From the moment she pulled up to the police station in Baghdad, Danielle Green knew something was wrong. Normally, women and children milled about in the dusty streets, nonplussed by the American troops that had stopped in their neighborhood. Iraqi policemen would come out to greet the soldiers who had been sent to train them. But on that sweltering afternoon in May of 2004, the area was desolate.
An Army specialist with the 571st Military Police Company, Green was charged with guarding the roof of the station while her sergeants went inside. All was calm, until suddenly—seemingly out of nowhere—Green was hit by an RPG, or rocket propelled grenade. She escaped with her life, but lost the lower half of her left arm.
Green grew up in the South Side of Chicago, poor but determined. From a young age, she knew that she wanted to achieve two things in life: attend Notre Dame University and join the military. The first goal she accomplished by excelling in academics, taking two trains and one bus each day so she could get to a better high school than the one in her neighborhood. Green joined the school’s basketball team, and was eventually recruited to attend Notre Dame on a full scholarship. Green played guard for the university’s women’s team, and graduated with a degree in psychology. She enlisted in the military in 2003.
Now, Green works as a counselor at the South Bend Veterans Center in Indiana, helping other veterans re-adjust to civilian life. On July 15, she will be honored with the Pat Tillman Award for Service during the ESPYS—the ESPN-helmed ceremony that recognizes excellence in sports. Pat Tillman was an NFL player who, in the wake of 9/11, halted his promising career and enlisted in the military. He was killed by friendly fire in 2004.
For Green, the award is the crowning point of a long journey marked by struggle and resilience. Women in the World spoke to Green about her service in Iraq, moving on from a life-altering injury, and the importance of becoming “a full human being.”
Women in the World: You played basketball as an undergraduate. Did you hope to pursue that professionally at any point?
Danielle Green: I did try out with the Detroit Titans at the time, [and] made it to the next-to-last cut. At that point, I realized my organized basketball days were over, and I was OK with that. I went back to [my hometown of] Chicago, to try to figure out what direction I was going to go in my life. It was the first time I wasn’t part of an academic institution or a team. I was kind of lost. I [decided to work as] a physical education instructor for two years at the Chicago international charter school, and I was a girls’ basketball coach for two years.
WITW: What did you like most about playing basketball?
DG: I liked being around the other girls [on my team]. I enjoyed my coaches, I enjoyed learning, [I enjoyed] that commitment to other people. If you didn’t play your part, that could cause a loss. I felt like being on the team was like being an ambassador on campus, whether it was elementary school, high school, or college. People looked up to you as mentors, as leaders of the campus and community, and little girls and boys looked up to you. You were their hero. I had the most fun with my college teammates: going on road trips, being on the back of buses singing songs. [It was an] opportunity to open up my eyes to things I didn’t experience as a child.
WITW: Why did you decide to enlist in the Army?
DG: It was something I always wanted to do ever since I was 7 years old. I realized as I got older that window of opportunity was starting to close. I believe it was at the age of 25 [that] I decided, “You know, if I’m going to do it, I need to do it.” I was searching for something. There was a void in my life.
WITW: Were there a lot of women with you in your platoon?
DG: In my company of 150 plus folks, there were probably less than 10 females, [possibly even] including officers. In my line platoon, I’m probably stretching it if I say [that there were] three or four women.
WITW: What was it like to work in such a male-dominated environment?
DG: I’ve always prided myself on taking care of business. I think [my fellow soldiers] respected that about me, and I became one of the guys. It didn’t bother me because I was there for a mission. We were on the same team. I looked at it as my brother who had my back on each side of me: I’ve got his back and he’s got my back, nothing more nothing less.
WITW: Do you mind talking about the circumstances in which you were injured?
DG: I was hurt May 4, 2004. It was very hot, and we were going into Fallujah or Mosul—one of those places in the north [that was] very dangerous. Then we got orders that we needed to go to Baghdad; that was where we would provide security and train police officers. I remember being upset because I didn’t feel well that day. It was 115 degrees, I had all this equipment, I just didn’t want to go. But you go anyways.
Normally when we would arrive, we would see Iraqi children and women out there. We befriended them, we were cool with them. On this day, there was no one there to greet us. There [were] no police officers, there [were] only our detainees. I thought, “This is very odd.”
Usually, our sergeants would go into a police station [and] we would pull ground security and roof top security. Normally, we would go up there two soldiers at a time, but we were running short. [When] it was my turn to go up there, I just remember relaxing, taking it easy, looking around. Then all of the sudden two or three RPGs almost hit the Humvees, which were two stories below. I remember a lot of dust, and smoke, and dirt in the air, so I grabbed the M4 that was up there [and] I took cover. Just as I was turning my level from safe to fire, something hit me. I was already kneeling, so I didn’t have far to fall. I remember thinking, “Did I just get hit? Am I about to die in Iraq?” It didn’t seem real. I remember dust, and smoke, and sand everywhere, and ringing in my ears. I remember feeling anger, like, “I don’t want to die at the age of 27 in Iraq.”
I remember waiting to die. My body went numb, then all of the sudden, the numbness wore off. I started to feel the pain and see blood on my arm and thigh. I said a prayer to God. I said, “God, whatever I’ve done in this life, just let me live to tell my story.” I felt a burst of reassurance and energy. I tried to get up, but I couldn’t. One of my sergeants came by. I don’t know what he saw, but it didn’t look good, whatever was in his eyes. Then three soldiers came up to carry me to safety. They just decided each person would grab a limb and carry me down the stairs. Then we saw the Iraqi police officers and said, “Wow, this is a setup.”
They put me on the hood of the Humvee and drove into an alley. I think at some point someone called for a helicopter, [which] took me to the green zone that was just a few minutes away. I just remember them cutting my uniform off. Then when I woke up, maybe a couple hours later, it was almost like I died: I had all white [clothing] on, and there were all these people at the foot of the bed. There was a sergeant to my side. I said, “Is my arm gone?” He said, “Yeah, bud.” And so some tears came to my eyes, and I wiped the tears up.
Then the sergeant said “Hey, I’ve got something for you. Your comrades went back to the rooftop against company orders, and got your hand out of the sand, and retrieved your wedding ring.” So I had my rings.
I think the brigade or battalion commander came and pinned a purple heart on me, and said I was a hero, and gave me a kiss. That was kind of how that day ended.
WITW: You lost the lower half of your left arm, which is your dominant one. What was the rehabilitation process like?
DG: It was a challenge, because I did everything as a left-hander. I had a great occupational therapist, [another] female who had lost her entire right arm. It was just different learning how to operate in a two-handed person world. Just trying to put a bra on with one arm, just trying to write again was weird too. But 11 years later, it’s like second nature now. I learned to ask for help. That’s one of the two biggest things [to know]: you need to figure out how you can help others, and its OK to ask for help.
WITW: You now work as a readjustment counselor at the VA. What does your job entail?
DG: I am a readjustment counselor, but I’m also a team leader at the center in South Bend, Indiana. It’s a very challenging position. You’re dealing with behavioral health issues all day every day, helping people try to reintegrate into society. Because you were a civilian, then you saw some things people can’t even imagine. You’re emotionally, physically, morally, and psychologically [scarred]. Then you come back and there’s no debriefing on that. We’re there to help veterans readjust: we have referral services, we have a licensed clinical addictions counselor, a marriage counselor.
It’s challenging because you never know what’s going to walk through the door. People have all types of different experiences in war. It’s rewarding when people trust you, and know you won’t judge them.
WITW: What does it mean to be a recipient of an award that recognizes your athletic achievements and your military service? It’s a unique intersection.
DG: I’m thankful people found my story worthy enough to [make me] the recipient of the Pat Tillman Award. I’m so honored to be a part of the Pat Tillman legacy. I remember reading his story while I was in the hospital—I got hurt a month after he was killed in action. My heart yearned for him and his family back then, so fast forward 11 years later, I just feel like I’m being recognized for continuing my service to my country. The award pays tribute to that hero on the rooftop 11 years ago, [who was] struck by an RPG [and] said, “Hey, just give me an opportunity to tell my story.”
It’s [also] a great opportunity to be able to highlight not only what I’m doing at the vet center, but what other people are doing at the vet center. With so much negativity surrounding the Department of Veterans Affairs—[due to] suicide rates and poly-substance abuse [among veterans]—I think this organization needs a story like my story.
WITW: What does receiving this Pat Tillman Award add to your story? What can other veterans—and really anybody—learn from your journey?
DG: It’s about giving more, doing more, reaching beyond yourself for others. It’s about the sacrifice. It’s about trying to become a full human being. I didn’t know Pat Tillman, but I’ve done plenty of research on him, and just to be linked with him forever because of this war is great. Many of us can’t relate to being a millionaire, famous, or a star athlete. But we can relate to trying to be a full human being. And I think that’s what I hope people get from this link between myself and Pat Tillman: yes we were college educated, yes I was a school teacher and he was a professional athlete making millions, but we put our country ahead of all other things. Our country needed us, so we raised our right hand and said, “I will protect and defend this country.”
WITW: Now for a really hard-hitting question: Steph Curry or LeBron James for best male athlete at the ESPYs?
DG: I’d have to go with Steph Curry. He beat the man in head-to-head competition.