Five years ago last month the Black Hawk helicopter Tammy Duckworth was piloting was shot down in Iraq by a rocket-propelled grenade on a routine mission gone bad. She struggled to land the aircraft, not realizing that both of her legs had been blown off and her right arm was nearly severed. Eventually she passed out and her co-pilot brought the helicopter down safely. Waking up 11 days later in Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Duckworth faced the biggest challenge of her life: recovering from crippling injuries that ended her life as she knew it.
In just one year Duckworth, who describes herself as “mission-driven,' was not only shopping for cars big enough to accommodate her wheelchair but also gearing up to run for U.S. Congress for Illinois’s 6th District. The way she saw it, she was lucky to be alive. “I accepted that I would die in combat. As a helicopter pilot you will lose at least one good friend. I lost my legs, but I still got to come home. The military was still going to let me serve, too, so my mission at that point was simply to get better,' Duckworth said.
Within a year of her injury Duckworth learned how to walk with the aid of two prosthetic legs and a cane when she doesn’t use a wheelchair. Little by little she has regained the use of her arm. What she apparently never lost was an incredible fighting spirit and an inspiring, positive outlook on life.
At Walter Reed, Duckworth, who was a major in the Illinois Army National Guard, was the highest ranking amputee and ended up becoming the person to whom other patients came to for answers on administrative problems. She took advantage of meeting both Illinois senators at the time, Senators Richard Durbin and Barack Obama, to begin regularly calling their staffers, especially those at Senator Durbin’s office, for resolution on issues she was encountering among her fellow patients. Before long, Senator Durbin asked her to run for a seat newly vacated in the House of Representatives by long-time Republican Congressman Henry Hyde. Duckworth lost the congressional election by a slim margin, but not before making a big impression on the Democratic Party. In 2008 she was even invited to give a prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Since being tapped by President Obama for the position with Veterans Affairs, Duckworth has a new mission: overhauling a bureaucracy hampered by red tape and outmoded practices. Duckworth said she’d like to see the federal VA office partnering with state directors to help out people at a much more local level, for example. “I would like to see better cooperative agreements between the federal government and the states,' Duckworth says. “The federal government has 800 plus veterans facilities across the country but it doesn’t have offices in every town.'
Duckworth says that, her political career notwithstanding, veterans affairs and the needs of America’s disabled will always be important to her after what she’s been through personally. “I ran for office because I couldn’t get through the airport without attracting questions from people about the expensive prosthetics I was using that insurance won’t pay for. Once, an entire wheelchair basketball team insisted I pop off my leg and pass it around for everyone to see,' said Duckworth. “Because I lost my legs in military combat I could get access to the best healthcare, whereas other people who, say, get hurt in a car accident, cannot."
Duckworth’s ambitions aren’t all political, of course. In her younger years she was very athletic. Since getting injured she has found new ways to stay active in the sports she loves and discovered new pursuits. Her most recent accomplishments include finishing the Chicago Marathon using a hand crank wheelchair in both 2008 and 2009. “Now I compensate for my physical limitations, but I was always physically active, so I find these races fulfilling,' said Duckworth. “It’s not often these days that I get to feel like a stud!' Duckworth was honored last month with an award for Athlete of the Year by the Achilles Track Club, an organization that helps disabled people participate in long-distance running.
Of course, she has also found a way back to her true love: flying. Instead of being fearful of getting into a plane after getting shot down, Duckworth said it felt great to fly again and tries to get in the air at least every second or third weekend. These days she tends to fly single-engine planes, not Black Hawks. But she still feels that familiar sense of home whenever she’s in the air.
Her demanding schedule may now be the biggest impediment to pursuing her personal interests. Duckworth spends most of her time visiting veterans around the country and being the face and voice of the VA. Of course, in this line of work appearances are important, so, Duckworth said, “I made sure that my prosthetic feet could wear high heels!'