Celebrating Women’s History: Still Standing – The Story of Tammy Duckworth

(The following is a guest post by Lisa A. Taylor, liaison specialist with the Veterans History Project.)

Tammy Duckworth speaking at the Library of Congress. Photo by Christy Chason.

Tammy Duckworth speaking at the Library of Congress. Photo by Christy Chason.

Disabled combat hero, veterans’ advocate, politician, woman. U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) is many things, most strikingly, a person who has not only survived but thrived. Her story is among thousands of other women veterans’ stories in the Veterans History Project (VHP) collections.

I had a chance to hear some of her story this past November, during the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Annual Salute to Veterans.

Duckworth was a member of the Illinois Army National Guard when she was deployed to Iraq in 2004. During her VHP interview, which was recorded in 2010, Duckworth said, “When I got to Iraq, my world focused in on one mission. It was incredibly rewarding.”

As a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, Duckworth was one of the first Army women to fly combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Eleven months into her tour, Duckworth’s helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), which shot through the floor of the aircraft and exploded, causing her to lose both legs and partial use of her right arm. But she survived. Passing in and out of consciousness, Duckworth relied on her training to stay alive.

“You fly. You aviate. You do everything you can to get the aircraft safely on the ground.”

And that is just what she and her co-pilot did.

“I should have bled out in about four or five minutes. To this day, they’re not sure why I didn’t bleed out, other than maybe the blast actually cauterized my wounds a little bit.”

Duckworth was later awarded a Purple Heart for her combat injuries. And she thrived. Duckworth declined a military medical retirement and continues to drill as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard.

Duckworth spent the next year recovering from her injuries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

“I was the highest ranking amputee at Walter Reed at the time, and because of that, I became sort of a spokesperson for wounded warriors.”

That experience was the spark that lit the flame for her to seek a Congressional seat in 2006. Although she lost that election, she was appointed the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and later assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs. During her tenure, Duckworth was able to create a tax credit for Illinois employers who hired veterans and to establish a first-in-the-nation 24/7 crisis hotline for veterans. She also pushed initiatives to end homelessness among veterans and programs to help Native American and female veterans. In 2012, Duckworth ran for Congress and won the democratic seat for Illinois’ 8th District where she continues to be an advocate for veterans.

As the HHS emcee was reading her introduction, Duckworth headed for the Great Hall stage via a back-stage wheelchair ramp.  My first thought was that someone on the HHS event committee had goofed. The podium and microphone were positioned at standard height. “How could they forget to make reasonable accommodations for the keynote speaker?” I thought. Then Tammy Duckworth proved me wrong. She rolled right up to the podium, locked the wheelchair’s wheels, pulled herself to a standing position and gave one of the most inspirational speeches I have ever witnessed.

Duckworth had not come to HHS to recount her harrowing tale of surviving an RPG explosion or the phantom pains she often experiences since losing her limbs. She was not there to tick off a checklist of her accomplishments or to advocate for wounded warriors. She was simply there to talk to a room full of her peers – military veterans who happen to be federal employees – about how critical they are to the function, and very survival, of the nation. She wanted them to know that their hard work and dedication was not overlooked. From the looks on their faces, that seemed to be all they needed to hear.

Visit the Veterans History Project Website at www.loc.gov/vets/ to view Tammy Duckworth’s VHP interview and access more than 90,000 other veterans’ stories, including several features on women in wartime: Women at War, Women of Four Wars and The WASP: First in Flight.

March marks Women’s History Month, and the Library of Congress is an incomparable resource for research into women’s history and studies. Visit www.womenshistorymonth.gov to view some of those collections.  

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