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Flying again is freedom for a veteran helicopter pilot and double amputee

'I leave my wheelchair behind up in the air,' says Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in an attack on her Blackhawk in Iraq and now serves as a Veterans Affairs official.

September 01, 2009|Katherine Skiba

WASHINGTON — Tammy Duckworth, a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost both her legs to a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq, hoists herself into a single-engine Piper Cherokee.

She taxis to a runway, pushes the throttle and pulls back on the yoke to coax the four-seat plane into the air.

Now it's blue skies for Duckworth, who's flying again.

For the 41-year-old assistant secretary in the Department of Veterans Affairs, flying equals freedom, even if it's not adrenaline-pumping combat duty but sailing over Virginia's forests and farms. "I leave my wheelchair behind up in the air."

On the flight one recent Sunday, she's accompanied by a flight instructor and wears only one artificial leg. It's for her left leg, which still has a knee. The single prosthesis works both rudder pedals, making for some fancy footwork at 2,000 feet.

What remains of her right leg is three inches of femur, and its full-length prosthesis "gets in the way" while flying. "It's too high an amputation," she said.

For 85 minutes, Duckworth carves the skies, traveling up to 109 mph, and practices turns, stalls and landings. Elementary maneuvers for a student pilot, but exhilarating.

"It's joy when I'm back in the aircraft and I'm up in the air," she said, "because this is what I used to do."

Duckworth had logged more than 1,000 hours of flight time over 11 years and had won promotion to major in the Illinois National Guard when her part-time career in military aviation came to an abrupt, fiery halt on Nov. 12, 2004.

An insurgent blasted her helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade that ripped through the cockpit floor and left her body a bloody tangle of flesh and bone. The other pilot got the damaged aircraft down.

Duckworth's legs were gravely injured and her right arm was practically severed. In Baghdad, a vascular surgeon operated through the night to salvage the arm. "He wasn't about to let me be a triple amputee," she said.

By her husband's estimate, it took 20 units of blood to keep her alive. At one point her heart gave out. "There's no earthly reason I should have survived," she said.

Working today in Washington, she is not self-conscious about her wounds or high-tech prostheses, favoring skirts and short-sleeved blazers. She walks with two artificial legs and a cane or she uses a wheelchair.

Duckworth endured "many, many dozens" of surgeries and underwent therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for more than a year. Before she learned to walk, she had to gain enough strength to brush her teeth and her auburn hair.

After leaving the hospital, she ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Illinois in 2006. Afterward, then-Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich named her to lead the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.

Before long, Duckworth was a surrogate for Barack Obama in his presidential race, and gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention. After Obama won, she got the federal Veterans Affairs job, making plain that she wanted to work for the department secretary, retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, even if it meant "mopping the floors."

She commands a ninth-floor office with a view of the White House, and swallows hard when the president's Marine One helicopter takes off and lands, remembering her "rotor-head" days.

One of seven assistant secretaries, she oversees the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. Among key concerns: homeless vets, the needs of female vets, and the growing number of Vietnam vets retiring from civilian jobs and turning to the department for medical care.

On the Sunday that Duckworth flew, she first appeared on "Fox News Sunday" and logged 13 miles on a three-wheeled, hand-crank bike. Next came the drive to the Manassas Regional Airport in Virginia, for her second flight lesson since a nine-month lapse in training. Last year she had built up about 10 hours in a small plane until the demands of campaigning for Obama temporarily derailed her quest.

Duckworth rolls her chair onto the apron and helps instructor Ben Negussie untie the small plane. They go no farther than Culpeper, Va., but after the lesson, she's glowing.

"I can't stop smiling," says Duckworth, who had only one miscue: She "porpoised" the aircraft once, meaning it bounced off the ground before touching down smoothly. She repeats a popular aviator quip: "A good landing is when you walk away from your aircraft. A great landing is when you can use your aircraft again."

Her aim is to get a license to fly fixed-wing planes in coming months. Next, she wants to fly civilian helicopters. Her current aircraft requires no special modifications for Duckworth, but adaptations may be necessary for her to pilot helicopters.

Bionic, she's not. Nor are her emotions bulletproof. She shuns the "cosmetic" prosthetic legs that match her skin color, since they remind her that she'll never be able to put on "sexy heels and a sexy dress" for a date with her husband. Some days she fights fatigue. Other days it's "phantom limb pain." And she doesn't have full use of her dominant right hand, an irritation because her salute isn't crisp anymore.

But Duckworth refuses to surrender. "I never thought some guy . . . in Iraq should change my life's plan for me," she said. "That's for me to decide. Not just some dude who got lucky and shot me down."


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