WASHINGTON, Jan 12, 2009 – A former basketball star from Chicago’s inner city who served in the Army and was injured in Iraq has learned that time does really heal wounds.
Danielle Green-Byrd, one of the first women injured during the beginning of the conflict in Iraq, said she believes her successful transition comes from traveling on the road of hard knocks, inspired by a Robert Frost poem.
“It’s called ‘The Road Less Traveled,’ and I think that poem defines my life,” she said. “I have always traveled [this] road. I was raised in a dysfunctional family. My mom was on drugs; my dad wasn’t around. I was 7 years old and had to figure out what [I was] going to do.”
Green-Byrd recalled watching Notre Dame basketball in the early 1980s and knowing the road away from the inner city ran through the basketball court.
“I said that this must be the place -- I am going to play basketball, make good grades, and I am going to earn a scholarship to go to this school,” she explained.
Green-Byrd said she maintained that mindset throughout her elementary and high school years, because she knew her mother didn’t have the money to send her to college. Nearly everyone she told of her lofty goals laughed at her and dismissed her whimsical ideas as merely dreams that would never evolve. But she proved them wrong when a representative of the famed Catholic university in South Bend, Ind., came knocking on her door.
“[Here I was, an] African-American child playing basketball,” she said. “I’m not Catholic. I’m not Irish. That is the road less traveled.”
Green-Byrd drew on the strength and determination she’d built up in her childhood and brought it to the basketball courts of Notre Dame at 18. Her basketball prowess earned her a full scholarship. She scored 1,106 points, averaging 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game for the women’s basketball team. She graduated in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
After graduation, Green-Byrd worked for two years as a teacher at the Chicago International Charter School. During that time, she said, she knew she had another road to travel. This time, this road would lead her to the sands of Iraq.
Despite having a college degree, Green-Byrd chose instead to enlist into the Army in 2002 at age 26. She explained that she wanted to gain life lessons as an enlisted soldier before one day receiving a commission. In January 2004, she was sent to Iraq with the 571st Military Police Company from Fort Lewis, Wash.
After spending a few months deployed to Iraq, she was granted permission to return to the United States to marry Willie Byrd, a retired basketball coach and physical education instructor 32 years her senior.
Soon after taking her wedding vows, she returned to Iraq to continue her duties with the 571st. A month later, fate would deal her a card that would send her out on another road less traveled.
When Fate Deals a Card
May 25, 2004, was one of the hottest days she had experienced while serving her tour in Baghdad, Green-Byrd said.
“It was 110 degrees that day,” she recalled. She had awakened with a stomach ache and said she wasn’t feeling her normal self. As she prepared for her assignment guarding an Iraqi police station, she said, she couldn’t shake off a nagging feeling that something was going to happen that day.
En route to the police station, Green-Byrd said, a car accident blocked the road and delayed her convoy. She recalled feeling uneasy as she and her fellow soldiers waited in the open for the roadblock to clear. Once they made it through and arrived at the police station, she said, her feeling of uneasiness only grew. She noticed that no townspeople were on hand to greet the soldiers, as they normally were, and no Iraqi police were in sight.
The soldiers took turns guarding the rooftop of the two-story Iraqi police station that was within five miles of Baghdad’s International Zone. Green-Byrd had been at her post for only a few minutes when two rocket-propelled grenades hit a barrier on the ground and exploded. A third one hit her arm and damaged her thigh and face. All she remembers of the incident was grabbing her rifle and taking cover, but it was too late.
“I looked over at my left leg and saw my uniform busted open,” she said. “The initial hit, when I first went down, I thought that I was about to die in Iraq, on the rooftop, in the sand, in Iraq. To me, that was the hardest moment -- to think that at 27 years old, I was about to die.” She said that at that moment she was “waiting to die.”
As she continued to pray, she remembered, she gained strength and tried to use that energy to leave the rooftop for a safer area to assess her injuries. But she was unable to move, feeling trapped as she continued to hear the small-arms fire in the distance.
Though it seemed what like a lifetime of waiting, she said, comrades were treating her within five minutes of the attack. She later learned that her sergeants had gone up to the rooftop against the company commander’s orders to find her wedding rings.
“When I woke up, I still didn’t know that my arm was missing” she said. But she saw her whole chain of command at her bedside, she recalled, and she thought, ‘Why are you standing there? You look like someone just died.”
That’s when her master sergeant told her about the selfless deed her sergeants had performed by finding her wedding rings and asked her where she would like to place them. Green-Byrd replied that she could place them on her right hand.
Green-Byrd said that while on the rooftop waiting for her comrades to arrive, she didn’t know for sure that her left hand was missing, but suspected it might be. “What if my hand is gone?” she remembered thinking. “My husband will be paying on rings that I don’t even have.”
From Rehabilitation and Recovery to Empowerment
Soon after her injuries were stabilized, she was transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Occupational therapy was the toughest part of her rehabilitation, she said.
“I was probably a 95 percent left-handed person,” she said, “and only played softball and golf with my right hand.”
For Green-Byrd, learning to do everything with her right hand was a struggle, but she persevered. Her time at Walter Reed was beneficial to her recovery, she said.
“I have many great memories at Walter Reed,” Green-Byrd said. “All of them were very instrumental in my recovery. But my fondest moment [came] four months after I was injured. [I was] talked into doing a five-mile run at Central Park in New York.”
Though she wasn’t sure she could run five miles only four months after her injury, Green-Byrd said, she decided to go for it. Along with nearly 2,000 other wounded soldiers, she participated in the annual Hope and Possibility race in August 2004.
“I would think that five-mile run, four months after I was injured, was probably the highlight at Walter Reed,” said Green-Byrd. “And I have been running ever since.”
While the running event instilled courage to continue her rehabilitation, she added, she gained most of her strength from the people who helped her during her recovery.
“I was proud that people hadn’t forgotten about us,” she said. “When you are in Iraq, you really don’t know how people back in the States feel about this war, what they think about you. But, when you come home, we were just embraced. All these organizations coming to help us, and they are still helping us today. That is what I am most proud of -- the people who came and said, ‘You can do it, and we are here to help you.’”
Nearly eight months after her injury in Iraq, Green-Byrd left Walter Reed and returned to Chicago. She was medically retired from the military on Dec. 7, 2004.
Keeping true to tradition, Green-Byrd wasn’t going home to be idle; instead she refocused her priorities and started down another road.
“Maybe five months after I returned home, instead of hiding, I went right into the work force,” she said. “I started working for the Chicago Board of Education in their sports department. I think my goal is just to live life to the fullest. When I was younger, I thought the glass was half empty. Now it is a glass half full all the time.”
Her next goal after returning to Chicago was to further her education. She met that goal.
“It took three years. It was tough. Can you imagine typing 20-page papers with one hand?” she said. “It was a challenge.”
Almost four years to the date after she was injured in Iraq, Green-Byrd graduated on May 17, 2008, with a master’s degree in school counseling.
Green-Byrd said her passion is improving herself and those around her, and that she believes education can make that happen. She expects to complete her master’s degree in educational leadership by summer.
Green-Byrd said people often ask her how she is doing and whether her experience defined her.
“I tell people I only lost an arm,” she said. “The Army didn’t define who I was. I was 26 years old when I came in, and I was pretty confident who I was as a person. I discovered that person at Notre Dame. Yeah, I have a missing arm, but that does not have to shape who I am.”
She added that losing an arm has brought her more patience. “It teaches me with one hand, you have to be patient, because you aren’t going to be quick,” she said.
Green-Byrd said her road less traveled also has given her a different perspective on life: not to take it for granted.
(Editor’s note: This is fifth in an ongoing series of Wounded Warrior Diaries. Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg works in the New Media directorate of the Defense Media Activity.)