year.

Green said she never seriously regarded the WNBA as a career, although she tried out for the Detroit Shock and was disappointingly cut after the first round. She had not developed her right arm well enough to compete at that level.

Because her entire life to that point had been focused on playing basketball at Notre Dame, the 23-year-old college graduate suddenly found herself without a plan.

'I just gave it to the Lord'

David Woods and his wife, Eileen, are Granger residents who are friends of coach McGraw's and longtime supporters of the women's basketball program, among other things hosting an annual brunch at their home and becoming familiar with the players.

David Woods is also a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and recalls talking over military options with Green, suggesting she enter one of branches as an officer.

"Bless her heart," Woods recalled. "She said, 'What do I know about leading people? I want to be a soldier if I'm going to be in the military.'"

Green still hesitated, instead returning to Chicago and teaching physical education in Chicago schools.

She decided she wanted to try her hand at coaching, too, so she took a job with her old summer basketball team and her former coach: Willie Byrd, three decades her senior.

This time, as an adult, she began to have feelings for him, and he for her.

"I said, 'This guy's really top-notch, I like this guy,' " Green said.

She attended a job fair, where she spoke with an FBI recruiter who told her the easiest route to FBI agent was through the military.

So she enlisted as E4 -- a few levels above lowest private -- with the goal of becoming a sergeant before enrolling in officer school. She told Byrd she had to go serve her country.

Green was stationed in Washington state when she received her orders for Iraq in January 2004. After two months there, she had a chance at a leave, which she took.

"I kind of knew something bad was going to happen to me in Iraq," she said, going so far as to talk with a counselor while she was home. "I just had a feeling."

So she said to Byrd, chuckling now at the impetuousness of it, "You want to get married?" and he said, " 'Yeah, let's get married.' So we went to Vegas."

She was ready when she returned to Iraq, a burden lifted.

"I felt invincible. I just gave it to the Lord," Green said. "I said, 'Whatever's going to happen is going to happen.' So that fear left."

It was a fear that returned, if only briefly, lying on a hot roof alone in the Iraqi sun on May 25, 2004.

Coming Monday: 'The man upstairs always has a plan'



Green says of the injury that claimed most of her dominant left arm, "I'm alive and walking on top of the soil instead of below it, and I tell people that all the time. 'Wait a minute, is this as bad as what you experienced in Iraq?' I have to keep that perspective and frame of mind to keep me balanced."   (SBT Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES)
Basketball player Danielle Green, center right, raises her right arm at ND's Senior Night on Feb. 22, 2000. (SBT File Photo/JOE RAYMOND)
Green had a premonition something bad would happen to her in Iraq. After she returned from leave married, "I felt invincible. I just gave it to the Lord." (Photo provided)
Danielle Green, then 27, returned to the University of Notre Dame for a football game in September 2004 after losing most of her left arm to a rocket in Baghdad on May 25 of that year. "I don't have time to feel sad or be negative," she said at the time. "It's just about healing right now and getting out there and continuing with your life." (SBT File Photo)