Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story misstated events that caused Tammy Duckworth's Iraq war injuries. Duckworth and her co-pilot successfully landed her Blackhawk helicopter before she was pulled to safety. Additionally, the article should have said that Navy Corpsman Joe Dan Worley lost one leg during combat in Iraq. This version has been corrected.

Tammy Duckworth on her job at Veterans Affairs

Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary Tammy Duckworth speaks about how she'll mark the fifth anniversary of the day she was shot down over Iraq.
By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Five years ago this week, an insurgent shot down the Army Black Hawk helicopter that Tammy Duckworth was co-piloting in Iraq. Now an assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Duckworth lost her legs in the attack.

On Thursday, her Black Hawk crewmates who pulled her from the wreckage will be in Washington to celebrate her "alive day" -- what some veterans call their "second birthday" to mark their brushes with death. She will lead them on a tour of the Capitol and the White House.

"After all, they defended all this; they might as well see it firsthand," she said.

In a whirlwind, Duckworth has moved from the battlefields of Iraq to the halls of power in Washington, becoming part of a team headed by VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff, and Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould, a Navy veteran, that is trying to overhaul an agency that's been called moribund and out of touch.

More than 24 million U.S. veterans are alive today, according to VA. Of those, about 1.5 million served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Duckworth, 41, knows that her age, gender and injuries set her apart from most of the veterans she meets. But part of her job is connecting older veterans with younger ones, traveling at least twice a week to visit VA facilities and speak before veterans.

At the annual convention of the Fleet Reserve Association in Virginia Beach in late October, she told the story of Joe Dan Worley, a Navy medical corpsman she met while recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Worley lost a leg in Iraq.

"Joe Dan did what every Navy corpsman has done in the history of this nation: He grabbed his aid bag and ran into the kill zone," Duckworth said. "He sat there and took care of every single Marine until he knew that they were in line to be medevaced and that they had been cared for. Only then did he use his own blood to put a 'T' on his forehead, and only then did he give himself a shot of morphine and pass out."

He was 22, she told the crowd, which erupted in applause.

"Joe Dan has been there throughout our nation's history, and different versions of Joe Dan are sitting in this room here today," Duckworth said.

"More and more veterans are surviving debilitating and devastating injuries received during combat," she noted as she stood on her own two prosthetic legs, wearing a bright red skirt suit.

She made jokes, too, bragging about her mastery of foul language. She flew "ash and trash" missions around Iraq, she said, using "ash" instead of profanity -- because the presence of the ladies auxiliary at the event meant she couldn't curse "in mixed company."

Generation gap

"I was in a different military, and I wasn't familiar with the combat capabilities of females," Joe LaPadula, 79, a Korean and Vietnam war veteran from Omaha, said afterward. "She's a good person," LaPadula said of Duckworth. "She saved somebody's life, and they saved hers."

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