Life Lessons Shape Iraq War Veteran
(January 18, 2009)
Former Notre Dame basketball player Danielle Green-Byrd prides herself on taking “the road less traveled” – a road that took a fateful turn when she lost her left arm in Iraq.
||WASHINGTON, Jan. 12, 2009
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
Green-Byrd recalled watching Notre Dame basketball in the early
1980s and knowing the road away from the inner city ran through the
“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
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
“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
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
“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
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
“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,
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
“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
“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
Green-Byrd said her road less traveled also has given her a different
perspective on life: not to take it for granted.
By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg
Special to American Forces Press Service
Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg serves in the New Media directorate of
the Defense Media Activity.
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