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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hawaii school honoring Iraq war vet grad

Photo galleryPhoto gallery: Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Three years after losing her legs, Duckworth is still standing tall. She's back in Hawai'i to help with a fundraiser at McKinley. See more photos.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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What: Tribute dinner for Ladda "Tammy" Duckworth

When: 5:30 p.m. today

Where: Hilton Hawaiian Village, Coral Ballroom

Cost: $150 for individual seats, $2,000 to $5,000 for tables. Any donation more than $50 is tax-deductible.

Information: 358-2794

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Tammy Duckworth was a helicopter pilot during the Iraq war, and a member of the Illinois Army National Guard.

Associated Press library photo

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There's really nothing Maj. Ladda "Tammy" Duckworth can't do, even without legs.

The 1985 McKinley High graduate still travels, runs the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs and serves in the Illinois Army National Guard.

She's waiting for prosthetic legs that will allow her to swim and scuba dive again. And recently, she was given clearance to pilot a single-engine Piper.

Duckworth lost her legs in November 2004 when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting in Iraq.

The RPG shredded her right leg and crushed the other.

She spent 13 months at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center recovering and learning to use her new high-tech legs.

"Everything I used to do, I can do now. It's just harder, takes more endurance and it's more painful," she said yesterday on her cell phone while driving to the Hale Koa Hotel in Waikiki.

"There's really nothing I can't do. I mean, some of the stuff like running and maybe flying a Black Hawk I can't do. Sometimes you have to be realistic about what's achievable. But I'm not going to let some insurgent in Iraq who got lucky decide how I'm going to live my life."

That's the message Duckworth, 39, will give to McKinley High students today and at a tribute dinner tonight organized by the McKinley High School Foundation.

Not only did she rebound from her injuries, she started to speak out for wounded servicemen, for veterans, for people who can't afford proper healthcare.

The more she talked about these issues, the more she realized her voice mattered.

"There weren't enough people in Washington who had served in uniform or who had a child serving in uniform," said Duckworth, whose father was in the Army. "I just felt like all these people are making decisions and they're not personally investing their own flesh and blood. I wanted to be there the next time they talked about war. I wanted to add my peer group to the voices that would have a say."

Four days after getting discharged from Walter Reed, Duckworth, who had no prior political ambition or experience, announced her candidacy for a congressional seat in Illinois. She lost to Republican state Sen. Peter Roskam by about 3,000 votes.

Though the loss was devastating, it led her in an equally fulfilling direction: heading the state veterans affairs office. In just seven months, she has started about $15 million in new programs for veterans in Illinois.

"A measure of an individual's leadership and courage under harsh circumstance is whether you choose to focus inward on yourself or outward to others. Duckworth has chosen to look outward, to use her capabilities and the subsequent accessibility she has to be an advocate for veterans at the state and national level," said Stewart Reeve, Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs chief of staff. "She knows that it's really not about her, it's about her ability to serve others."


Duckworth was born in Thailand and grew up all over Southeast Asia.

Her father, who was stationed on O'ahu more than 50 years ago, had always wanted to move back. So in 1984, he moved his family into a tiny apartment in a walk-up along the Ala Wai Canal. (Her father died in 2005 and her mother now lives in Pearl City.)

Duckworth, who's half Thai, spent her senior year at McKinley High, finally fitting into the multicultural landscape.

"Here in Hawai'i, we love our hapas," she said. "But in Thailand, I was called a half-breed. It wasn't a good thing. ... So I love this country, where you can say whatever you want and be whoever you are."

Though her parents couldn't afford a private school education they qualified for food stamps and she often saved her 25-cent lunch to eat at home later Duckworth never balked at her experience at McKinley.

She has long believed that what you put into your education is what you get out of it.

So when the school ask her to be keynote speaker at tonight's fundraiser, she didn't hesitate.

"I felt I had to give back."

The McKinley foundation hosts tribute dinners every two years for noted graduates to raise money for scholarships. Since 1990, the foundation has awarded about 365 scholarships totalling more than $665,000.

"Some of these kids would not go on to higher education if it weren't for these scholarships," said Carl Takamura, foundation president and a 1962 McKinley graduate. "We have an unbelievable group of alumni."

The foundation chose Duckworth, though she spent only a year at the school, because of her contribution to her community and country, Takamura said.

"We really wanted to honor her for all she's done," he said.


She hadn't always wanted to serve in uniform. While at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, she initially wanted to major in oceanography.

"But I really didn't have the brains for organic chemistry," she said, laughing.

Instead, she majored in political science and considered a career in the U.S. Foreign Service, drawn by the humanitarian work done in poor countries.

"I always wanted to become a U.S. ambassador one day. They were always opening up hospitals, bringing aid to refugees. I would think, 'What a great country America is, and what a great job ambassadors have.' "

She graduated from UH and went to George Washington University to study international affairs, then joined ROTC at nearby Georgetown University, where she met her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey.

"You know, it's really intangible why I joined. I looked around at the friends I had and all the people whose opinions meant a lot to me. These were people who were very patriotic. And at some point in their lives they served in the military."

So after graduating with her master's degree and enrolling in the Ph.D. program in political science at Northern Illinois University, Duckworth made a choice that changed her life.

She joined the U.S. Army National Guard. She was commissioned in 1992.

"From the very beginning, I knew that I was a lifer," she said.

Though she had no interest in aviation, Duckworth elected to be a helicopter pilot because, at the time, it was the only combat job open to women.

"It was an issue of fairness. If I wanted the same pay and rank, I had to take the same risk. So I picked aviation. And I gotta tell you, I love it. I love being part of the crew, controlling that aircraft I love everything about it."


She remembers everything that happened on Nov. 12, 2004, when the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was shot down over Baghdad.

She remembers the tap-tap-tap of gunfire hitting the metal exterior of the chopper. Then she heard a loud boom and a giant fireball exploded in her face.

"I thought I was the only one who was OK. I didn't know my legs were gone."

Somehow, she and her co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Dan Milberg, landed the helicopter safely. The last thing she remembers was trying to shut off the engines, just in case there was a fire, then she passed out.

A little more than a week later, she woke from a medically induced coma and asked for pain medication for her legs.

"They felt like they were on fire," she recalled.

That's when her husband and doctor broke the news.

"They told me they couldn't give me pain medication for my legs because I didn't have any legs," she said.

At first, she felt she deserved to lose her legs. She thought that the helicopter had crashed and it was her fault the other three crew members were injured.

"I felt all this guilt," she said. "I knew my crew had been hurt, too, and I didn't do my job as a pilot. ... I had let them down."

Only about two inches below her hip joint remains of her right leg. About five inches below her left knee remains.

She wears high-tech prosthetic legs, courtesy of the Army.

Her right leg is outfitted with a C-Leg Microprocessor Knee that she can program.

The prosthetic uses algorithms developed from studying how people walk and multiple built-in sensors to help the amputee walk safely.

If Duckworth takes too big a step or starts to fall, the knee will default to a safety setting, which slows her down.

She's adorned her C-Leg with a sticker that reads "Fly Army."

"That's my version of tattoos," she said, laughing.

Her experience with people approaching her with stories about amputees who couldn't afford such high-tech prosthetics fueled her drive to push for healthcare reform in America.

"I knew how lucky I was. The U.S. Army has given me the best healthcare in the world. But when I looked around, I realized that wasn't the case for all Americans."

That led her to run for office and now drives her to help veterans and wounded servicemen as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs.

She has also earned a Purple Heart, an Air Medal and an Army Commendation Medal, and was promoted to major while at Walter Reed, but doesn't feel her accomplishments are extraordinary.

In fact, when asked last year to be inducted into McKinley's Hall of Fame, she declined at first.

"I told them I hadn't done much. All I did was get blown up. I didn't do anything remarkable."

But after some encouraging by the state adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee another McKinley alum she agreed.

Now her photo hangs with other honorees including Lee and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye in the halls of her alma mater, in the state she considers her home.

The experience, she said, was humbling.

"I remember seeing those faces on the wall when I was a student there," she said. "It's just unbelievable that my face will be up there, too."


1968: Ladda "Tammy" Duckworth is born in Thailand. She grows up in several Southwest Asian countries.

1984: At 16, Duckworth moves with her family to Hawai'i.

June 1985: Graduates from McKinley High School.

May 1989: Earns a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.

1990: As a graduate student in International Affairs at George Washington University, Duckworth joins the Reserve Officers' Training Corps.

1992: While working on a doctorate in political science at Northern Illinois University, she is commissioned in the Army Reserve in Illinois and elects to become a helicopter pilot.

Nov. 12, 2004: While she is co-piloting a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter north of Baghdad, a rocket-propelled grenade strikes the cockpit and explodes.

Nov. 20, 2004: Wakes up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and finds out she has lost both legs.

Dec. 3, 2004: Receives a Purple Heart.

Dec. 21, 2004: Still at Walter Reed, she is promoted to major and receives an Air Medal and an Army Commendation Medal.

March 17, 2005: Testifies before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee about military personnel injured in the war.

April 12, 2005: HarperCollins publishes Bob Dole's "One Solder's Story: A Memoir," which was dedicated, in part, to Duckworth.

Dec. 14, 2005: Discharged from Walter Reed.

Dec. 18, 2005: Announces her candidacy for a congressional seat in Illinois.

March 21, 2006: Wins the Democratic primary for the seat with 44 percent of the vote.

August 2006: Calls on Congress to audit the estimated $437 billion spent on overseas military and foreign aid since Sept. 11, 2001.

Nov. 7, 2006: Defeated by Republican state Sen. Peter Roskam.

Nov. 21, 2006: Appointed director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs.

January 2007: Along with World War II veteran Ralph Yempuku and the state adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee, she is inducted into the McKinley High School Hall of Honor. She's the youngest to be inducted.

April 2007: Her husband, Maj. Bryan W. Bowlsbey of the Illinois Army National Guard, is deployed to Iraq for an expected 13 months.

Reach Catherine E. Toth at ctoth@honoluluadvertiser.com.