Maj. Tammy Duckworth, Illinois Army National Guard, was piloting a Black Hawk helicopter over Iraq when it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in November 2004. Duckworth lost her right leg and most of her left as a result of the attack. Now, she's running as a Democrat for a congressional seat representing Chicago's western suburbs, replacing Republican Henry Hyde, who is retiring after 32 years.
Duckworth spent nearly 11 months during her rehabilitation at the Fisher House at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, one of 35 facilities started by Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher, the founders of the Intrepid Fund, which provides accommodations for family members of soldiers undergoing treatment. NEWSWEEK's Jessica Bennett spoke with Duckworth about the challenges and issues surrounding her return from service. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What kind of rehabilitation did you receive when you returned from Iraq?
Tammy Duckworth: I lived at Fisher House, at Walter Reed, from the end of February 2005, until December. It was a huge difference in the quality of my life and the quality of my family's life on so many levels. It does that for all of the soldiers. One of the benefits of having a Fisher House on the campus of any of the Army medical centers is that they're able to discharge you as an inpatient but you're near enough that doctors feel OK about letting you go. It keeps you from having to stay in a hospital bed that whole time. If it wasn't for Fisher House, I would have spent the last 13 months in a hospital bed and I would not have progressed as well as I did.
Do you agree with veterans groups who say that rehabilitation facilities like the Intrepid Center should be funded by the government, not through private donations?
I think the Iraq war has created a need for these centers that was not there before. Because of the nature of the combat injuries coming out of Iraq, wounded soldiers are needing long-term care of more than just a month or two. And there was nothing set up for them. We weren't ready for it. But the Army is a huge institution, and they have a yearly budget and, I mean, there's a whole process. They can't react as quickly as something like the Intrepid Foundation. The Veterans Administration just can't support all the veterans they need to now.
Because of lack of funding?
The VA's budget is not a mandatory one, and I personally think it needs to be. The budget can be cut, which means that there are veterans who, after having served this country, have to go without some of the basic care they were promised they would get... There are veterans from the first gulf war that have to wait eight, nine months to get into the VA system. In the meantime, a lot of them go without health insurance. Those who afford it have it, but those who don't just have to wait in line. That's one of the reasons I want to get into Congress. I'm going to be a strong voice for veterans and veteran's rights.
What brought about your political plans?
I've always been about public service, I testified before the Senate and House Committees on VA affairs, and that got me thinking about that this is something I'd like to do to represent my peers, my family, my friends.
What were some of the biggest challenges for you in learning how to live without your legs?
It's the very little things, just daily living. For me, it was changing my sheets on my bed. How do you do that if you have no legs? Having a safe environment to be able to practice those things and to get help if I needed to was a tremendous stepping-stone toward being able to live my life in the real world.