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updated: 11/14/2014 11:04 AM

The day Capt. Tammy Duckworth was shot down

We Were Almost Home Part 1: The story of Capt. Duckworth and the soldiers who saved her life

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  • Tammy Duckworth stands outside a Black Hawk helicopter like the one she was in when she was shot down Nov. 12, 2004. She's holding bags of candy and school supplies that would be given to Iraqi children.

    Tammy Duckworth stands outside a Black Hawk helicopter like the one she was in when she was shot down Nov. 12, 2004. She's holding bags of candy and school supplies that would be given to Iraqi children.
    Courtesy of Tammy Duckworth

  • Black Hawk pilot Kurt Hannemann was a gunner on board Tammy Duckworth's helicopter when it was shot down. He helped set up a perimeter guarding the crew until help arrived.

      Black Hawk pilot Kurt Hannemann was a gunner on board Tammy Duckworth's helicopter when it was shot down. He helped set up a perimeter guarding the crew until help arrived.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Duckworth: We were almost home

 
 

First of three parts |
Part 2 | Part 3


The taste of stir fry and milkshakes in Baghdad 10 years ago was a relief from the war raging all around them. It's a memory that still lights up their faces today.

The four crew members of Black Hawk 83-23856 had flown five or six helicopter missions that Friday, screaming low over the terrain at 140 mph, touching down, dropping off soldiers, picking up others and lifting off into the rainy sky again within minutes. It was less dangerous to be on the move.

Soldiers battled in Fallujah 43 miles west of Baghdad, with some of the bloodiest fighting in the Iraq War. Street combat racked Sadr City near Baghdad and Mosul in the north of Iraq. The crew's own base in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, was called "Mortaritaville" for its almost daily mortar attacks.

But the day's missions had so far been routine. The Black Hawk crew's afternoon stop in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone was a respite from the chaos of war, with the luxury of a free hour on the ground and a wide selection of menu items.

"We had a great lunch," said Tammy Duckworth. Then 36 and a captain with the Illinois National Guard, she was the highest ranking of the four crew members. "They actually made milkshakes to order. It was, like, the first milkshake I'd had in a year."

The base exchange was open, and Spc. Kurt Hannemann, a burly door gunner from central Illinois and the lowest-ranking member of the crew, wanted to take a look inside.

"He and I ran over, and we got some Christmas ornaments, scenes from Babylon and all these biblical scenes," Duckworth said.

It was Nov. 12, 2004.

Ten years later, Duckworth has been newly re-elected to a second term in Congress, a career the Hoffman Estates Democrat said she had never envisioned. She and her husband, Maj. Bryan Bowlsbey are about to embark on another unpredictable journey -- becoming parents. Their daughter is due in December. She has begun relearning to fly small helicopters. She finished work last month on a doctorate, fulfilling a goal interrupted when she deployed a decade ago.

Iraq sometimes colors her dreams and rushes to the front of her consciousness without warning. The men who climbed into the Black Hawk helicopter with her that day in 2004 have become trusted friends and advisers, including some she'll call on when questions of the military or veterans come before the U.S. House.

"These are the folks who are truth-speakers for me in my life," she said.

Duckworth and the men she credits with saving her life spoke with the Daily Herald over the course of three months.

She agreed to the interviews "to honor the men who were there. And to tell the story of what is, in a way, a typical story of troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Tammy Duckworth sits in a helicopter during her tour of duty in Iraq.
Tammy Duckworth sits in a helicopter during her tour of duty in Iraq. - Associated Press File Photo

"The effects of that service, both bad and good, last for the rest of your lives," she said.

In Iraq, Duckworth was battle captain. Since her arrival in March 2004 at Logistics Support Area Anaconda in Balad, she'd spent most of her time inside the tactical operation center, planning and coordinating missions for other crews to fly. On any given day, she might send them to deliver soldiers into combat, or to pick them up and bring them back for rest and food. She might have helicopter crews ferry troops, supplies, officers or VIPs between bases.

She'd take the same missions herself. Duckworth flew about two days a week, both because she enjoyed it and because the constant parade of missions required everyone to help so regular pilots could get a break.

"I always made sure I had long missions," she said. "When it was time for me to go fly, the guys hated it, the guys that flew with me a lot. Because they knew when it was time to fly with me it was going to be a 14-hour mission day."

On this Friday, her crew was doing what one pilot called the "Baghdad shuffle," moving people and goods between scattered bases and the capital.

"Taxi service," Duckworth calls it.

It wasn't as simple as that.

In the weeks before, Duckworth was in a helicopter that was shot at during the fierce second battle of Fallujah. Flying was dangerous enough that Black Hawks flew in pairs in case something went wrong.

Despite the perils, if troops needed to get around Iraq, they wanted to fly.

Flying was far safer than driving, said state Rep. David Harris of Arlington Heights, the adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard when the Iraq War began in 2003. Roadside bombs were taking lots of American lives and soldiers were attaching improvised scrap metal armor to their vehicles to try to protect themselves.

"People were getting killed all the time," Harris said. "All the time."

The military was an unexpected detour from the career Duckworth once had dreamed of. Working on a master's degree in international affairs in the early 1990s at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Duckworth hoped to become an ambassador and signed up for ROTC "just to learn a little bit more about the military," she said.

"I fell in love with the military," she said. "I even loved the drill sergeants yelling at me. ... I just loved the challenge, you know. I loved running around lost in the woods. I loved being on the rifle range."

She joined the Army Reserves in 1992. In 1993, she went to flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala., and married Bowlsbey, who had been in ROTC with her. That year, U.S. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin lifted the restriction on women flying in combat.

More than 10 years later, working on a doctorate at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Duckworth voluntarily deployed with the Illinois National Guard.

And there she was in Iraq, living in a room in a portable trailer similar to a shipping container on a base that held 17,000 other military men and women.

In Baghdad that afternoon in November 2004, Duckworth and her crew were getting ready to leave the Green Zone. The rain had stopped and the sun was out. Next stop, Balad. Home, such as it was.

Then Duckworth got a radio call. Some soldiers were waiting in Taji, a base 20 miles north of Baghdad. Could Duckworth's crew pick them up and ferry them to Balad?

"I looked at the crew, and they were tired. They wanted to go back," Duckworth said. But the crew members agreed they should go get the soldiers. "It's dangerous for them to be on convoys."

It was a relatively routine decision, one of several that changed the course of that day.

"We swung by there … and they weren't even there," Duckworth said. "They hopped some other flight. So we picked up a stray colonel."

Flight controllers plotted a route from Taji to Balad. The routes varied so American helicopters wouldn't be flying over the same spot all the time, which would make them easier marks for insurgents.

The stray colonel hopped in Duckworth's sister helicopter, and they started home.

Flying a helicopter is a full-body exercise. Duckworth sat in the right pilot's seat of the Black Hawk, strapped in and surrounded by advanced equipment on the panel, both feet on pedals and her hand on the control stick between her legs.

She wore a helmet that protected her hearing from the scream of the helicopter rotors and rush of the wind outside. They flew with the doors off.

In the left pilot's chair sat Chief Warrant Officer 4 Dan Milberg, an experienced Black Hawk pilot who flew helicopters in Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf more than 10 years earlier, when Duckworth was still in college. He was the kind of pilot Duckworth looked up to -- the pilot in command. That afternoon, Milberg tired of Duckworth hogging the controls all day.

Milberg called Duckworth a "stick pig" and took over flying.

Hannemann, the gunner, sat behind Milberg. Sgt. Christopher Fierce was behind Duckworth, also manning a mounted gun.

They ripped across the sky just 15 feet above a vast grove of date palm trees near the Tigris River, wind rushing into the helicopter and the rotors screaming. They stayed low to the ground so they would appear to the enemy on the horizon only for an instant before they zipped past and were gone.

The flight wouldn't take long.

"We were almost home," Duckworth said.

Their sister helicopter was flying to Duckworth's right. On that second helicopter, Spc. Matt Backues was manning the machine gun on the left side.

He saw a trail of smoke rising from the trees toward Duckworth's helicopter.

It was a rocket-propelled grenade.

Backues saw the bottom of the right side of her cockpit explode.

On board, the impact was devastating.

"We were approximately 15 miles northeast of Taji airfield, when I heard what I recognized as gunfire underneath my aircraft," Milberg wrote in an account two days later. "It sounded like three rounds and I thought that I felt the impact from the gunfire. I immediately heard an explosion come from the right side of the cockpit. I felt heat and small particles of debris on my face."

Duckworth's right leg was gone in an instant, shredded in a flash of heat and a spray of shrapnel from a grenade. Her left leg was terribly injured, and her right arm was nearly severed.

The blast blew out the clear bubble at the bottom of the cockpit, destroyed the window above her head and severely damaged the helicopter's flight system stored behind her seat.

Black Hawk pilot Kurt Hanneman shows where a rocket-propelled grenade hit Tammy Duckworth's helicopter in 2004. She was sitting in the right pilot's seat.
  Black Hawk pilot Kurt Hanneman shows where a rocket-propelled grenade hit Tammy Duckworth's helicopter in 2004. She was sitting in the right pilot's seat. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

His helmet on and the helicopter noise deafening, Hannemann heard a pop. Seated behind Milberg, he looked to his right. There was shrapnel on the floor of the Black Hawk. Thick black smoke obstructed his view of the cockpit, and the radio in his flight helmet was silent. Hannemann could tell Duckworth was hurt, and he didn't know if anyone was still flying the helicopter.

Duckworth was trying.

She said she frantically tried to pull on the controls. She thinks she went in and out of consciousness, unaware she had lost her legs because she could still feel them. She tried to push on the pedals even though the sophisticated controls used to fly the 5-ton helicopter had failed. She tried to pull on the stick, which likely was no longer connected.

Behind her, Fierce had been hit by shrapnel that tore into his right leg below the knee.

The crew members could not speak to or hear one another.

Duckworth didn't realize that just to her left, Milberg was still flying the helicopter. Fighting for control using the cyclic, the control stick that governs pitch and direction, Milberg at first saw nowhere to land.

"It was a sea of trees," Milberg said. Then, "out of nowhere, here was this long, narrow opening in the trees."

"As I made the approach I started feeling more severe feedback in the cyclic and felt a lateral vibration in the aircraft," Milberg wrote in the days after. "I realized that there was a single tree in my flight path, so I used my cyclic to clear it and then continued the approach to the ground."

Backues describes that single tree as a major obstacle to a smooth landing, but Milberg's helicopter gymnastics gently set the crippled Black Hawk in a rutted field.

It all happened in a fury of smoke, heat and noise.

"Honestly, I didn't know if anybody landed it or if we just got lucky," Hannemann said.

This is the only known photo of Tammy Duckworth's Black Hawk helicopter after it was shot down. It shows a hole in the bottom right of the cockpit where a rocket-propelled grenade exploded, as well as a hole at the top right of the cockpit. It would later be destroyed.
This is the only known photo of Tammy Duckworth's Black Hawk helicopter after it was shot down. It shows a hole in the bottom right of the cockpit where a rocket-propelled grenade exploded, as well as a hole at the top right of the cockpit. It would later be destroyed. - Photo courtesy Tammy Duckworth

As the haze settled over her, Duckworth noticed tall grass poking up through the helicopter. Why is that there, she remembers thinking, not understanding that part of the bottom of the cockpit was gone.

Milberg was unhurt. He immediately was consumed with the need to get everyone out of the helicopter in case of a fire or approaching enemies. He looked to his right.

"I looked over at CPT Duckworth and saw her slumped forward against the instrument panel," he wrote in his report. "I saw that she was unconscious and had black residue on her face." He thought she was dead.

Ten years later, that grim mental "snapshot" resurfaces at times, and especially on anniversaries like Wednesday. With it comes a rush of emotions, nearly as fresh as in that moment, he said.

"I can feel that feeling of dread and despair and sadness."

Read the entire series:
Part 1: Duckworth recounts the events leading up to being shot down.
Part 2: How two helicopter crews got Duckworth out of Iraq.
Part 3: Duckworth is back in control 10 years later.

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