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updated: 4/29/2015 10:04 AM

10 years after losing her legs, Duckworth returns to flying

We Were Almost Home Part 3: Learning to fly again

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  • Tammy Duckworth walks through a building at the Illinois National Guard's Camp Lincoln in Springfield on her final drill weekend in the military.

      Tammy Duckworth walks through a building at the Illinois National Guard's Camp Lincoln in Springfield on her final drill weekend in the military.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 

Part 1 | Part 2 | Third of a three part series

U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth's first public speech on a tightly scheduled late-August day had nothing to do with Iraq.

At Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Duckworth was to speak to local business representatives at an event about getting contracts with the federal government. Then her staff would whisk her to the next appointment, keeping to the busy schedule of a freshman lawmaker.

A laboratory executive introduced her, quickly summing up the story that has helped shape the identity that ultimately drove her to politics: "Following her recovery from a helicopter crash in the line of duty …" he said.

One of those words makes Duckworth cringe, though she understands it's shorthand many people use in telling her story.

Tammy Duckworth credits Chief Warrant Officer Dan Milberg with saving her life. He landed their Black Hawk helicopter after it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Tammy Duckworth credits Chief Warrant Officer Dan Milberg with saving her life. He landed their Black Hawk helicopter after it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. - Photo courtesy Dan Milberg

The Black Hawk helicopter didn't crash.

"We managed to land it," Duckworth said. "Dan managed to land it."

It didn't crash, even though a rocket-propelled grenade ripped through the helicopter a decade ago on Nov. 12, 2004, shredding Duckworth's legs, ripping gaping holes in the cockpit and destroying the Black Hawk's sophisticated flight controls.

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Dan Milberg set the helicopter down in the only clearing in sight among endless date palm trees, probably saving the entire crew from death.

Duckworth was the one who had been piloting the Black Hawk during most of that day's missions around Iraq. Weeks later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in a haze of jumbled memories, she was seized by fear and guilt that she had done something to cause the injuries to her crew and herself.

"She thought she had crashed the helicopter," Col. Randy Sikowski, Duckworth's boss in Iraq, said. "She didn't know what had happened. That's a big deal for a pilot. You don't want to be the one that screwed something up. And I think for her to find out she didn't do anything, it was the enemy that made that choice, that was significant."

These days, as Duckworth marks the 10th anniversary of the grenade attack by celebrating her "Alive Day," she counts the soldiers who served with her among her closest friends and advisers -- especially when issues concerning veterans or the Middle East come before Congress.

In September, she broke Democratic Party ranks by voting against legislation to fund, train and equip Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State militants. A year ago, she supported moving ahead with military intervention after the Syrian government used chemical weapons against rebels, but urged caution.

"One of the people I called was Dan. I said, 'Dan, this is what I'm thinking. Am I crazy?'"

"It's just really easy for folks who haven't been sitting in a broken helicopter in a field while bad guys are coming for you to say, well, just send troops in," she said.

"I really feel like we need more vets to say, 'OK, this is the true cost. And I'm willing to go and die, but this better be worthy of that.'"

Duckworth ended her 23-year service in the military this year, anticipating a second term in Congress and the birth of her daughter in December.

She arrived at Camp Lincoln in Springfield for her monthly Illinois National Guard weekend drill at the end of September, wearing two prosthetic legs and a camouflage uniform.

She walked through the narrow, spartan halls of the office building where she does her desk work planning for responses to natural disasters like floods and tornadoes.

Tammy Duckworth talks about her last weekend of drills with the Illinois National Guard. She retired in September.
  Tammy Duckworth talks about her last weekend of drills with the Illinois National Guard. She retired in September. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

The electronic knee of her right leg made walking on her two prosthetic legs more difficult than usual. It is calibrated to her height, weight and gait, but the weight of the baby she is carrying had confused the electronics.

Unknown to all but her inner circle, Duckworth had quietly laid the groundwork to retire. She had started coming to grips with the decision two years ago. It was tough to acknowledge she wasn't as useful to the Illinois National Guard as she had once been.

"This has been the first year I could imagine taking off the uniform. My only regret is that my daughter won't get to see me serving. That's sort of the one sad thing," she said. "But it's time."

At a morning assembly that Saturday, a routine announcement was made asking who was drilling for the first time. One man raised his hand.

Who was drilling for the last time? Duckworth raised her hand.

That's how many of her Guard friends found out she was leaving.

"It was kind of neat to see a lieutenant where it was his first drill," said Duckworth, who retired as a lieutenant colonel. "I think back to 23 years when it was my first drill. So I was very jealous of him."

Duckworth's husband, Major Bryan Bowlsbey, remains in the National Guard. In February 2007, just over two years into Duckworth's recovery, he deployed to the Middle East. Several of her crew members also have been sent to fight again.

The damaged Black Hawk Duckworth and her crew left sitting in the tall grass in Iraq a decade ago was blown up by the U.S. military. Details of the damage caused by the insurgent grenade are lost to history.

Duckworth's home base in Balad and the base at Taji, where she was evacuated after her chopper was hit, eventually were turned over to Iraqi Security Forces. Islamic State militants have overrun Mosul and swept through northern Iraq, imposing strict Islamic rule and forcing nonbelievers to flee or die. Balad and nearby towns frequently are under attack. The Iraqi Ministry of Defense sought to rally its retreating forces at Taji, hoping to quell an enemy advance to Baghdad.

Days ago, President Barack Obama ordered 1,500 additional U.S. troops to Iraq to help train Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers to fight Islamic State militants.

"I don't think any of us thought that we would still be at war 10 years later," Duckworth said.

Yet, she misses her life as a soldier.

"I am deeply, deeply, deeply envious of the guys who are still flying," Duckworth said. "I am lonely and I miss the camaraderie of being in my unit, being in my company. I feel like an outsider to that."

While still under doctors' care at Walter Reed in 2005, Duckworth already was plotting to get back in the air.

Midway through her 13-month recovery, she got a pass to get out for four days.

She wanted to go to Wisconsin.

Duckworth and Bowlsbey had camped each of the previous dozen or so years at the Oshkosh air show, a huge summer gathering of aviation enthusiasts in central Wisconsin.

"This is what we do, and we're going to continue our normal lives." Bowlsbey said. "She told the doctors she was going to go to Oshkosh and sleep on the ground."

Tammy Duckworth has started trying to fly helicopters again with the encouragement of her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey.
  Tammy Duckworth has started trying to fly helicopters again with the encouragement of her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Duckworth researched tents that could be easily set up and accessed by a person in a wheelchair.

"He can't put up camp furniture and he can't put up a tent," Duckworth said of her husband.

"I fix helicopters!" he replied.

So the two went to Wisconsin, and she spent the weekend talking to aviators about what it would take for her to get back off the ground.

After five years of physical rehab and practice, Duckworth started flying planes again, and the two pilots are so in love with flying they've toyed with naming their expected daughter Piper after the plane they own together.

Now, 10 years after she lost her legs in Iraq, Duckworth has started the process of flying helicopters again. She's grounded while pregnant but says she wants to continue soon. It's tricky. The pedals are important.

In Virginia, Hawaii and elsewhere, Duckworth has tried some basic maneuvers in small helicopters.

"When I got back in a helicopter, it felt like home," she said.

Duckworth points to her time in the hospital as one reason she's been able to come full circle, overcoming some of the demons that haunt some soldiers who come home from war.

"They have the same experiences, but I got to spend 13 months in the hospital where, every day, somebody, I mean literally dozens of times a day, people ask you: 'Tell me about what happened,'" Duckworth said. "They make you tell the story over and over and over and over and over and over and over again so that it just becomes a chapter in your life. It doesn't become the chapter of your life."

"That's in a weird way an advantage I had over guys who didn't get physically wounded," she said.

While Duckworth and her crew keep in touch, they don't always share what happened 10 years ago in Iraq with others.

Kurt Hannemann, the gunner who stood outside the Black Hawk preparing to defend it as Duckworth was evacuated, doesn't talk much about the day with his friends and Army buddies, he says. He still wears the uniform, now as a Black Hawk test pilot based at Midway Airport in Chicago, charged with making sure the helicopters are running smoothly and diagnosing the problems when they aren't.

Matt Backues, who helped carry Duckworth's limp and bloodied body to his helicopter in the rescue, wears khakis and a blue polo shirt as a top mechanic for Priester Aviation at Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling.

"I don't always tell the full story or anything. But some of my co-workers know," Backues said. "My family and friends know. Some know more details than others."

Milberg is a police officer in suburban St. Louis and finished a deployment to Afghanistan over the summer with the Missouri National Guard.

Sikowski is chief of the joint staff with the Illinois National Guard.

The image of Duckworth slumped against the Black Hawk controls is just one of the mental "snapshots" Milberg has of that day in Iraq. It's a word the whole crew comes back to, as if the memory a decade later plays as a slideshow in their heads, complete with the chaotic sounds and smells of the day.

The members of the crew who talked to the Daily Herald say they cope with the memories well, but that's of course not true for every soldier who has been to war.

Duckworth says her message to veterans is that it's normal to be troubled by war because war isn't normal.

"It's OK to talk about it. It's OK to ask for help," she says. "For the guys who are sitting there maybe overwhelmed by the experience, I think it's important for me to say, you know, I still dream about being in Iraq. And I wake up and I'm exhausted. That doesn't mean I have PTSD. It means that I have this experience in my life. And I can be a member of Congress and I can function and do my job, and you can, too. So it's OK if you watch something on TV and you go to bed and you live an entire day in Iraq or Afghanistan."

Most years on Nov. 12, members of the crew from that defining day in Iraq get together for dinner, catch up and tell war stories.

Last year on that date, she thanked each of them by name in a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

She says it's the only day of the year Milberg will let her tell him "thank you."

"The most precious thing for me is to still have them in my life because they know me and who I am," she said. "The more public my professional life has become, the more I treasure the friends that I had and my Army buddies who knew me before I entered this public realm."

That first "Alive Day" in 2005, Milberg called Duckworth at Walter Reed as she was going through a treatment to help save her right arm.

"It's almost 4:30 in Iraq," Milberg said then. "In five minutes you're going to be shot down."

"Another year," Duckworth said, 10 years later. "What did I do this year to earn this?"

Read the entire series:
Part 1, Duckworth recounts the events leading up to being shot down at http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20141111/news/141119904/.
Part 2: How two helicopter crews got Duckworth out of Iraq at http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20141111/news/141119763/.
Part 3: Duckworth is back in control 10 years later at http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20141111/news/141119848/.

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