VICENZA, Italy — Tammy Duckworth went through several days of excruciating pain while recovering from Iraq war wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“Apparently, morphine does nothing for me,” the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday while on a visit to Caserma Ederle. “Except make me hallucinate and talk to people in the room who aren’t there.”
So until her caregivers found the right combination of medication to help ease her pain, she endured. “I didn’t know if I could survive a day,” she said. “But I knew I could survive another minute. I spent about five days basically counting to 60.”
But the former Black Hawk helicopter pilot said that worse than the loss of her legs was the feeling that she had failed her crew. She kept on overhearing snippets of conversation referring to the helicopter “crash.” Because she couldn’t remember most of what happened after getting ambushed on Nov. 12, 2004, she feared the worst.
“I was devastated, because I thought I had hurt my crew and let them down,” she said. “I felt I deserved to lose my legs for doing that.”
She found out later there was no crash. She and the crew of the doomed chopper — hit by automatic weapon fire and a rocket-propelled grenade — managed to get it down in one piece. She survived through the gallantry of her crew and other helicopters nearby, but the weapons fire mangled her legs.
“I’ve been fine ever since, knowing that I did what I was supposed to do,” she said, adding that she didn’t go through long periods of depression as many wounded veterans do.
“How do you go home and feel sorry for yourself and not live up to what your buddies did for you?” she asked. “I gave my legs for my country. I gave them for the honor of wearing the uniform and serving next to the some of the best people I’ve ever known.”
Duckworth was the keynote speaker at an event marking National Disability Awareness Month at Vicenza. She visited Landstuhl Regional Medical Center on Tuesday and met with servicemembers recovering in the hospital after speaking to the community there.
She still wears her Army uniform occasionally. She’s now a major in the state’s National Guard when not carrying out her VA duties. In 2005, she almost won a seat in the 6th Congressional District in the western suburbs of Chicago, running as a Democrat against then-State Sen. Peter Roskam. She lost by about 3,000 votes.
“It was tough,” she said. “I compare it to doing a 20-hour road march.”
She’s not ruling out a future run for office, but decided she wouldn’t run in 2008 because she has a responsibility to see a lot of projects through in her post with the VA. Duckworth is probably best known these days as an advocate for disabled veterans and disabled people in general.
“It’s not a role I ever wanted,” she said. Getting asked for autographs while traveling through an airport “is kind of a weird phenomenon.”
The 39-year-old said she doesn’t think she did anything any other soldier wouldn’t have done. And she said most wounded veterans feel the same way.
Many want to return to their units, she said, or be productive in other fields.
“Being disabled today is not about sitting at home in a wheelchair,” she said. “It’s being able to go out and do whatever you want.”
Maj. Gen. Frank Helmick, commander of the Southern European Task Force (Airborne), first met Duckworth while she was recovering at Walter Reed. He said he came away from their meeting inspired by her courage and attitude.
“You have not heard the last of Tammy Duckworth,” he told soldiers gathered in the base theater to hear her talk. “This woman can do it all.”
Despite all she’s been through, Duckworth had nothing but praise for military caregivers, whom she said have been unfairly lumped together with “administrative” problems at Walter Reed.
She said she doesn’t remember anything from her half-day stay at Landstuhl. A lot of her first memories of Walter Reed centered around the pain she was experiencing.
She said caring medical professionals — along with her husband, Maj. Bryan Bowlsbey, and Sgt. 1st Class Juanita Wilson, another amputee who has returned to active duty — helped her pull through.
She said she can’t feel sorry for herself when thousands of servicemembers have given their lives serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving grieving family members behind.
“If they were given the choice, I’m pretty sure they’d choose to have them come home with no arms or legs,” she said.
VA rep says disabled vets to make mark
Tammy Duckworth lost her legs, but not her sense of humor.
Talking to an audience featuring many active-duty servicemembers Monday, Duckworth joked about a number of topics, including how she’s able to stay a member of the National Guard.
“I don’t have to do the two-mile run anymore,” said Duckworth, who heads the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. “Everything else, they make me do. [Meeting] height and weight [requirements] is really easy. If I don’t make weight, I just pop a leg off. There’s 10 pounds right there.”
All joking aside, Duckworth said she believes thousands of wounded veterans will be making a difference in their communities across the States. “We’re going to be re-invigorating the disabled community,” she said.
Those wounded warriors will help change the public perception of those with disabilities, especially the kinds of things disabled people are capable of. Amputees such as herself aren’t going to be told they can’t do something simply because they’re disabled, she said. Sometimes that means learning how to fly an aircraft again— and she is. Sometimes that means rejoining the ranks — and she did.
“I wasn’t ready to let some insurgent in Iraq decide when my service to my country came to an end,” she said.
— Kent Harris