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Proud to Serve

Tammy Duckworth, MA ’92, never shies away from a challenge. Equally at home piloting Blackhawk helicopters or conducting doctoral research, the decorated war hero attracted national attention this year for her latest battle—a bid to represent Illinois’ 6th District. Duckworth says it’s all part of her passion to serve.

The journey to the campaign trail began at GW, where she focused on international affairs. “GW was a natural choice for me,” says Duckworth, who grew up in Southeast Asia and speaks fluent Thai and Indonesian. “My goal at the time was to enter the Foreign Service, and I was impressed that several former ambassadors to Southeast Asian countries were faculty members there. I entered GW knowing that I wanted to serve my country, and it was great to be surrounded by so many people with the same ideals.”

After graduating, Duckworth moved to Illinois to pursue a doctorate in political science at Northern Illinois University. “Just as I was beginning my dissertation, I was deployed to Iraq,” says Duckworth, who joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in 1990 while at GW. She signed on to serve as an Army pilot, because it was “the only combat position open to women” at the time. “I felt it was inherently unfair that only my male counterparts had to face the dangers of combat,” she says.

She loved flying from the start. “I love the challenge, complexity, and teamwork of it,” she says. On Nov. 12, 2004, while co-piloting a Blackhawk helicopter north of Baghdad, disaster struck. “I heard a metallic ‘tap, tap, tap’ on the side of the helicopter, and knew we’d been hit by small-arms fire,” she says. “Just as I said ‘we’ve been hit,’ a big fireball exploded in front of my face.” A rocket-propelled grenade had struck the cockpit of her aircraft. Not realizing that she’d been severely injured and that the other pilot was at the controls, she attempted to land the helicopter, focused solely on the safety of her crew. “Once we landed, I passed out and woke up 11 days later at Walter Reed Memorial Hospital in Maryland.” Upon awakening, Duckworth learned that she’d lost both of her legs and that her right arm had been shattered.

Duckworth hasn’t wasted a moment feeling sorry for herself. “I’m just deeply grateful to be alive,” she explains. “When I went away to war, I was prepared to die in combat. I’ve been given a second chance at life, and want to show my gratitude by doing something more with my life.”

Eager to continue serving her country, she left Walter Reed after a rigorous, 13-month rehabilitation process and signed on to run for Congress as a Democratic candidate, hoping to put her first-hand experience into use on Capitol Hill. “I can walk on prostheses because I received such wonderful health care, but I realize that health care in this country has a long way to go,” she says. “It’s great that members of the military receive the very best care when they’re injured, but I believe that all Americans are entitled to equally good health care.”

Since winning the March 21 primary, Duckworth’s life has been a whirlwind. “I’m in a tough, but good race here in Illinois,” she says. “I’m out there every day talking to voters about health care, the need for greater fiscal responsibility in Washington, and lessons learned in Iraq.” She says that she’ll be “the strongest voice in Washington” for the military and veterans. “The next time we vote to go to war, I want to be there to make sure we understand the real costs and have a plan,” says Duckworth, who believes the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. Other key issues in her platform include balancing the budget, reducing dependence on foreign oil, and education. “I’m running to help make this country that I love more than anything as strong as it can be.

Duckworth, who received an Air Medal, an Army Commendation Medal, and a Purple Heart for her valor in Iraq, continues to serve as a major with the Illinois Army National Guard. But she’d love nothing more than to emerge victorious in November so she can continue to fight for the interests of the people of Illinois in Washington.

“As Army officers, we were taught that leadership demands confronting hard choices responsibly, knowing that lives depend on the decisions we make,” she says. “I think our elected officials bear that same responsibility when they face hard choices about our health care, about jobs and education, about the budget deficit and taxes—and, yes, about when and where to commit our troops.

“The most patriotic thing that anyone can do is not necessarily putting on a uniform,” she concludes. “It is to stand up and let your opinions be heard.”

—Jamie L. Freedman