Maj. Ladda “Tammy” Duckworth remembers seeing a ball of flame after an RPG hit her helicopter, and wondering why her legs couldn’t work the control pedals.
“I found out later the pedals were gone, and so were my legs,” she said.
The 36-year-old Illinois Army National Guard pilot was returning from a mission Nov. 12 when the attack occurred. Before the attack, Duckworth said, she had flown more than 120 combat hours during her eight months in Iraq without incident.
But that day insurgents scored a direct hit on her Black Hawk, seriously wounding her and another guardsman inside. Doctors told her she lost nearly half the blood in her body and almost lost her right arm as well.
“I didn’t know I was hurt,” she said. “We had started taking some small-arms fire, and I turned to my co-pilot and said we could be in for some trouble. As the words left my mouth, there was a big fireball at my knees.”
Duckworth said she remembers acting on instinct after that, doing everything she could to land the helicopter. Looking back now, she thinks her efforts did little, because the rocket punched a gaping hole into the aircraft floor and control systems.
But her pilot in command, Chief Warrant Officer Dan Milberg, did manage to land the chopper safely. Once she realized they were on the ground, she reached up to turn off the helicopter blades.
“That was the last bit of stress that caused me to black out,” she said.
She passed in and out of consciousness for eight days. Milberg got Duckworth to a nearby rescue crew, who rushed her to a nearby camp, then to Germany for emergency surgery.
Milberg earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions that day. Duckworth, who was awarded the Air Medal, said she’s proud of her reaction to the crisis, but she called Milberg “the real hero” of the mission.
Duckworth, who works as a supervisor for the charity Rotary International in her civilian life, has spent the last six months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, rehabbing her still-injured right arm and learning to walk on two prosthetic legs.
She also caught the attention of congressional officials during numerous hearings in Washington, for her blunt assertion that she’ll fly helicopters for the Army again someday.
“This didn’t change who I am,” she said. “I’m an air assault pilot. I’m not about to let some guy who got lucky with an RPG decide how to live my life.”
In early May she started that process, climbing back into a Black Hawk cockpit at Fort Belvoir, Va.
Duckworth said she is proud of her Purple Heart, an award her late father, a Marine, also received. She is thankful that she lost only her legs and not her life, and she uses that as her motivation to get back to flying.
“For me to sit around and feel sorry for myself, that’s going to dishonor my crewmates’ efforts to save my life,” she said. “I’m not about the pass up the second chance I’ve been given.”