U.S. heroine maintains her faith despite losing legs

Tom Philpott: Military Update

“You are a hero,’’ says a man, standing on a curb outside Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as Army National Guard Major Ladda “Tammy” Duckworth walks slowly by, on artificial legs, a cane in each hand.

“I’m just trying to survive, man,’’ she laughs.

“You’re a hero, a survivor, you’re …

“That’s right,” Tammy interrupts, “too stubborn to die.”

“I’m involved in that amputee center they’re building,” the man adds. “We’re going to make sure you get what you deserve.”

“That’s great,’’ says Tammy. “I’m looking forward to being able to go there for the rest of my life.”

There’s not a whiff of sarcasm in her comment. Her concentration is on a pair of high-tech legs that she knows cost a combined $120,000.

Tammy Duckworth, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot in the Illinois National Guard and service manager for Rotary International, is among the most prominent of wounded U.S. soldiers from Iraq. She was thought to be dead and today she thrives. The pain was so intense at one point that she didn’t sleep for five days and literally counted the seconds of every minute to show herself she could survive, a moment at a time. In her pain she had no breath to spare, and thus no way to tell loved ones not to stroke her hair or touch her undamaged arm. That only intensified the pain.

Over the last year, Tammy, 37, has testified twice before Congress on services for war veterans, been interviewed by C-Span and National Public Radio, and been featured in numerous articles including in USA Today. I met her last April, at a press club luncheon, and like everyone there was struck by her grace and strength and courage.

I wanted an interview as Veterans Day approached to learn whether Tammy’s thoughts on the war were changing, perhaps like the nation, reshaped either by her own loss, the rising casualty count, or opinion polls showing public support for the Iraq war continues to slide.

While promising answers, Tammy suggested I shadow her through a day at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., starting in the third floor physical therapy gym for amputees, the “Miracle Room.”

Tammy is out of her wheelchair, lying on an exercise bench, a weighted ball in her hands. She extends her arms and turns her torso to the right, then back, in steady repetitions. Her left leg, severed below the knee, rests on a cylindrical cushion. Her right leg is a mere 3-inch stump, covered now by her gym shorts.

Tammy told doctors to leave the right stump, despite the difficulty fitting a prosthetic to it, so that she might one day fly helicopters again. Flying wouldn’t be an option with only one leg moving independently. Bunnie Wyckoff, her physical therapist, joined her on a visit to a Black Hawk cockpit to advise Tammy on what muscles she needs to work on.

The torso twists strengthen her stomach, including, coincidentally, stomach muscles that her “miracle” surgeons removed from over Tammy’s ribcage to rebuild her right forearm, then took a skin graft from her surviving thigh to cover the ribcage.

A year ago, the day after Veterans’ Day, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded against the chin bubble of the helicopter Tammy was co-piloting north of Baghdad. Tammy fought to land the aircraft, not realizing her legs were gone, her right forearm was pulverized and her pilot had the controls. Only after the helicopter landed in a clearing did Tammy lose consciousness.

Slippery with blood, she was pulled to a second helicopter and presumed to be dead. Her wounded crew chief, lying on the deck beside her, felt the warmth of Tammy’s blood and advised the next crew of a medical evacuation flight to administer aid; Maj. Duckworth might still be alive.

Ten days later, she awoke at Walter Reed, husband Bryan Bowlsbey at her side to explain her injuries. Because Tammy heard staff refer to her helicopter “crash,” she assumed for a few guilt-ridden days that she had crashed the helicopter and, having failed to shut off engines, tipped the aircraft and the blades sliced off her legs and injured her crew chief.

“I was devastated. I thought I deserved everything that had happened to me. I failed as a soldier, failed as a pilot, failed as a leader,’’ Tammy said. “When I found out that, no, I hadn’t crashed the aircraft … it resolved any conflicts that I could have had.”

She hasn’t had many down days since then, she says, though she concedes to being “a girly-girl” with the usual female vanities. That includes a love of shoes and fondness for high heels. Now she talks of properly programmed knees, stumble recovery systems, toe loads and vacuum seals.

Tammy said her attitude toward the war has not changed. In her mind, it has always been about protecting America and, as a woman officer, sharing equally in the opportunity to serve and face the risks of war.

“My sacrifice was for my country. It wasn’t for Iraq,” she said.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: