Duckworth: 'I think every Memorial Day about the guys from Illinois that never made it home'
U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth spends Memorial Day honoring her friends in the military who have fallen and the soldiers who kept her from numbering among the dead.
"Memorial Day is a day to honor our heroic dead," said Duckworth, a Hoffman Estates Democrat. "People often confuse Veterans Day with Memorial Day. Veterans Day is when we thank our veterans for their service, and Memorial Day is specifically to honor the fallen."
Duckworth retired from military service in 2014 with the rank of lieutenant colonel after serving 23 years. She flew Black Hawk helicopter combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom and was awarded the Purple Heart.
She was deployed to Iraq in 2004, and it was on Nov. 12 of that year when a rocket-propelled grenade took down her helicopter. She lost both legs and has limited use of her right arm.
"I think every Memorial Day about the guys from the Illinois National Guard that I knew that never made it home from Iraq," Duckworth said.
Duckworth said the Chinook CH-47 helicopter shot down on Nov. 2, 2003, was part of the Illinois Army National Guard unit based in Peoria. Sixteen were killed and 20 wounded. Among the dead was Illinois Army National Guard Pilot 1st Lt. Brian D. Slavenas.
Friends and family in Genoa described Slavenas to The Associated Press as a "gentle giant," a nonviolent man who felt a duty to his country.
"He wasn't one of those gung-ho, want-to-go-to-war-type guys," his brother, Eric Slavenas, told the AP. "He was there to do a job."
Duckworth said people serve their country in the military for many reasons. She began Army Reserve Officer Training Corps at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
"I found myself in all of my classes becoming friends with either currently serving guardsmen and reservists or with veterans in my class on the G.I. Bill," Duckworth said. "I remember watching the Berlin Wall come down and I remember seeing all of those East Germans and Czechoslovakians fleeing the Soviet Union. People were grabbing whatever possessions they could carry and running into freedom. And I remember thinking how proud I was to be an American and it was my nation standing with the NATO allies that represented freedom and liberty."
"I fell in love with the meritocracy of the Army and decided that this was something I wanted to do as part of my life. I just wanted to do my part for this nation that I love more than my own life."
After receiving her master's degree in international affairs at George Washington University, Duckworth pursued a Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where she finished her ROTC training in May 1992 and received her commission as an officer in the Army Reserve. Her first choice was to be a helicopter pilot, because that was one of the few Army combat assignments offered to women at the time.
Duckworth grew up in various cities throughout Southeast Asia. Her father, Franklin Duckworth, worked for the United Nations Refugee Program after he retired from the military, where he had served during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Working for the U.N., Franklin Duckworth provided humanitarian aid to the Vietnamese boat people and refugees fleeing Laos and Cambodia, then worked for multinational corporations.
"Memorial Day was something we always observed at the U.S. Embassy to honor our heroic dead," Duckworth said. "My family history on my dad's side goes back to the Revolution, and Memorial Day was always significant in my family."
Duckworth led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Iraq in April. It was her first time back in Iraq since her helicopter was shot down in 2004.
"Memorial Day isn't about me," Duckworth said. "I survived the shoot-down. If I was killed, Memorial Day would be about me, but thanks to the heroism of both my crew of my aircraft and the second aircraft in our flight, I made it home."
"My pilot-in-command received a Distinguished Flying Cross," Duckworth said, referring to Dan Milberg of the Missouri National Guard. "And I want to be sure to always honor that."
"Because they saved me, Memorial Day isn't about me. And I get to honor them and get to honor our fallen dead and work as hard as I can for our veterans, work as hard as I can for family members of the fallen, and make sure we stand by every one of our military men and women."
• This story was produced as a project of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors. Charles Mills can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.