- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - It was 115 degrees that afternoon in Baghdad — 10 years ago — 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 told the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/1gy5j58 ) 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.

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, Green 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.

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.

For a while, 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.

As fate would have it, David and Eileen Woods 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 McGraw contacted them; she had heard Green 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 Green’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 her.

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 Green.

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

“She said, ‘Mrs. Woods, I haven’t cried yet, don’t cry,’” Eileen Woods said, choking up even at the memory.

“It gave us a little strength, her trying to keep our spirits up,” David Woods said. …

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, Illinois, 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. …”

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.

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.”

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. Her 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.”

___

Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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