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Rep. Tammy Duckworth to vets: Find your mission

Dec. 14, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
5Qs Tammy Duckworth MWM 20131030
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., receives a Victory Award at the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital Gala in Washington, D.C., this fall. She was a pilot when she was injured in Iraq. Now, she says, she strives every day not to let down the crew that saved her. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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Watch the video of Duckworth scolding the contractor claiming service-connected disability benefits based on foot injury.

A video of Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., went viral this year as people applauded her for chastising a contractor for taking advantage of government benefits. The contractor sought and received “service-disabled veteran-owned small business” status based on a sports injury he received at a military prep school.

Duckworth knew what she was talking about. She lost both of her legs after the Black Hawk she was piloting was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2004. After she and her co-pilot landed the helicopter, she was carried to safety by her crew. She advocated for veterans while she recovered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and later became an assistant secretary at Veterans Affairs. Duckworth ran for Congress in 2012 and represents Illinois’ 8th District.

Army Times caught up with Duckworth at the MedStar 2013 Gala Victory Awards, which honor role models with physical disabilities. Duckworth talked about moving past her injuries, women in combat, and where the nation is failing veterans. She described the driving force behind her advocacy for veterans.

“I hope that I live up to what my crew did for me that day,” Duckworth said. “I hope that there is never a day the men who saved my life regret saving my life. Every day, I look in the mirror, and I judge how I conduct myself and what I do based on never wanting to let them down.”

Q. What advice can you give to wounded soldiers trying to move on after their war injuries?

A. Find a new mission. Your worth is more than what you were. Find a new mission, whatever that is. Maybe your new mission is to go and be the best parent you can be. Maybe your new mission is running for office like I did, or becoming an advocate for veterans. Or maybe it’s just getting back to being able to stand up and walk again. Find that mission. Because one of the things that I find is consistent in all of our men and women in uniform is that they thrive when there is a mission.

Q. What do you think are the biggest hurdles veterans are facing right now?

A. I think that we still can do a better job of transitioning from military status to veteran status. I think the [Defense Department] does a good job of taking care of their service members, and the VA does a good job of taking care of veterans, once they are in the system. That transition from DoD to VA — that is severely lacking. That’s where we have failed our military men and women as a nation. We have to do a better job, that handoff between DoD and VA can be infinitely better.

Q. What do you think about women joining the infantry?

A. I think that anybody who can do the job, whether they are male, female, black, white, whatever, rich, poor, if you are willing to hump that ruck, and walk those miles and live in the dirt, and cover your buddy’s back, you are welcome to it. We, as a nation, are stronger when every one of us has an opportunity to reach our very best. Could I have made it in the infantry? Probably not. But you know what? A lot of people didn’t make it as pilots, either.

Q. Do you think it’s hard for some veterans to talk about their service in the military?

A. They need to talk about their military service. If you are applying for a job in the civilian world, you should be talking about the leadership skills you learned, the military training that you have, your ability to make decisions and troubleshoot in stressful situations, your ability to find new ways to do things and problem-solve. For our men and women who have been wounded, I want them to talk about being wounded, so they can get the help that they need. I do not want generations of veterans to suffer in silence.

Q. What do you think of the medical care wounded soldiers are now receiving? Can we do more?

A. I think the medical care is the best in the world. What we need to do is maintain that high level of care for the rest of these veterans’ lives … Ten years from now, I’m not going to stop being an amputee. And our men and women who have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are in their 20s. If we do everything right, they will live another 60 years. We have to make a commitment that that is a cost that we as a nation are happy to support because these men and women deserve nothing but the best.

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