By Ron Jensen
Published July 14, 2022 in The Burg
While marking my ballot for Sen. Tammy Duckworth in the recent primary election, I knew I was voting for a person whom I also respect.
We often and rightly tar politicians as people with little character, undeserving of our vote but often the only choice.
Not so with Duckworth, who was the unopposed Democratic candidate last month for the seat she now holds. You might know little about her except that she walks on two prosthetic legs. But she is more than a wounded veteran.
In 2009, while writing for National Guard magazine, I met with Duckworth in her office with a White House view at the Veterans Administration where she was assistant VA secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs for the Obama Administration.
We talked about her hopes for the massive federal agency during the new president’s tenure, but we also discussed the nearly fatal attack she experienced five years earlier.
Our senator was part of an Illinois Army National Guard crew guiding a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter across Iraq Nov. 12, 2004, when a rocket-propelled grenade fired by insurgents ripped through the cockpit along with small arms fire.
“I remember the aircraft filled with (smoke),” she told me. “I remember none of my crew members responding to radio calls. I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this aircraft on the ground’ thinking I was the only pilot who was able-bodied.”
But she wasn’t able bodied. The RPG had torn off the bottom portions of her legs. In extreme shock, she believed she had to land the damaged aircraft, which, at the time, she thought she did.
In fact, Chief Warrant Officer Dan Milberg, who was the pilot when the RPG hit and the only one of the four Guardsmen aboard uninjured, landed the crippled Black Hawk.
Recovering from the loss of her legs and a badly damaged right arm took months of therapy. That experience, she told me, would benefit her work on behalf of veterans at the VA.
“I’m going to know about it because I’m a veteran the VA is going to be serving the rest of my life,” she said.
Duckworth was surprised when I told her I was in Iraq when she was wounded, working as a reporter for Stars & Stripes out of Balad Air Base, where Duckworth’s flight had originated.
She also surprised me by saying she didn’t have to be in combat that day in 2004. Or any day.
While studying years earlier at George Washington University in the nation’s capital with plans to enter the Foreign Service, she joined ROTC to learn about the military, which is a good idea for future diplomats. She was told that female cadets, unlike males, did not have to request service in combat arms.
“And I remember thinking, ‘That’s just not fair. That’s not fair to the guys in here,’” she said. If she was to receive equal pay, she said, she should accept equal risk.
So, she requested aviation, which accepted women in combat roles, and became a helicopter pilot. It was principle, then, that put her in the crosshairs of an insurgent.
Like I said, we often have to vote for a politician we wouldn’t want as a neighbor. With Duckworth, we have a senator worthy of our admiration no matter how we vote.
(The author was raised near Gerlaw and went to school in Alexis. He has worked for The Review Atlas, The Register-Mail and other publications, including Stars & Stripes in Europe and National Guard magazine in Washington, D.C.)