How two helicopter crews got Duckworth out of Iraq

We Were Almost Home Part 2: 'I am a warrior and a member of a team'

 
 
Updated 11/12/2014 12:33 PM
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  • This is the only known photo of Tammy Duckworth's Black Hawk helicopter that was shot down 10 years ago.

    This is the only known photo of Tammy Duckworth's Black Hawk helicopter that was shot down 10 years ago. Photo courtesy Tammy Duckworth

Part 1 | Second of a three part series | Part 3

With two gaping holes in the cockpit and most of its flight systems destroyed, the Black Hawk Army helicopter hunkered in a clearing in northern Iraq -- on the ground but hardly out of danger.

"I just knew the bad guys were in the tree line coming to get us," pilot in command Dan Milberg said. Sitting next to Milberg, Capt. Tammy Duckworth was unconscious and bloodied after taking the brunt of the exploding rocket-propelled grenade.

The person who fired it could not be more than a half mile away, and the helicopter's injured crew was an easy target in the grassy field.

Milberg told Specialist Kurt Hannemann, the door gunner from central Illinois who was sitting behind him, to take his weapon and stand guard. Hannemann grabbed his M4, got out of the Black Hawk and ran to set the perimeter.

Milberg turned to Sgt. Christopher Fierce, behind Duckworth.

Black Hawk pilot Dan Milberg landed the helicopter he and Tammy Duckworth had been flying all day in Iraq 10 years ago despite the grenade explosion that damaged many of the flight controls.
Black Hawk pilot Dan Milberg landed the helicopter he and Tammy Duckworth had been flying all day in Iraq 10 years ago despite the grenade explosion that damaged many of the flight controls. - Photo courtesy dan Milberg

"I told him that he had to get away from the aircraft," Milberg wrote in a report two days later.

But Fierce's right leg was ripped up and broken and he couldn't walk. "I helped him move a few feet from the aircraft where we fell to the ground," Milberg wrote.

It was Nov. 12, 2004, exactly 10 years ago. The Black Hawk had been on its last mission of the day, flying north out of Baghdad fast and low alongside its sister helicopter. A stop at the coalition forces' base at Taji took little time and the two crews were on their way home to Logistics Support Area Anaconda in Balad, the base 50 miles north of Baghdad where Duckworth had arrived eight months earlier.

As Milberg scrambled to help Duckworth and Fierce, Hannemann alone would have to confront their attackers if they showed themselves. But he was too close to the helicopter.

"I told him to take up a position away from the aircraft," Milberg said.

"Then he realized that I was injured, too," Hannemann said. "He saw the blood on the back of my flight suit. I could tell he was even more frustrated because he kind of threw his hands up."

But help was arriving. Pilot Pat Meunks landed the Black Hawk's sister helicopter nearby.

Its crew ran to help, but rough terrain and grass as tall as 6 feet hampered them. Milberg and Specialist Matt Backues, an auto body mechanic from Missouri, unbuckled Duckworth and lifted her out of the aircraft, "took a couple of steps and then fell," Milberg wrote. A colonel who'd just hopped aboard in Taji minutes earlier stepped in to help.

Later, "when we were going through debriefing, we asked him: 'Sir, how long have you been here?'" Backues said. "And he looked at his watch." The colonel had just arrived in combat that day.

Getting the Black Hawk crew to safety had taken just minutes, but it's a lasting memory for those involved.

Except Duckworth.

For her, it's one blessed blank moment in the pain and struggles that would last for months to come. She was unconscious but not dead, despite losing half her blood, both legs and, it seemed at the time, her right arm.

U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth speaks at an Addison Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
  U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth speaks at an Addison Chamber of Commerce luncheon. - George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

"I go to these events and people stand up and they applaud," said Duckworth, a Democrat from Hoffman Estates who was just elected to her second term in Congress. "And I'm like: Look, I just got shot down and I passed out from blood loss. And I would be dead if these guys had not been there to take care of me. Or I would be dead if they had made a different decision, which was to not recover the body. And they chose to spend extra time on the ground to get me out of there."

They never considered otherwise. Her evacuation in Meunks' helicopter was the beginning of a long path of survival.

A medical helicopter in Taji whisked Duckworth, Fierce and Hannemann to the 31st Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad's Green Zone, near where the helicopter crew had enjoyed a lunch break of made-to-order milkshakes and stir fry just a short time before.

As it turned out, it was Duckworth's last meal in Iraq.

Surgeons in Baghdad amputated the remains of her right leg just below the hip and her left leg below the knee. They stabilized her right arm as much as they could and sent her to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. From there she was dispatched to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where specialists and her husband, Major Bryan Bowlsbey, were waiting.

She arrived late on Nov. 14, no more than 60 hours after the grenade hit her.

She stayed for 13 months.

At first she was virtually helpless, with one usable limb. She felt so much pain she counted slowly to 60 over and over again, marking off each minute she had to endure for days.

Tammy Duckworth went through 13 months of recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
  Tammy Duckworth went through 13 months of recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

She recited the Soldier's Creed to herself for comfort and strength.

"I am an American soldier," it says in part. "I am a warrior and a member of a team. I serve the people of the United States, and live the Army values. I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit."

She got a Purple Heart.

Her move into politics came gradually. Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield invited her to join him at President George W. Bush's State of the Union address on Feb. 2, 2005, less than 12 weeks after she was injured in Iraq.

A few weeks later, she testified before Congress about military health care benefits. Her notoriety was growing, but by summer 2005 her dream of returning to life as a military pilot was at an end.

"I found out that I wasn't going to be allowed to fly for the Army any more," she said.

"If we were in another incident and Dan got hurt, I wasn't going to be able to drag Dan out and carry him to safety,"

When Durbin called, asking if she would run for Congress, "I guess I was ready."

Saying yes, she placed herself in a different line of fire.

The 2006 campaign against Republican Peter Roskam of Wheaton was brutal and negative and ended with a Roskam victory. Duckworth's second run, in 2012 against Republican Joe Walsh of McHenry, was also vitriolic. This time she won.

Life as a freshman lawmaker tends to be far less dramatic than life as a Black Hawk pilot. A recent afternoon found her greeting west suburban mayors at a buffet at Jimmy's Charhouse in Elgin.

She used a wheelchair and wore just one prosthetic leg, the left one with a gray cuff peeking out from her skirt, a shiny metal shank, a tan foot and a small, stylish shoe. Putting on her right leg allows her to walk, but wearing the prosthesis printed with a swirl of red, white and blue on the calf can cause days of shooting phantom pains in a knee that she no longer has.

When it was Duckworth's turn to speak, she wheeled alongside the podium and used her arms to push herself out. She held onto the podium with both hands and hopped into position. The topics of the day -- the status of some federal legislation and big road projects like the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway -- would not make for a long speech, and she gave the talk balancing on one prosthetic leg.

Duckworth constantly feels tingling as if her feet were asleep and a few shakes might wake them back up. "I can feel my feet right now," she said that day. "The balls of my feet burn continuously. It's all the time."

During a House hearing in 2013, Duckworth tore into a business owner accused of claiming service-disabled veteran status based on a 1984 ankle injury from when he played football at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School.

"Your left foot? It hurts, yeah?" she asked the man. "My feet hurt, too. In fact, the balls of my feet burn continuously, and I feel like there's a nail being hammered into my right heel right now. So I can understand pain and suffering and how service connection can actually cause long-term, unremitting, unyielding, unstoppable pain. So I'm sorry that twisting your ankle in high school has come back to hurt you in such a painful way, if also opportune for you to gain the status for your business as you're trying to compete for contracts."

Duckworth's record on behalf of veterans has brought her praise and criticism. After she lost to Roskam in 2006, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich named her to lead the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed her to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs, which she left in 2011.

When a scandal broke earlier this year about long delays in getting doctors appointments at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics, Duckworth's Republican opponent in the Nov. 4 election, veteran Larry Kaifesh of Carpentersville, laid part of the blame on Duckworth.

Duckworth criticized the VA's bureaucracy while defending her role and, initially, the role of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Eventually, she called on her former boss to resign. That same day, he did.

The passage of a decade has given Duckworth new perspective.

"I'm not going to let some guy who got lucky with a (grenade) decide how I live my life," she told the Daily Herald while she was still at Walter Reed in 2005.

"I mean, it did," she said recently. "I'm in politics."

She wishes she'd had a chance to fight back that day 10 years ago in Iraq.

"If I'd gotten the better of that guy, I would have found out where that guy was and shot back," Duckworth said.

Matt Backues, of Streamwood, a chief inspector at Priester Aviation, stands next to a Learjet at Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling. Backues helped carry Tammy Duckworth to safety after her helicopter was hit by fire and landed.
  Matt Backues, of Streamwood, a chief inspector at Priester Aviation, stands next to a Learjet at Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling. Backues helped carry Tammy Duckworth to safety after her helicopter was hit by fire and landed. - George LeClaire | Staff Photographerhttp://daedit.sx.atl.publicus.com/apps/templates/pbcsEdit/menu/popupDummy.html?GreyCss=1

She and her crew never saw who fired the grenade.

Matt Backues' helicopter circled the area as he stood at his gun, scanning the trees around the stricken Black Hawk. There was no one to shoot at.

Even today, Duckworth's inspiration comes from other soldiers, especially those she knows best.

"Kurt, even though he was shot and scared and bleeding and going into shock, still walked toward the enemy and tried to do his job."

Milberg established order out of chaos during an ordeal that can't easily be erased from his thoughts.

"He said: 'Tammy, getting you out of there was like the opening scene of 'Saving Private Ryan,'" Duckworth said. "He said, 'You were just bloody and covered in tissue. And we dropped you. And we dragged you. And we picked you up. And we stumbled. And we dropped you. And we fell. And, you know, it was just a nightmare to get you out of there."

As they worked, Backues looked up and saw two other Black Hawk helicopters fly over. The crew chief on one of them would later become his wife.

After landing at Taji airfield, and after Duckworth, Hannemann and Fierce were rushed away, the others were left to contemplate.

"We taxied back to a parking area and shut down," Backues said. "And that's when it kind of hit me. And I was just like, trying to process everything. Because it happened so quick and so many things happened in that short amount of time that it just took a little bit to think through."

Backues called Duckworth this summer, eager to surprise her with some news.

His wife Judy was pregnant.

Duckworth responded excitedly with a secret. She was pregnant, too. She and Bowlsbey are expecting a daughter in December, they announced publicly in September.

While Duckworth says she's not the hero of her story in Iraq, members of the crew say what she's done since makes the aftermath easier for them.

"The fact that she has been successful and done so well and is about to have a baby," Milberg says, "she's made my life so easy."

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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