In the past 14 years, Stand Up for Heroes — the annual benefit presented by the Bob Woodruff Foundation and the New York Comedy Festival — has raised $60 million to help veterans, service members and their families overcome whatever hardships they’re facing.
“In the beginning, it was a lot of visible wounds, amputation and burns and traumatic brain injury, like I had,” says Bob Woodruff, who’d been covering the war in Iraq for ABC News when his armored vehicle was hit by a bomb in 2006. “Then we moved toward post-traumatic stress and their invisible wounds. … In the last year and a half, it’s been largely concentrating on the impact of COVID. And we have a lot more depression that has now been triggered by the withdrawal out of Afghanistan. The people served for 20 years and it ended very quickly and unexpectedly.”
Adds Lee Woodruff, who co-founded the foundation with her husband 15 years ago: “I had my own trauma around that. I wasn’t there, Bob was, but I had my own mini-breakdown just thinking, ‘What did our family lose so much for?’ And Bob’s a journalist. One of the grants we worked on helped support a 24/7 peer support hotline for veterans that are suffering. Another grant will help the Gold Star children, who’ve lost their parents.”
To endure the 36 days in which Bob Woodruff was in a medically induced coma following his injury, Lee and their four children relied on humor. “In the hospital, my family got through a lot of the hard times by laughing,” she says. “When we can put the thing that scares us in a box — when we can find away to control it by minimizing it — then we feel less scared.”
Laughter likewise inspired their Stand Up for Heroes fundraiser, which has featured comedy greats and musicians such as Jon Stewart, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld, Trevor Noah, Conan O’Brien, Sheryl Crow and Bruce Springsteen since it began in 2007. After moving from Madison Square Garden to a virtual show last year, this year’s Nov. 8 event — which kicks off the Nov. 8-14 comedy festival — will include performances by Stewart, Gaffigan, Springsteen, singer Grace Gaustad, Sing Harlem choir and comedians Nikki Glaser, Donnell Rawlings and Nate Bargatze at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ Alice Tully Hall.
Bargatze riffed with Brad Paisley before a large auditorium in last year’s virtual show. “Because of COVID, no one was there but Brad Paisley,” says Bargatze, who “came up through” Carolines on Broadway and won the New York Comedy Festival in 2010. Previously, the Tennessee native had considered joining the army.
“I always felt my path would have been that direction and it’s gone this way, so I’ve done shows for the troops in Iraq and I just wanted to give back.”
Springsteen, who’s performed at nearly every event, also feels a personal connection. “Our first year, when he said yes, really put this event on the map,” says Lee Woodruff of the Jersey-born singer, who offers up jokes and personal auction items, including his guitars and mother’s lasagna. “In his Broadway show, he talks about not having gone to Vietnam when others did and I think he carries that with him.”
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the foundation produced videos with stars including Matthew Broderick and Lena Dunham, and Bob Woodruff aims to host veterans who recently served in Afghanistan at the event.
“We will certainly honor those who were at the airport, helping Afghans who were trying to get out of the country,” he says. “It ended with a horrific explosion of an IED — the same kind of weapon that hit me back in 2006. We lost about 13 in these explosions, so our hope is to give them some dignity and honor.”
With over $80 million invested since 2006, the foundation has found, funded and provided 500 grants to organizations best serving veterans. Recent projects include a VIVA fertility initiative, an NFL-backed wheelchair football league and programs like Craig Newmark’s Craigstable to target veteran homelessness and food insecurity. “When COVID hit, we pivoted. All of a sudden it was critical to get food on the table,” says Lee Woodruff. “And where the needs are, that’s where we’re always going to go.”