Dave Wood got a shock walking into the Huffington Post’s Washington bureau for the first time.
A young guy sporting a ponytail was lying on the couch. No shoes. Laptop on his knees. Reporters were working away at communal tables. Wood introduced himself to bureau chief Ryan Grim.
“Just sit wherever,” he told Wood.
Quite a surprise for a reporter who’d been in the trenches since 1970 as a staff writer in buttoned-up newsrooms at Time, the Los Angeles Times, and Newhouse News. Wood had landed at the Huffington Post in February 2011 as AOL was shutting down Politics Daily, where he had been reporting.
“Got any projects in mind?” executive editor Tim O’Brien asked him. Not what Wood was expecting from a news operation known for aggregating and covering breaking news. He had to think quickly.
“I want to write about the severely wounded,” he said. “I’ve been in a lot of war zones.”
Nicaragua. Bosnia. Somalia. Iraq. Afghanistan. To name a few.
“People get blown up, the medics do their best, they get evacuated—what happens to them? The dead arrive at Andrews Air Force Base to a solemn ceremony. The wounded don’t get anything. No flags. No bands. They’re nameless and faceless.”
Wood spent the next seven months putting names and faces to stories of badly wounded soldiers and their families. Men with their faces burned off, their legs shattered, their genitals gone. His ten-part series won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, the first for him and HuffPost.
“I was surprised to discover how shy I am,” he says, “to realize how reluctant I was to ask them about their wounds. But when I forced myself to ask, I was surprised by the reaction. There’s something about getting blown up that changes your attitude toward living. I found people full of exuberance and ideas, planning for their future, planning for life.”
Still, Wood was hesitant to ask how it felt to lose one’s genitals. A step too far, he thought. He put out the word at Walter Reed. Yup, a few servicemembers said, I’ll talk about it. Those articles were published after the Pulitzer deadline and weren’t among the stories submitted.
Wood’s advice: “If you see a wounded soldier, don’t be like me. Don’t be shy—they want you to ask. They are happy to be alive.”
This article appears in the June 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.