I grew up in Thailand in 1968 as an American expatriate living in American Communities in Singapore, Indonesia and other foreign countries. My dad was a Vietnam Vet who worked for United Nations Development Program as well as for multinational corporations. My childhood was rich and it gave me a perspective on the U.S. that most people don’t have. I wanted to be an American Ambassador, to open new schools, hospitals and do humanitarian assistance work. I always thought that was the coolest thing.
I finished high school in Hawaii and then went on to the University of Hawaii. My focus of interest was Marine Biology and International Relations. I did better in social science classes than biology, so I switched to political science, with the idea I would go to GWU (George Washington University) and get my master’s degree in International Affairs then sit for the Foreign Service Exams. I ended up not sitting for the exams, and instead went for my doctorate, specializing in Southeast Asia. That is how I ended up in Illinois.
When I was working for the Smithsonian, my boss was a curator for Asian history. He told me, “You should think about getting your PhD. and if you are going to do that there are only a handful of schools to consider; Cornell, Berkeley and NIU.” I came to visit Northern Illinois University and fell in love with the Midwest. It was so middle America and open, and the people were so welcoming. I have been here ever since.
I never finished my Ph.D.; I am ABD (All But Dissertation) and was deployed while I was working on it. When I was injured my way of life took a zig zag there. We had a strong military tradition in my family and we always thought it would be my brother in the military as a career. My brother did serve eight years in the Coast Guard but I’m the one who ended up going for twenty years.
I was at GWU in the second year of my masters program and my friends were all Vets. We were studying international affairs and strategic studies during the fall of the USSR. One of my friends encouraged me to take the ROTC class and learn about the military. He said that I couldn’t be a diplomat and be a specialist in this field without knowing about our military. So I took the ROTC class and loved it. I loved the discipline and challenge of leadership. I loved the idea of service, patriotism, discipline and something bigger than myself.
The summer of 1990 I took the cadet officer’s basic class and in May 1992 I was commissioned a second lieutenant. I participated in simultaneous membership program, which had me in both ROTC classes and serving in the Army reserves. I drilled one weekend a month as a cadet and was accepted into an aviation unit. During the day I was working on my Ph.D. at NIU and in ROTC classes and then on the weekends I did my duty with my unit. When I received my commission in 1992 I was approved for aviation and selected to be a pilot. I went to flight school at Fort Rucker, AL, in 1993. Women had been flying helicopters since the 1980’s but it was not well known. In 1993 they lifted the combat prohibition for women when I went to flight school. I met Bryan at ROTC and we were married in 1993.
I was at Fort Rucker for one year and learned how the engine works, about the rotor blades, piloting skills, tactical skills, combat flying skills, advanced flying skills, survival skills and what we called SEER, survival, escape, evasion, and rescue. All pilots have to go through this for two weeks to learn what happens if you get shot down and how you escape, evade, and get back to be rescued.
I did well in flight school and received the highest score for instrument flying, which is flying in low visibility weather conditions. We had a class of forty and the top three were selected to fly the Blackhawk. I loved it and had a knack for it. I logged more extra hours in the simulator than anyone else. We spent half a day in class and half a day flying. When we were done with that most students went home but I spent three hours every night in the simulator. I really wanted to fly Blackhawks and knew my future was limited unless I flew advanced aircraft. I really wanted to get that, so I logged in more hours in the simulator than anyone else.
In 1994 I went back to my unit and became a platoon leader. Then in 1995 I became a first lieutenant in the unit and was deployed in support of Operation Bright Star; a NATO training exercise in Egypt. After the exercise I found out the unit was being deactivated. I switched from Army Reserve to National Guard in 1996 while trying to complete my doctorate degree, take some graduate student jobs and do my job as a first lieutenant.
In order to maintain proficiency I must fly 96 hours each year. I worked during the day and flew one or two nights each week. From 1996 to 2003 I spent twenty hours a week on my National Guard job flying and in leadership. I made Captain in 1998.
Winter 2003 I was deployed to Iraq and we were the first unit to relieve those who invaded. We were in Balad, in the logistics support area. I was a senior Captain up for promotion at that time. In February I flew into Kuwait a couple of weeks and then in March went to Iraq. In April I went before the promotion board for the rank of Major. It was announced in June that Federally, I was selected for Major, but the Illinois National Guard was looking for a Major position to put me into and that did not come through until November of 2004.
In Balad we lived in trailers. They were like shipping containers. I had one third of a container to myself and did not have a roommate. These were the best conditions I had been in during my military career. Previously I had been housed in old broken down barracks. I never imagined that being in a war would be like living in the Ritz; but it felt like that compared to the living conditions in my other training events. In Iraq I walked to the tactical operations center (TOC) and it was only five minutes. The shower facilities were in a separate shipping container, and the electricity went down a lot. Life was much simpler than at home where I had to commute for seventy-five minutes a day, then come home and cook and try to find time to spend time with my husband. In Iraq my life was distilled down to the mission at hand. I was the battle captain, so planned and coordinated the missions. I flew twice a week and was able to focus and dedicate as much time as I wanted to my military occupation. It was very rewarding for me. I missed being home and knew there were dangers, but it was very fulfilling. I did not agree with the war, but I had made a commitment to my country and for twelve years I was in service and received a paycheck. Because I received a lawful order I did what I was asked to do. It was tough, I worked many, many hours but life was simple; keep my buddies, my crew, and myself alive on missions. I didn’t have to worry about paying bills or keeping up the house, I could just focus on the mission at hand.
The chow hall had very high caloric meals and many different menus that they rotated. Every other day I ran two miles and on alternate days I swam a mile. I worked eighteen hours, exercised, slept and went back to work. I had lots of care packages from home and ate that mostly. I lost thirty-five pounds while I was there.
I was in a routine as the battle captain, trying to coordinate the best mission I could, and get my people and aircraft back at the end of the mission. When our first set of aircraft went down I realized our standard operating procedure (SOP) for tracking was insufficient. I upgraded it. I created a checklist for every single person to perform in the TOC in the event of a mishap or shootdown. There were twenty people from the chaplain to the radio operator. We had steps 1-10 for each person from my boss to the lowliest private. Each one had their-own list of what to do when an aircraft went down. I had just completed the list two weeks before I was shot down. They used the checklist to help me when I went down. Later they told me ‘you should be proud of the lists, it went perfectly and that is how we got you out!’
On air assault missions, we were connected to Infantry Battalion. I would have a squad in my helicopter. That is what we did, pick up squads and take them to a landing zone (LZ). When we flew into an LZ we were there from five to ten seconds and out again. We have close relationships with our squads and live with them and know them. It was imperative that they knew no matter how bad the LZ or firefight is, I am coming to get them! The other side of that is my guys will go through hell to pull me to safety if I go down. All I have onboard is a nine-millimeter and my crew chief has an M-16. The aircraft has two machine guns and there are two M-4’s. We were very lightly armed.
That is where my love of flying came in, but in Iraq we did not do that kind of flying. We were a taxi service. That was the safest way to get around. I would pick people up and fly them somewhere, or take supplies somewhere. I never knew who was going to get onboard. We did ten to twelve of those a day; it could be bodies, medical supplies, high-ranking officers or even the Army Band. It really built up my proficiency as a pilot. I was trying to become what is called a pilot in command. It is much harder to do that. As an officer my main job was to lead, not to fly. In most crews the officer is the one with less experience flying. The pilot in command manages the mission. It is much harder to talk to the tower, command and make decisions than to ‘wiggle the stick’. I usually just flew. It is sheer joy to do this and be seventy feet above the ground, and my country trusts me to do this.
November 12, 2004 we had five or six pick ups. We stopped in the green zone and got some stir-fry and milkshakes because you could only get that in the green zone. I even found time to go to the PX and get some Christmas ornaments. I had done my flying and was on the way back. Just as I was leaving I got a call to go to Taji to pick up some people. We all wanted to go back, but I was battle captain and said we would go to Taji for the pick up. On the way back we flew into an ambush and got hit.
My pilot in command was Dan Milberg, Chief Warrant Officer III. He was a very generous pilot but when we got back to the Blackhawk he said, “don’t be such a stick pig and let me fly the aircraft.” He wanted to fly at that point, after about eight hours, and did. I was in his position as pilot in command and that is what saved us because I fell forward into the flight controls. Had Dan not been on the flight controls, the sheer weight of my body on the flight controls would have driven the aircraft into the ground.
I heard tap, tap, tap small arms fire on my side of the fuselage, the right side. I swore and reached forward to hit the GPS to report where we had been hit. As I stretched out my arm forward a giant fireball hit in front of my face. We were hit. We were hit with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). It was either by my right leg or just outside the aircraft against my right leg. My right leg was vaporized. Dan later said he saw my right boot with about six inches of my leg sticking out of it, severed and laying on the floor of the aircraft. He didn’t try to recover it because my whole leg was gone and he thought I was dead.
I was in and out of consciousness as the aircraft filled with black smoke. I was trying to fly the aircraft and it was shaking. No one answered me when I called out on the radio, and I thought they were all dead or unconscious. I thought I was the only one in the aircraft who was awake and OK. I tried to get the flight controls to try and fly the aircraft. My arm was practically severed yet I was holding onto the controls with it, or I felt like I was. I picked a landing zone and tried to fly towards it. I could see Dan and it looked liked he was moving. I thought I was pushing on the pedals with my legs, but I had no legs. Dan was actually flying the Blackhawk. My last thought after we landed, was to shut off the engine and then I passed out.
I was told I came through the 31st CASH emergency room in Bagdad awake, talking and giving orders. I asked for a situation update, status of my crew. I said to them, I’m OK, just take care of my men. The crew was apparently doing the same thing and asking, … “How is our pilot?”
The next thing I remember is waking up at Walter Reed in incredible pain all over. It felt like molten lead burning in my whole body. They had slowly been waking me up. I was awake before anyone knew I was awake. I could hear what they were saying. I heard the nurse tell my husband how I needed to breathe into this little tube and keep my lungs clear. My first words to my husband were – I love you, put me to work. He was sitting there for ten days while I was unconscious. He kept telling me, “You’re at Walter Reed, you were injured and you are safe.”
He told me that non-stop for ten days and when I woke up I knew that. They told him I was narcotics naive, never used drugs or alcohol. I got sick from the morphine and nothing was working so they had to reduce one set of pain meds while they found a better mix to replace them. I had incredible, merciless, unending, severe pain constantly for five days. That is when I did not think I was going to make it. I watched the clock and counted to sixty seconds over and over to get through. I could not understand how I could have so much pain in legs that were not there anymore. Then they gave me an epidural block with a shunt and that finally helped reduce the pain.
During those five days another woman soldier saved me. It was Sergeant First Class Juanita Wilson. She was the third or fourth woman amputee from Iraq at Walter Reed. My mother and husband were stroking my head and hair, which caused me severe pain. I did not have the energy to tell them it hurt and to stop. Juanita came in and she looked at me, took off her artificial arm and stood by my bed. I did not know who she was but she said “I know you are hurting and it WILL stop. Let me stand here for you and help you count.” And she did, as I counted those sixty seconds over and over.
She was there helping me count through the pain for five days. She was a full time reservist, still serving and had a little girl and later another baby. Later she came in and said, “You need your hair washed.” It had been three weeks and it was still matted down with dirt and bits of dried blood. She did wash my hair. She had one arm and I had one, but no legs. Between the two of us we had two arms and two legs. I was trying to hang off the side of the bed holding a plastic pink tub. We laughed through the whole thing that we had only three limbs between us. She brought conditioner and shampoo and everything I needed. I felt so much better after that.
She was my lifeline. She knew what it was like because she had been through it months before. As much as I love my mother and husband who were there, they couldn’t do what Juanita did for me.
Eventually I got out of ICU and was on the hospital ward for four months. Then I was in Fisher House for nine months for a total of thirteen months at Walter Reed. My right leg was severed almost at the hip, my left leg was severed below the knee and my right arm was almost severed. I had one artery and the nerves were OK. I lost the back of it and the Army reconstructed it from the muscle in my rib cage. I was the most severely wounded soldier at Walter Reed.
While I was there at Walter Reed I had a visit from Senator Dick Durbin and Senator Barack Obama, my senators from Illinois. I began developing a relationship with them. I was the highest-ranking amputee for a while and I had almost fourteen years in service. Between my husband, with eighteen years and me, we were helping young soldiers navigate the system and became advocates for them. That summer of 2005, Senator Durbin asked if I would consider running for Congress and Senator Obama asked me to testify in front of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Senator Durbin said that if I wanted to make it better for soldiers I needed to run for office. There are not enough in Congress who know the military. My husband Bryan and I talked about me running and even though it was scary to think about, I decided to go for it and he was willing to support me.
I testified about women in combat. I told them we were already in combat and the law needs to catch up. I told them to get over it and let us women do the jobs we were trained to do.
When I woke up in the ICU and only half conscious, I kept hearing the staff talk about the helicopter crash. I was pretty sure I had tried to help to land the aircraft. When I heard them say it crashed, I believed I had not done my job as a pilot. I began to believe I had crashed the Blackhawk, and that was why I did not have my legs. I thought it was my fault. To a pilot, a helicopter crash is very different than a forced landing. I remembered being in the aircraft and pushing with my legs but I did not know I did not have my legs. I never looked down. I knew I had done everything humanly possible to land the aircraft and believed we had landed it. Now I was starting to believe I had failed as a pilot, a soldier and an officer and let my men down. I felt devastated. I felt ashamed and was crying. I believed I deserved to lose my legs. I never said any of that right away, but I did think it and felt it intensely.
One day Bryan caught me crying and said, “Honey everything will be OK. I know you feel bad about losing your legs.”
I told him I don’t care if I lost my legs. I deserve to lose my legs!
He said back to me, “What are you talking about you deserve to lose your legs?”
I crashed my aircraft, my crew got hurt, I didn’t do my job as a pilot so I deserve to lose my legs.
He said, “You and Dan landed the Blackhawk. Had you and Dan not worked together it would have crashed. You landed the aircraft and saved your crew! You and Dan fought to land it and did!”
I didn’t believe him, but there was one picture of the aircraft sitting in the field, taken by another aircraft. It showed my Blackhawk sitting there as beautiful as she could be. I didn’t believe what Bryan was saying until I saw that picture. Then he said, “You and Dan landed your Blackhawk. You fought for it until you passed out!” If I had died that day in the field I would have died trying to do my job. I have been fine since the day I saw my aircraft and know I had done my job. (See picture next page.)
I learned that the RPG hit the chin bubble of the Blackhawk and exited through the roof over my head without hitting the rotor blades. My right arm and hand was shattered.
Recovery was very hard and painful. I could not use my body. I had to learn to roll over. I couldn’t do anything. I asked Bryan to put up the soldier’s creed on my wall and I said it three times a day. I am not going to quit.
The Soldier’s Creed
by Martin Gene Durst
I am an American Soldier.
I am a Warrior and a member of a team.
I serve the people of the United States and live the Army Values.
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills.
I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself.
I am an expert and I am a professional.
I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.
I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.
I am an American Soldier.
I had good days and bad days and got really tired, but since the day I knew I had done my job well and asked about my crew in the ER, I have been fine emotionally. Just before Christmas I was given an electric wheelchair and began driving it around the hospital like a pilot at full speed.
The doctors were concerned that my right stump was so short that it would pull forward, and not stay vertical under me so that I could use a prosthesis. They wanted to remove it. I fought for it and did lots of Physical Therapy (PT), stretching the hip flexors and strengthening the gluteals to prevent that.
It was an amazing honor to recover next to the guys I recovered with at Walter Reed. In that room on the mats we were all soldiers and buddies. When I felt I couldn’t do something, a young soldier would tease and taunt me, and tell me I was lazy and that is all it took for me to keep trying. I did the same for them when they needed it. It was an enriching and heartfelt experience. We were all buddies in there and all supported one another trying to get through our exercises. If I closed my eyes in PT it sounded like basic training, with soldiers teasing each other. I would not be where I am if not for those guys and gals. We were all injured American soldiers healing together.
My right arm was stitched to my abdomen where they did a skin graft. They rebuilt my arm bones and reattached my triceps muscle. I can’t feel the ulnar nerve and have shrapnel and plates in there and it doesn’t pronate, but I can hold my husband’s hand and pick up things. I can write using two fingers and my thumb. What more do you want? I had to learn to stand up and use my arms. It was months before I could use my arms.
Everyday I had to be willing to go through the pain of standing on my prosthesis, sometimes I fell and felt demoralized. Sometimes I would think, I am never going to be able to do this, but I keep getting up and going for it again and again, until I can now do it. Now I have legs that I can even wear high heels in. The first day I walked in the parallel bars my husband was crying. I was very focused. I told them, I have things to do. I am not going to let some dude with an RPG in Iraq, determine my future. It’s my life and my future and I will live it the way I choose to. I will leave the Army when I decide to leave and not one minute before. I will stop flying when I choose to stop and no sooner. No insurgent who got lucky with an RPG is going to dictate the rest of my life!
I became very disillusioned with the lack of understanding of our political leaders with what was important to our military and how our military men and women were being treated, and our Veterans. They needed their voices heard in congress and I wanted to be their voice. This is the first time in history we have such a large number of women of childbearing age as combat veterans. We need more women’s groups, women therapists, and women’s mental health services for PTSD and MST.
I had to request an early discharge from Walter Reed in order to begin my run for Congress in December 2005 and I was determined to make it back to flight status.
Major Duckworth qualifies for medical retirement but chose instead to continue to serve. She was the Director of Veterans Affairs for the State of Illinois when she gave me this story and was also quite an athlete and competed in marathons. She was an Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, appointed by President Obama in 2009 and went on to win a congressional seat in the 2012 election. Tammy Duckworth is a true heroine and an inspiration to others with severe injuries and disabilities that require courage, commitment and tenacity to overcome.