'The man upstairs always has a plan'

Starting over, with a new set of challenges, another on the way

South Bend Tribune

Second of two parts (read part one here)

For a while, Danielle Green couldn't feel her body. But after the initial shock wore off from the rocket hit, the pain was intense.

She couldn't move from her spot on the Baghdad police station rooftop, but she soon began to pray.

"Whatever I did in this life, I apologize," the 27-year-old pleaded, "but just give me the strength and energy to live to tell my story."

Just as Green finished her entreaty to God, the Army soldier's sergeant climbed to the roof.

"Green, are you OK?" he shouted up at her, without seeing her. Green recalls now that she could move only her neck and head, the helmet making even that difficult. As she heard him begin to make his way back down the stairs, she managed to reply, "Sarge, I'm hurt!"

She still remembers the green-blue of his eyes, and the look of horror on his face when he saw her there.

"I just see my uniform is busted open, I see there's a lot of blood there," she motioned to what remains of her left arm now, "but I don't know there's a missing arm. I can't imagine what it is he sees."

Her sergeant called for more soldiers. One applied a tourniquet to her arm, another to her leg. Soldiers grabbed her other limbs to carry her while she repeatedly told them she was thirsty.

About this time Green saw the arrival of Iraqi soldiers who had been uncharacteristically missing that day and thought, "They set us up," she said.

Green was taken by helicopter to a Green Zone hospital for a few hours and awoke to find herself surrounded by soldiers, all with tears in their eyes. She couldn't figure out why they were crying.

"'You all look like somebody just died. I'm alive,'" she said. "And so I looked down. ... I say, 'Hey, is my arm missing, is it gone?' And she (her battle buddy) says, 'Yeah, bud, you lost your arm.'

"And I cried for maybe a few seconds, and I got myself together."

Then a battalion commander told Green she was his hero and awarded her a purple heart, and each of the soldiers kissed her.

Her combat buddy placed the wedding rings that had adorned Green's left ring finger -- first put there only seven weeks earlier -- onto her right hand. Green's sergeant, she would learn later, had defied orders and dug through the 7 inches of sand on the rooftop, finding the arm to retrieve them.

Someone gave the young soldier a watch, wished her "Safe travels," and Green was whisked to a military hospital in Germany.

'Don't cry'

As fate would have it, David and Eileen Woods, who Green knew from her time at Notre Dame, had traveled from their Granger home to visit their son, Tim, a University of Notre Dame graduate who was stationed at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center as a military trauma surgeon.

Their trip was nearly at an end when Notre Dame women's basketball coach Muffett McGraw contacted them; she had heard Danielle had been wounded in Iraq.

The Woodses called their son at the hospital. He checked for incoming wounded from Baghdad, and sure enough, he found Danielle's name. He met her coming off the plane.

"Specialist Green? I'm Surgeon Woods. I'm going to operate on you and get you well," Tim Woods told Danielle, his father recalls.

When he told her he was a Notre Dame grad and who his parents are, David Woods said, "her eyes lit up."

Meanwhile, the Woodses quickly drove to the German hospital to comfort the young woman they knew as a fine basketball player and a determined young woman.

As they entered the room, they couldn't contain their emotions.

"She said, 'Mrs. Woods, I haven't cried yet, don't cry,'" Eileen said, choking up even at the memory.

"It gave us a little strength, her trying to keep our spirits up," David Woods said. Indeed, someone shot a photo of the three of them at the head of her hospital bed at Landstuhl, all smiling, Danielle's left arm a ball of bandages.

Borrowing their surgeon son's international phone, the Woodses dialed McGraw's number back home.

"When the phone rang at 2:30 in the morning, I just kept thinking, 'This can't be good,'" McGraw told the Tribune in 2004, describing her husband fumbling for the phone.

"I told coach McGraw, 'Guess what?' She said, 'What?' 'After all those years she wanted me to use my right hand, now I have to use my right hand.' And it kind of went silent on the other end, like, 'How can you have a sense of humor about that?' "

"I was overcome. I could hardly talk," McGraw said. "And then I managed to say, 'I love you. I've been thinking about you since I heard. It's so good to hear your voice.'"

It's an emotional story for Green to relive, too, even now.

"I find that humor in times of tragedy helps get you through," she said, "like I'm smiling now to keep from crying."

The light bulb

After a short stay in Germany, Green was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where for several months she recuperated both physically and mentally, readjusting to life without her dominant arm.

Because she'd followed her instinct to marry the man she loved before returning to Iraq, Willie Byrd was able to stay with her there -- a godsend, because her family did not visit her.

Former teammates and coaches saw her there and sent messages. She met celebrities and politicians.

But it was Byrd, she said, who provided the ongoing support she needed.

"I remember waking up and seeing his face, and he was crying and smiling at the same time," Green said. "It worked out, because if we weren't married, the military wouldn't have paid for him to come to Walter Reed to spend all that time with me. That's why I say the man upstairs always has a plan."

She decided early on to talk about what happened to her, and she thinks now that is likely what has staved off nightmares, flashbacks and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that often affect combat veterans.

"You can choose to be miserable, or you can choose to be outgoing and engaged with the world," Green said, "and I came to that conclusion when I was at Walter Reed a long time ago."

After leaving Walter Reed in January 2005 with a hook where her dominant arm once was, she had to once again figure out where her life was headed as she returned to Chicago.

"I didn't know how society was going to react to a female veteran, and that just petrified me, because Walter Reed was a bubble," Green said. Then, too, the hook drew stares, until the stump that was left healed enough to be fitted with a prosthetic arm.

More traumatic than losing her arm was losing her husband to cardiac arrest in February 2011.

"People don't understand that," Green said, "but when you love somebody -- and I loved my husband, I loved that man to death ... He was a good human being."

Green had enrolled in graduate school to study counseling, eventually working for Chicago schools as a counselor.

She took a job at Malcolm X College as assistant sports director but then thought to herself, "You know what? I like sports, but I don't want to work in the industry."

Someone suggested in 2010 she apply for a job as a readjustment counselor in the Department of Veterans Affairs in Orland Park, Ill., and she was hired.

Green has since earned the necessary licenses and, a little more than a year ago, was "highly encouraged" to apply for the team leader position of the Vet Center on Miami Street in South Bend.

Her job is part administrator, part therapist with a caseload of about 25 veterans.

The center counsels for free any veterans who served in foreign war zones and won't turn away active-duty or stateside members of the military until they can find them other resources. The center includes specialists in addictions therapy, sexual trauma and family and marriage therapy.

"We're right here in your community, and we're small, and we're intimate, and we have professional peers," Green says. "That's the uniqueness of it because I'm a professional combat veteran helping my peers out, so I get it."

She thinks perhaps she might intimidate some who come for help at first.

"I have heard that before. you know, 'I've got this mental thing going on but she's got a mental and a physical thing,'" Green said. "But they don't know me, though."

Ralph Bakle, president of the St. Joseph County chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, recalls that when Green was first helping lead one of the center's PTSD groups, she was entering an all-male domain.

Plus, the guys in his group sat in the exact same chairs every week, and when they came in the first day she was to join them, she had moved everything around.

"I don't think we respected her for what she was trying to do or for what she was able to do," Bakle said. "I don't think it was too long before the light bulb went on, and now we love her."

Bakle, a Navy veteran who spent decades denying the lingering effects of his service on his daily life, recognizes that sometimes only other veterans truly understand what another has lived through.

"I did see her in a different light," he said of learning about what happened to her on that Baghdad rooftop. "I think she's very effective. Counseling's a good fit for Danielle."

'It's going to be amazing'

As Green settles in to her newfound professional passion, she's finding personal peace, too.

She recently bought a house in South Bend, near Notre Dame.

She talks with her mother every Sunday, and although Green is not completely convinced the woman has beaten her addictions, she knows she's trying.

Green's father, Tommy Goree, whom she used to see only occasionally growing up, is now so much a part of her life that he's planning to move to South Bend soon.

"I think the spirit of my husband is in my dad," Green said, laughing. "I believe that to this day. Ever since my husband has been gone, my dad has been there for me."

Now 37, Green is about to realize a lifelong dream: She's seven months pregnant with a son, a boy she'll name Daniel.

For her, everything is coming full circle.

She will teach him to be independent, to have goals, to work hard.

She will teach him sports, even though golf is the only sport she feels she plays well now ("I can't swim, but I couldn't swim when I had two arms!" she laughs).

She doesn't know what she will tell him if he wants to enter the military. Would she do it again?

Green hesitates. This time, if she did, maybe she would go into counterintelligence instead of military police.

About a week after her injury, Green told The Tribune and the New York Times she believed the United States should not have entered Iraq. The woman who tries to avoid negativity in her life has mellowed those views a bit.

"The military has its benefits, but war is a reality," she would tell her son. "Look at your mom. There is a real reality here."

She's already heard the naysayers about being a single parent without two whole arms. But she's proven the naysayers wrong before.

"If I concentrate on the things I can't do, I won't be able to concentrate on the things I can," Green said, voice strong, "including giving unconditional love to this baby boy.

"It's going to be amazing."



Granger residents Eileen, left, and David Woods comfort former Notre Dame women's basketball player Danielle Green at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany after Green lost part of her left arm in a missile attack in Iraq in 2004. "She's a survivor," Eileen says. "Some people are, and some people aren't, and she is." (Photo provided)
Danielle Green, center, exits the building and coordinates a bag of corn hole during an open house on Wednesday, May 21, 2014, Vet Center in South Bend. Green, a former Notre Dame basketball player, lost her left arm in 2004 during an ambush while serving for the U.S. Army in Iraq. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)
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)
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)
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)