washingtonpost.com
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."

Duckworth still wears pink. She has a baseball jersey that reads, "Dude, where's my leg?"

The daughter of a retired Marine, Duckworth was born in Bangkok, where her father, Franklin Duckworth, did U.N. refugee work and married Lamai Sompornpairin, an ethnic Chinese. She spent much of her youth in Southeast Asia. She joined the ROTC while earning a master's degree in international affairs at George Washington University.

Moving to Illinois to pursue a doctorate, she signed up with the Illinois Army National Guard, asking to train as a Black Hawk pilot. This was partly because she hoped to taste combat, partly because she wanted to show she could match the men.

In her civilian life, she was a manager for Rotary International. As an Army captain, she rose to command 42 soldiers. She was about to transfer when the unit was called to duty in Iraq. She persuaded her superiors to reverse the move, saying, "There was no way I was going to let them go without me."

Of being a pilot, Duckworth says: "I love controlling this giant, fierce machine. I strap that bird on my back and I'm in charge of it and we just go, and it's just power."

On Nov. 12, 2004, after a stop in Baghdad's secure Green Zone for chocolate milkshakes, stir-fry and Christmas ornaments, Duckworth was right where she wanted to be, flying above the treetops at 130 mph.

Chief Warrant Officer Dan Milberg was at the controls when the grenade hit.

Milberg landed the chopper and mistook Duckworth for dead, she said, but helped haul her body, slippery with blood, to a second Black Hawk. Eight days later, she awoke from unconsciousness at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

For days, husband Bryan Bowlsbey had been at her bedside, repeating over and over: "You were injured. You are at Walter Reed. You are safe."

Unaware she was missing most of both legs, she asked why her feet hurt.

One person who had been to war, and had suffered for it, helped her see the future. He was former Army Lt. Robert J. Dole, wounded World War II vet and later Senate majority leader, who often visited Walter Reed without fanfare.

After a long conversation with him in early 2005, Duckworth understood that she had more to accomplish. She thought about the public service of veterans such as Dole, John F. Kennedy and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), and their Vietnam War-era brethren, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

Her public career began shortly after Durbin invited wounded Illinois vets to attend last year's State of the Union address. Duckworth, promoted to major, soon was calling Durbin's office to get help for military families, which led to congressional testimony on military health care.

In March, Duckworth took her first steps on her first set of artificial legs. It took her two minutes to walk 12 feet. She felt exhausted, and elated.

It was summer when Durbin asked her to consider a fresh career. She realized the target was the Illinois 6th, whose boundary lay three miles from the home that friends and strangers remodeled to accommodate her.

She asked herself, "Did I want to do this to my private life?" Still weak, still learning to walk, still trying to strengthen a badly damaged arm that she almost lost, Duckworth chewed it over for two months with her husband, whom she describes as a true partner: "He annoys me. I annoy him. He chews gum with his mouth open. I leave my legs lying around on the floor."

With a boost from her new political friends, Duckworth formally announced her candidacy on Dec. 18 on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." In just two weeks, she raised $120,000, giving her more money than Cegelis or the third Democrat in the primary, evangelical Christian Lindy Scott.

Campaigning now under the tutelage of some of the most experienced Democratic strategists in Illinois, Duckworth stresses bread-and-butter issues. She speaks of the expanding reach of the alternative minimum tax and the rising cost of health care. She points out that she still has $70,000 in student loans and has fought through a health crisis.

Duckworth casts abortion and end-of-life decisions as private matters that should lie beyond the federal government's reach. If she wins the March 21 primary, she will face state Sen. Peter Roskam, a well-financed conservative Republican in a historically Republican district.

Whatever happens, she is confident she will be fine. "What the past year has done," she says, "is give me a fearlessness."

Duckworth is the first to say her campaign is about more than Iraq, but it is her opinions on the war that some questioners most want to hear. She tells them she supports the troops and believes the United States must persevere long enough to give Iraqis a chance.

But she believes the decision to invade was an error, and a badly executed error at that.

"I think it was a bad decision. I think we used bad intelligence. I think our priority should have been Afghanistan and capturing Osama bin Laden," Duckworth says. "Our troops do an incredible job every single day, but our policymakers have not lived up to the sacrifices that our troops make every day."

Asked whether she feels she lost her legs on an unworthy mission, she replies: "I was hurt in service for my country. I was proud to go. It was my duty as a soldier to go. And I would go tomorrow."

Duckworth has a recurring dream, often after watching news coverage of the war. She is back in Iraq, at the controls of her Black Hawk or doing desk duty in Balad. She has her legs. It took eight months for her dream personality to accept that the good health would evaporate at daybreak, but now she finds the sensation gratifying.

"In my dream, I usually know: 'Oh, I have legs. Cool. I'm going to run around.' "

That's how Duckworth feels about her second chance.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company