WASHINGTON — Tammy Duckworth gave both her legs in defense of the United States while serving as an Army helicopter pilot during the war in Iraq. She came home wounded, recovered in the nation's military hospitals and devoted the next few years of her life to improving veterans' care as an assistant secretary at the Veterans Affairs Department.
Now she's on Capitol Hill as a freshman Democratic House lawmaker from Illinois, watching as former VA colleagues grapple with a scandal that might undo all the work she did in trying to convince her colleagues in uniform that the federal government would be there to help them. And she's still a VA patient, who visits amputee and women's health clinics and receives VA-provided medications by mail.
Given the sum of her experiences, Duckworth could hold a congressional hearing with herself about the unfolding scandal. Late Monday afternoon, seated in a wheelchair she'd rather not depend on, Duckworth looked distressed.
"I am pissed off about folks who would do this," she said. "I sort of feel like, damn it, your loyalty is to the veteran, your loyalty is not to a hospital director or an undersecretary. Your loyalty is to a veteran."
Duckworth first learned about the allegations against the VA as the news media reported how department officials at a medical center in Phoenix reportedly kept a secret, handwritten list of patients waiting longer than the department-mandated time period to see doctors, and that those long waits may have contributed to the deaths of at least 40 veterans. In the weeks since, whistleblowers, patients and families of other deceased veterans have suggested that it might have happened elsewhere.
"Unfortunately, I wasn't surprised," she recalled. "When you have a network as big as VA with everything [Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki] is trying to do, I think it's very conceivable that somebody would try to do what supposedly happened in Phoenix, because they feel they need to try to needle the metrics," she said. "That bothers me a lot. I want to know how many of the facilities are doing this."
Ten years ago this November, Duckworth, then an Army helicopter pilot, lost both of her legs when her helicopter was shot out of the skies over Baghdad. She was the first female double amputee of the war. While recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center, she met then-Sen. Barack Obama for the first time. An outspoken critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, she was recruited by Democrats to run for a House seat in suburban Chicago in 2006. She lost the election, but she later ran the Illinois Veterans' Department before jumping to the VA in 2009. She stayed until 2011, when she went home to run again for Congress. She won her House seat in 2012.
Shortly after Duckworth became the assistant secretary for intergovernmental and public affairs in 2009, The Washington Post traveled with her to Norfolk, where she met with Navy veterans more than twice her age who had served in World War II and the Vietnam War.
After that meeting, Duckworth described her frustration with the "stove-piped" nature of the VA — how its two main components, the Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration — were working against each other, causing confusion, sending mixed messages and engaging in bureaucratic fights. She vowed to help end those problems. On Monday, she conceded it didn't happen.
"The way the VA is set up, it is so siloed . . . that there is, I think, lack of a sense of accountability almost to central office," she said.
"Central office" refers to the VA headquarters two blocks north of the White House, where Duckworth regularly attended Shinseki's morning meetings with top aides.
In those meetings, Shinseki "was very attentive," she recalled. "He was listening to what people were reporting to him; he'd ask insightful questions. We were always talking about what's happening out there, what's going on. And we were also very focused on trying to implement these new standards and systems that he was trying to put into place and trying to turn this giant battleship of an agency."
Duckworth dismissed concerns that Shinseki, a former Army general, appeared passive during an appearance before a Senate hearing last week.
"Part of it is a difference in culture," she said. "If you come from a military culture and you go in to see the general or the commander and he talks to you very calmly and says, 'I'm very disappointed in you,' that's devastating. . . . That's how he is. He's a purposeful kind of a guy. But he cares about veterans as deeply as anyone."
For that reason, Duckworth doesn't want Shinseki to resign.
"I think he needs to figure out what the problem is and he needs to fix it," she said adding later: "If it looks like he can't do it or is unwilling, then we'll talk about resignation or firing. But right now, if this is the first he's hearing of it, he needs to address it."
Asked whether the allegations could affect Obama's legacy on veterans issues, Duckworth paused:
"It's hard, because Mrs. Obama has done so much and Mrs. Biden has done so much, and I see that as part of the president's push," she said, referring to first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Biden's wife, Jill. "I think [Obama's] relied on Secretary Shinseki, but we could use his personal attention at this point."
The nameplate on Duckworth's Capitol Hill office door reads "LTC Tammy Duckworth" — for lieutenant colonel.
Inside, there are photos of a younger Duckworth from her days in Army ROTC and a helicopter blade signed by Army buddies. All of the office doors can open at the touch of a button positioned at a height within reach of her wheelchair. In her office she displays military challenge coins, photos of her husband and a pilot's seat and helmet from a Blackhawk helicopter. Despite her wartime experience, Duckworth said that being in Congress has proved very challenging.
"I flew helicopters in combat and I was fine, and I survived 13 months in recovery in the hospital," she said. "I got to Congress and six months later I'm on blood pressure medication. Fourteen months later they doubled the dosage."