A soldier's story of undying valor
Editor's note: This story appeared Nov. 27, 2005 in the Daily Herald.
WASHINGTON -- On the morning of Nov. 12, Army Maj. Ladda "Tammy"Duckworth lies half-awake in her bed. An IV pumps antibiotics into her right arm.
Before the treatment is finished, a ringing telephone ends any chance of falling back to sleep. Fellow Black Hawk pilot Dan Milberg is on the line, his first words a reminder of the life-altering moment they shared 12 months earlier.
"It's almost 4:30 in Iraq," Milberg says, skipping the normal pleasantries. "In five minutes you're going to be shot down."
Duckworth, a 37-year-old member of the Illinois National Guard, looks at the clock and realizes it's true. At this moment exactly one year ago, a rocket-propelled grenade ripped through their helicopter and forever changed their lives.
The insurgent attack took both of the Hoffman Estates woman's legs and shattered her right arm. She lost nearly half her blood, but miraculously survived. Milberg was among those who saved her and who sustain her still. There are many others, and on this, the anniversary of her trauma, she thinks of them.
In the year since the ambush, Duckworth has been rebuilding both her life and her war-scarred body at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She has endured dozens of surgeries, including a recent operation on her right arm to spare her from losing a third limb.
She has been trained to walk on prosthetic legs and has relearned mundane tasks such as showering, baking and getting out of bed. The hospital staff has encouraged her, and she has dared to dream, about the future.
Duckworth intends to fly again; to continue her military service. She may even run for Congress. It has never been the military officer's style to wallow in self-pity or admit defeat -- and it will not be her attitude on this day, the most special of the past 365.
She later pulls on a pink T-shirt that reads "Life is Good" and heads toward a banquet room on the Walter Reed campus.
She has chosen to mark the anniversary of the ambush with an "Alive Day" celebration. Such parties, which have the lighthearted feel of a birthday bash, have become popular among the hospital's seriously injured soldiers.
Instead of bemoaning what they've lost, the wounded warriors dedicate the day to remembering all that they still have.
Duckworth, however, insisted she not be the guest of honor at her own party. Instead, she planned the celebration as a tribute to everyone who played a role in her recovery -- from the soldiers who saved her life in Iraq to the friends who renovated her Hoffman Estates home.
"This date is always going to mean something to me," she says."It's like a second birthday, but it's not a celebration of me. It's a celebration of all the people who have helped me throughout the past year."
Training takes over
Tammy Duckworth's yearlong odyssey began on an otherwise typical day in Iraq.
She had been flying since 8 a.m., stopping only for lunch and to buy pewter Christmas ornaments. It had been a series of uneventful missions until late afternoon when a rocket-propelled grenade ripped through the Black Hawk's Plexiglas floor and exploded in a fireball between her legs.
With her right leg blown off and her right arm and left leg hanging by their skin, Duckworth let her military training take over. She looked at the instrument panel, only to find it disabled by the blast.
She tried to talk with the three other crew members, but the electrical system had been destroyed and radio communications cut.
Are they hurt?, she wondered. Or worse, dead?
Unsure whether anyone else in the Black Hawk was alive, she knew she had to try to land the aircraft. She urged her phantom legs to push the pedals but the helicopter did not respond.
Smoke filled the cockpit as the helicopter made a rapid descent. It shook violently, as if it were going to break into a million pieces.
Running out of options, Duckworth tried to auto rotate the aircraft, a move similar to putting a manual car into neutral. She still doesn't know if it helped.
She kept trying, letting her instincts decide which action to take next. She didn't know that in the seat next her, Milberg, uninjured and the pilot in command, had taken control of the aircraft.
He brought the Black Hawk down in a field less than a half mile from the attack site. Duckworth saw grass poking through the helicopter floor.
What a bright shade of green, she remembers thinking.
She reached up to turn off the helicopter blades and promptly lost consciousness.
"It was just that last bit of stress that caused me to blackout," she says. "Until then, I was just on autopilot. My body took over and did the job it was trained to do."
When Milberg reached Duckworth, she was unconscious and covered in blood. Shrapnel was lodged in the bridge of her nose and embedded in her body armor.
He ordered his injured gunner to secure the perimeter and worked to free Duckworth from the wreckage. In doing so, he began what would become a chain of lifesaving events that day.
A second Black Hawk crew witnessed the attack and immediately issued calls for a medevac unit. It landed only feet away from Duckworth's crippled helicopter, and three soldiers jumped out to help.
The trio, along with Milberg, carried her hemorrhaging body to the second aircraft. They heaved her onto the floor, next to her injured crew chief.
The Black Hawk took off for a nearby military base, where medical personnel strapped the injured onto gurneys and loaded them into another helicopter.
Within 20 minutes of the attack, Duckworth arrived at the Combat Surgical Hospital in Baghdad. The rapid transport, given the amount of blood she lost, probably saved her life, doctors say.
The soldiers involved in her rescue would become the first in along line of Duckworth's keepers, people whose selfless devotion to helping her created a debt the Army officer believes she never can repay.
"They're the real heroes," she says now when people talk of her own courage.
Duckworth briefly regained consciousness in the emergency room. She insisted she wasn't in any pain and begged doctors to help her crew first.
Her injured crew chief and gunner, however, were making the same requests. The medical staff sedated all three so the doctors could do their jobs.
Soldiers had slowed her hemorrhaging in the field, but Duckworth still had lost a dangerous amount of blood. Women of her size and weight normally have about 5 liters of blood in their bodies; Duckworth lost nearly 2.5 liters after the ambush.
As doctors fought to save her, the hospital ran out of her blood type. The medical staff approached six visiting officers and asked if they were O-positive. Four of the six were matches and they rolled up their sleeves to donate.
If Duckworth had experienced these injuries in Korea or Vietnam or even the first Gulf War, doctors believe she would have been killed. In those conflicts, nearly one in four wounded soldiers later died of their injuries. Today, the fatality rate for battlefield injuries is half that.
The change reflects, among other things, better body armor, the decision to place surgeons in field hospitals closer to combat and an evacuation plan that gets wounded soldiers to surgical care within an hour.
Whatever the reason, Duckworth feels blessed.
"It's a miracle that I survived," Duckworth says. "There's definitely a reason why I'm still alive. I'm not going to let some guy who got lucky with a (grenade) decide how I live my life."
Back in the United States, Duckworth's husband, Army Capt. Bryan Bowlsbey, had flown to Maryland to serve as best man in his brother's wedding. He had just returned from the rehearsal dinner when he learned of his wife's injuries.
She would be sent to Germany first, then arrive at Walter Reed within the next 48 hours. Bowlsbey told his parents about the ambush, but otherwise kept it a secret from the rest of his family until after the reception.
The wedding, he says, provided a welcome diversion until Duckworth returned stateside. Bowlsbey knew if she was being sent to Walter Reed -- the military's premier amputee treatment facility -- she would survive.
Beyond that, Bowlsbey had no clue what their future held.
"I knew she would live," he says. "But I was very concerned about the quality of life. I couldn't imagine what it would be like."
Duckworth arrived at Walter Reed under heavy sedation and did not regain consciousness for nearly a week.
During that time, the hospital staff turned to Bowlsbey to show him how full his wife's future could be. They took him to the physical and occupational therapy rooms, where amputees were learning to walk on prosthetics and resume independent lives.
Bowlsbey, who met Duckworth in college when they were ROTC cadets, had always admired his wife's determination and strength of spirit. The more he learned about the hospital's amputee services, the more reassured he became.
"They sold the program to me," Bowlsbey says, "so I would be ready to sell it to her when she woke up."
It would take several days before that could happen. Bowlsbey sat at his wife's bedside for nearly a week, whispering the same words over and over.
You were injured
You're at Walter Reed.
When Duckworth finally awoke, she understood where she was and that she had been wounded. She looked at her husband.
"I love you," she said. "Put me to work."
At first, Duckworth didn't realize she had lost her legs because she still had phantom pains in both limbs. Bowlsbey and the doctors explained her injuries but promised she could lead a full life.
"It's probably the most difficult thing I've ever done," Bowlsbey says. "(But) she received the news with poise and stoicism."
Duckworth asked her husband to post the Soldier's Creed next to her bed and outside her door.
"I am a warrior and a member of a team," it reads in part. "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."
The words would serve as an inspiration during the darkest moments of her rehabilitation. At first, the pain was so agonizing Duckworth felt as if her body were on fire. Her wounds were so tender that she winced if someone even slightly touched her bed sheet.
"It was excruciating, searing pain," she says. "It was worse than anything I could have ever imagined."
She couldn't sleep. She couldn't move. She could only count.
One dead Iraqi.
Two dead Iraqis.
Three dead Iraqis.
"I admit, there was anger there," she says now. "I wanted vengeance."
Duckworth, a 14-year Army reservist, soon felt guilty about her counting game. She had liked many of the Iraqis she met during her deployment and felt it was disrespectful to them.
She tweaked her approach.
One dead Iraqi insurgent.
Two dead Iraqi insurgents.
Three dead Iraqi insurgents.
That soon grew cumbersome, so she changed it again.
"Every time I got to 60, I knew another minute had passed," she says. "That's how I lived those first few days. Minute by minute."
With the pain, however, came an immense amount of guilt. The medical staff initially told her she had been injured in a helicopter crash.
The news sent the pilot reeling. If the Black Hawk had crashed, she would be responsible as the pilot.
"I thought I didn't do my job and the crew had been injured because of it," she says. "I thought I deserved what had happened to me."
It wasn't until she spoke with her crew chief several weeks later that she learned what occurred during the ambush. He told her how she kept trying to land the aircraft, even though she no longer had the controls to do so. He assured her that another pilot on board indeed landed the Black Hawk safely.
"I felt so relieved after I spoke with him," she says. "It was a relief to know I had done my job. I did what I was trained to do."
Duckworth also drew strength from older veterans who came -- and still come -- to visit her during her first weeks in the hospital. They showed her their prosthetic limbs and shared pictures of their children and grandchildren. They talked of successful careers and loving families. They showed Duckworth and Bowlsbey that a happy future was within their grasp.
"They have been so inspirational," Bowlsbey says. "They've led wonderful lives."
More names, it would seem, for Duckworth's growing list of guardian angels.
The truth -- about the past and the future -- gave Duckworth a much-needed sense of peace as she set about her rehabilitation. She remained in the hospital for nearly four months, learning how to readjust to normal life.
She was released in February, only to be readmitted eight months later when an infection threatened to take her right arm. She underwent a successful operation to save the limb and will now take intravenous treatments every five hours for the next few weeks to kill any lingering bacteria.
Shortly before her Alive Day party, she returned to the Fisher House, a home on the Walter Reed campus that serves as living quarters for patients and their families. Bowlsbey, who had to end his contract as a ROTC instructor so he could move to D.C. to be with his wife during her recuperation, had been living at the residence since she returned stateside.
Duckworth hated her second hospitalization and the time it stole from her. She longed to be back in therapy, working toward her future.
Early in the rehabilitation process, Duckworth's therapists asked her to make a list of her goals. Her top objectives were a mixture of the daring and the practical.
First, she wanted to regain enough mobility in her right arm so she could pull her hair into a ponytail without help. Bowlsbey's well-meaning attempts to do his wife's hair ranged from comical to borderline pathetic.
Next, she wanted to fly again. With the National Guard.
Duckworth, whose father served in World War II and Vietnam, never dreamed of a military career as a child. She didn't even consider the Army until she went to college.
There, she found herself drawn to people with military backgrounds because she believed they had value systems similar to hers. Friends suggested she try ROTC.
A lifelong overachiever and varsity athlete, she instantly took to the program. She liked the discipline, the challenge and the principles behind it.
She later joined the Army Reserve and opted to become a helicopter pilot because it was one of the few combat jobs available to women. The decision began a longtime love affair with flying.
Duckworth liked the feeling of skimming over treetops and the exhilaration of controlling a 20,000-pound aircraft. Most Black Hawk crews are expected to touch down within 3 minutes of their projected landing time; Duckworth's company averaged 30 seconds.
Her dedication and skill paid off as she rose through the ranks of the Illinois National Guard. At 32, she was made commander of an assault helicopter company based out of Midway Airport.
"She was a great leader and a hard worker," says Army Capt. Dennis Huffman, a Sugar Grove resident who served under Duckworth. "She expected the best from us because she expected the best from herself."
Duckworth took that same attitude into her rehabilitation. She went about working on her goals, though some around her doubted whether she would ever walk again.
Her left leg had been amputated below the knee, which made it easy to fit with a prosthetic. Her right femur, however, hung only 3 inches below her hip.
Experts worried whether they could design an artificial leg for such a small piece of bone. Duckworth, however, was insistent, and her determination inspired prosthetist Dennis Clark. He made a deal with Duckworth: If she would allow him a few failures, he would make her a state-of-the-art leg.
"I couldn't say 'no' to her," Clark says. "When a soldier is that determined, you don't want to let them down."
By February, she could stand and shuffle forward while clutching two parallel bars. Today with the help of a cane, she walks around the shopping mall and visits crowded D.C. tourist attractions.
"When I can do Woodfield at Christmastime," Duckworth says, "I'll know I'm 100 percent."
Duckworth works on her walking -- along with her balance and core strength -- each day at Walter Reed. On a recent weekday morning, a dozen amputees in the physical therapy room laughed and joked as they went about serious work.
They bragged about how fast their gaits have become and how much they could leg press. In between towel snaps and good-natured barbs, they encouraged each other to push the envelope.
"It could be a depressing place, but it's not," Bowlsbey says."They're all soldiers and they all support each other in there."
Though she hasn't flown yet, Duckworth has returned to the cockpit. A Walter Reed prosthetist and a therapist traveled with her to a military training base in Pennsylvania to better understand her goals.
The prosthetist observed her in a flight simulator to see how her legs needed to be adjusted to fit under the control panel. The therapist, meanwhile, noted where Duckworth needed to build her strength so she could fly again.
The trip was just one more step in her quest to continue her reserve career. In order to stay, however, she must convince a review board that she can meet the Army's physical demands.
"A lot of people in her situation might have given up," Walter Reed spokesman Don Vandrey says, adding he wouldn't be surprised to see Duckworth achieve her goal.
As Duckworth worked toward her future, her National Guard buddies back in Illinois worked to make the transition as easy as possible. Her old unit -- which she was rotated out of shortly before her deployment -- rehabbed her Hoffman Estates home and made it completely handicapped accessible.
In addition to making the 1970s tract home livable for a 21st-century warrior, they built a new deck and redecorated. They finished the extreme home makeover in June, just in time for Duckworth's first trip back to Chicago since being injured.
They, too, make Duckworth's ever-expanding keepers list.
"They did an incredible job," she says. "I can now make a grilled cheese sandwich in my kitchen without needing someone to help me. I can take a bath whenever I want. I can't describe what that sense of independence means to me."
Duckworth hopes to return to Chicago permanently next month. She intends to resume her job at Rotary International, where she manages administrative services for the entire Asia Pacific region.
Her plans could change if, as many expect her to do, she decides to run for Congress. In recent months, Democrats have approached Duckworth about running for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, a Wood Dale Republican.
Though she has requested she be returned to reserve status, Duckworth remains on active duty and is not permitted to discuss politics publicly.
If she reverts to inactive status, she would be allowed to serve in political office. Only five members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk of Highland Park, currently serve in the reserves.
"One of the things that makes our country special is that soldiers don't have a partisan role in our government," she says.
Her reticence notwithstanding, Duckworth's resume seems primed for public service. She grew up in Southeast Asia, where her father worked for the United Nations and oil companies. She has a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's in international affairs, in addition to having extensive experience with public health programs in the United States and abroad.
Before she left for Iraq, she was working toward a doctorate. Her research focused on the political economies of Southeast Asia and the public health systems in the region.
Whether she ultimately seeks office isn't important. Whether she could win is even less so. The true accomplishment, not just for Duckworth but for medical science and the scores of people around her, is that she can consider such an ambitious endeavor just a year after being shot down.
She knows that, too. She proved as much on Nov. 12.
On the anniversary of the life-changing ambush, Duckworth puts on her "Life is Good" T-shirt and heads to the party.
She has invited every keeper on her list: The soldiers in the helicopter with her when the grenade hit, the quick-thinking crew who saw the attack and began lifesaving procedures. Doctors, nurses, therapists, prosthetists and counselors.
Soldiers in her old unit. Neighbors who watched her house while she was in the hospital. Co-workers who sent well-wishes and cards.
The older veterans who prove a bright future is possible and the new ones who inspire her in the physical therapy room. Family, friends and dozens of others who crossed her path in the past 12 months.
Many attend, in some cases traveling hundreds of miles to be there. Others send regrets with cards and flowers.
All played a role in Duckworth's recovery, though most never will know how much their participation meant.
"When you have all these people behind you, you don't want to let them down," Duckworth says. "That's where my strength comes from. If I gave up, it would be disrespectful to them."