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."
"She is the face of the new generation," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Iraq and Afghanistan veterans aren't old white guys."
Most days, Duckworth is in her office before 8 a.m., and she often works past 8 p.m. In her wheelchair, she rides the Metro from her apartment in Ballston to VA headquarters, directly above the McPherson Square station.
She is helping to lead a VA reorganization meant, among other things, to reduce red tape.
"If I, as a Ph.D. candidate and a well-known congressional candidate leaving Walter Reed, had to negotiate a bureaucracy and found that it was somewhat challenging, what does the 21-year-old PFC with a brain injury do?" she asked.
An outspoken critic of the Bush administration's Iraq war policy, Duckworth lost a 2006 race for Congress in Illinois but later was appointed the state's veterans affairs director. While recovering at Walter Reed she met then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, who visited her several times.
His concern moved her, she said, and soon she was campaigning for him. As president, Obama nominated Duckworth to join Veterans Affairs in February. She isn't shy about her ambition, expressing an interest in eventually joining the State Department and saying she would she'd run again for elected office if the right opportunity emerged.
Obama has said the nation has "a covenant with her veterans," and first lady Michelle Obama meets regularly with military spouses and has invited military families to the White House for holiday celebrations.Obama's critics
The administration has its critics, however.
"Inviting military families to the White House is a lovely gesture, but there remains a concern in our community that the military is simply not a priority for the Obama administration," said Meredith Leyva, who founded CinC- House.com, a popular Web site for military spouses.
Critics are especially concerned with how the administration handled the rollout of the post-9/11 G.I. Bill. VA promised higher education benefits to thousands of veterans, but for most the money did not arrive in time to cover expenses. Duckworth and other officials publicly apologized, and VA issued emergency checks.
Though some see the incident as an example of VA incompetence, others say the department's quick reaction signals a newfound willingness to fix problems.
"When they are approached with an issue, they're pretty quick to respond to it," said Terry Howell, an editor at Military.com, a veterans news and social-networking site. "And it may not always seem like the right response, but . . . we've never seen them react so quickly in the past."
Duckworth said, "When you serve this many people, there are always going to be people that are not satisfied for whatever reason."
"We're going to be the advocate, and if we're going to make a mistake, it's going to be to the benefit of the veteran, not to the benefit of the bureaucracy," she said.
Besides, on her alive day, she said, "I've got to be able to look at [my crewmates] in the eye and say, 'Hey, I'm not screwing up in Washington; I'm doing my job, and I'm fighting as hard as I can.' "