Byline: Eliza Krigman
When Chief Warrant Officer Dan Milberg carried Maj. Tammy Duckworth's maimed body out of the damaged Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq in 2004--her right arm almost severed--he thought his co-pilot was dead. A rocket-propelled grenade had hit the Army aircraft while it was flying over Baghdad.
Four and a half years later, Duckworth is a few months into her job as assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs at the Veterans Affairs Department. As a double amputee who lost the lower part of both legs and has only partial use of her right arm, Duckworth finds it a challenge keeping the rigorous schedule of a top-level official in the federal government.
But she thinks little of it: "Nothing I ever face today could be as difficult as what [Milberg] had to face that day saving me." Milberg dealt with a nightmarish situation getting her and other seriously wounded comrades out of the aircraft.
Since that dark day in Iraq, Duckworth's political ascent has been quick but not without obstacles. In 2006, she ran on the Democratic ticket for Illinois's 6th Congressional District. Longtime Rep. Henry Hyde, a Republican, had retired. Duckworth outpaced opponent Peter Roskam in fundraising by $1 million but lost a close race.
Duckworth remained politically active, and Rod Blagojevich, the now-infamous former governor of Illinois, appointed her to head the state Department of Veterans' Affairs. "She did an outstanding job here in Illinois," said James Balcer, council member for Chicago's 11th Ward, who was the city's director of veterans affairs.
But serving at the federal level brings bigger challenges about which the new assistant secretary is excited and a little nervous. "My last job was essentially the training wheels for this one," said Duckworth, who hopes to be an effective communicator about the benefits and services that veterans earn.
Among the biggest tasks ahead of her is helping to restore confidence in the department. Duckworth is determined not to see the post-Vietnam era repeated, when, she said, many veterans walked away from the VA because of poor treatment or lack of information.
Two of Duckworth's main roles are advising Secretary Eric Shinseki on the media and public affairs and managing departmental communications. She is also charged with handling Native American issues and foreign governments, as well as overseeing consumer affairs, six national rehabilitative special-event initiatives, and an initiative for homeless veterans.<p>Helping guide her path to federal office has been Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., her political mentor, whom Duckworth characterizes as "unassuming and as down to earth as the cornfields of Illinois." The assistant majority leader first met her in his office on the night of the State of the Union address in 2005, when Duckworth was among a group of veterans he invited as his guests.
Despite the grave injuries she suffered, Duckworth is proud of her decision to go to Iraq. Physical disabilities have not held her back: The Purple Heart recipient told National Journal that she recently "soloed"--flew a helicopter on her own--having passed the FAA Statement of Demonstrated Ability for civilian aircraft. What's more, she is still an active member of the military. Duckworth serves one weekend a month and two weeks a year in the National Guard under the Continuation on Active Reserve program, which accepts soldiers regardless of their injuries. She is married to a fellow member of the National Guard, Maj. Bryan Bowlsbey, who returned from a yearlong tour in Iraq last summer.
Before the shoot-down, Duckworth was an avid swimmer and scuba diver. Doctors believe her athleticism helped her survive the attack. She's now getting her scuba recertification. Always quick to point out how much the physically disabled can still do, Duckworth extolled a fellow soldier in the COAR program. "One guy lost his leg all the way up to his hip and he is a marksman; he's shooting at the international level!"