After War Injury, an Iraq Vet Takes on Politics

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 19, 2006

CHICAGO, Feb. 18 The smiling candidate in rimless eyeglasses and a long woolen skirt maneuvers carefully among tables and chairs as she works a crowded Starbucks. She is taking small steps, and the reason for the slight awkwardness in her gait is not instantly clear.

Reaching to shake hands with a voter, she says: "You may have heard of me. I'm the Iraq war vet who's running. I was injured over there." Talking with another, she says: "I actually lost both my legs. I can walk because I got really good health care."

Tammy Duckworth, Democratic candidate for Congress, cannot escape the catastrophic wounds she suffered as an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq. And, for the purposes of her candidacy, she does not want to. For better or worse, her injuries are her signature, her motivator and, she hopes, her ticket into the consciousness of voters in the Illinois 6th District.

"I can't avoid the interest in the fact that I'm an injured female soldier," Duckworth, 37, says in an interview at her campaign headquarters in Lombard, west of Chicago. "Understand that I'm going to use this as a platform."

That is just what a pair of influential Illinois Democrats expected when they recruited her to seek the seat surrendered after 32 years by Republican stalwart Henry J. Hyde. Sen. Richard J. Durbin and Rep. Rahm Emanuel appealed to Duckworth when she was still recovering from her injuries, dissing the up-and-running campaign of fellow Democrat Christine Cegelis, who took 44 percent of the vote against Hyde in 2004.

Duckworth, who considers the Iraq war a mistake, is among about a dozen veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan running for federal office this year, at last count all but one of them Democrats. The party leadership is calculating that candidates who wore the uniform can offer a credible counterpoint on national security to Republicans who have dominated the debate from the campaign trail to Capitol Hill.

That's fine with Duckworth. She sees the race -- and pretty much everything else since Nov. 12, 2004, when an insurgent's rocket-propelled grenade exploded at her feet -- as a second chance. "I know this sounds really corny, but I've just got to be more," Duckworth says. "I've got to be more than I was."

At the same time, Duckworth constantly wrestles with the reality of what she no longer is, the moves she can no longer make.

A self-described girlie girl whose favorite color is pink, she watches "America's Next Top Model" and laments not being able to wear feminine shoes. She has ordered special prosthetic "runway feet" that will allow for a two-inch heel.

Then there is the matter of her missing lap. One leg is only 2 1/2 inches long.

"I can't actually hold a soda between my knees in the car," she says. "It's really hard to use a laptop when you only have half a lap."

She half smiles as she says this, able to find wonderment in discovering the novelties of her new self. The smile builds into a laugh as she adds: "But there are positives. My feet don't get cold."

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