Which members of the military have sacrificed enough to count as heroes? Is it enough that they leave their families for a year to deploy overseas? How about a six-month deployment and missing the birth of a child? Or watching dear friends die in combat or losing a limb? When does a member of the military start and stop being a hero worth honoring for his or her service?
It’s a question that should have only one answer — but Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) has a few ideas about which veterans are true heroes and which are not. In Walsh’s hero column: Republican senator and former POW John McCain (Ariz.), whom Walsh praised over the weekend for his acts of bravery in Vietnam and his apparent reluctance to talk about those years on the campaign trail. (Walsh might have missed this video at the 2008 Republican convention, introducing McCain as a “soldier, naval aviator, and P.O.W.”)
Not in Rep. Walsh’s hero column: Tammy Duckworth, Walsh’s Democratic opponent for his seat in Congress, who lost two legs and partial use of her right arm in 2004 when the Black Hawk helicopter she piloted was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq.
At a town hall meeting, Walsh spoke of the difference between the two. McCain “talked a little bit about it, but it was very uncomfortable for him. That’s what’s so noble about our heroes,” Walsh said. “Now I’m running against a woman who — I mean, my God, that’s all she talks about. Our true heroes, it’s the last thing in the world they talk about.”
The congressman had a similar complaint in March during an interview with Politico, when he praised Duckworth for her physical sacrifices before adding, “Ehhh. Now let’s move on. What else has she done? Female, wounded veteran … ehhh,” he said.
If would be easy to forgive Duckworth if being wounded in Iraq were all she talks about on the campaign trail — and all she thinks about all day, for that matter. Losing a limb, or several, in the line of duty defines a soldier for life, whether he — or she — wants it to or not.
Duckworth is like other wounded veterans, who are reminded of their time in combat every time they get dressed, pull on a prosthetic leg, decide between legs or a wheelchair or attempt what used to be the simplest tasks — opening a mayonnaise packet, peeling an orange or crossing a street with a high curb.
But the daily struggles are not what Duckworth talks about on the campaign trail. She talks about being the assistant secretary of veterans affairs, as well as being a lieutenant colonel in the Illinois National Guard, where she still serves, and the fact that her husband is an Army major. But mostly she talks about other veterans, the spirit of those who fought alongside her and the needs vets continue to have even though their own wars are long over.
After Walsh’s “ehhh” comment to Politico, he explained to Chicago Magazine that sometimes his thoughts and his words don’t always match up. “I often catch myself when I’m talking,” he said. “I meant something other than how it came out.”
But what else could he have meant when he complained about Duckworth’s chattiness about being a wounded warrior? And why should that bother Walsh so much, anyway, other than the fact that as someone who never served in the military, he does not understand that being in the military isn’t something a person once did, it’s who they have become, no matter how distant from combat they are today.
In reality, the most likely sin Duckworth has committed is being a Democrat instead of a Republican and running against Walsh for the job he perhaps needs after well-publicized financial troubles and a legal dispute over child support payments.
If Duckworth were a Republican instead of a Democrat, she seems like the kind of person Walsh would be proud to know and ready to praise, just as he praised John McCain. But by dismissing Duckworth’s service in a political setting, not once but twice, Walsh put party ahead of country and showed that whatever a hero is or isn’t, he won’t be accused of heroism, or even decency, anytime soon.
Patricia Murphy is the editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.