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Combat Veteran Provides Insight at Guard Bureau Women’s History Event

By Army Staff Sgt. Jon Soucy
Special to American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., March 19, 2009 – Each woman serving in the military has broken barriers, so now there are fewer to overcome, an Iraq war veteran, helicopter pilot, and double amputee said this week at a Women’s History Month event sponsored by the National Guard Bureau.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Maj. Tammy Duckworth, recently nominated by President Barack Obama to be assistant secretary of veterans affairs for public and intergovernmental affairs, listens as Air Force Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, introduces her as the keynote speaker during the National Guard Bureau's "Women Taking the Lead" event held in recognition of Women's History Month in Arlington, Va., March 17, 2009. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jon Soucy
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

“Those of us females who have been in the military for a few years have our own stories of being the first this or the first that,” said Army Maj. Tammy Duckworth of the Illinois National Guard, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be assistant secretary of veterans affairs for public and intergovernmental affairs. “In some ways, we each had to break through in our own way, proving we were just as good as the men.”

Duckworth was the keynote speaker at the National Guard Bureau’s Women’s History Month program this week. “Women Taking the Lead” highlighted the accomplishments of women in the military, and was hosted by Air Force Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau.

The program also highlighted the accomplishments of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, an Army unit composed largely of African-American women who sorted and delivered mail to about 7 million American troops stationed in Europe during World War II.

While it was a daunting task, there were perks to the job, including the ability to see Europe and interact with those from other areas, said Alice Dixon, a veteran of the unit, who attended the event.

Duckworth said women such as Dixon made it possible for her to have a successful military career.

“I recognize that I am here today because I stand on the shoulders of the women before me who broke through,” Duckworth said. “It’s taken us a long time, but more and more women are taking up leadership positions that would not have been possible 20 years ago.”

But it wasn’t only the women who went before her that helped her along her career, Duckworth noted. “I also want to make sure and emphasize that my greatest supporters in my career were men,” she said.

“I was often the only female in an [otherwise] all-male unit. It was the male officers above me who reached out and guided me. It was the male [noncommissioned officers] who dragged me behind the hangar and smacked me on the side the head and said, ‘What do you think you’re doing L-T?’”

The program noted that women have broken down barriers in the military as far back as 1775 and the founding of the U.S armed forces.

“During the American Revolution, it was not uncommon for wives, mothers and daughters to follow their male loved ones into battle,” said McKinley, who added that it wasn’t until the Spanish-American War and the founding of the Army Nurse Corps that women formally became a part of the military. “The significant role of nurses and women serving in other roles during World War I firmly established the importance of women to the armed forces.”

And much has changed since then. “How far has our nation come? [Today], women serve at every level of the military and in almost every career field,” McKinley said.

“Frankly, it’s really time to stop being surprised that America’s daughters are fully capable of doing their jobs and fighting for freedom,” Duckworth added.

Duckworth is one of many military women who have served overseas. In Iraq, where she flew combat missions in a UH-60 Black Hawk, her work really came down to one thing, she said: supporting the mission.

“In that cockpit, it didn’t matter if I was male or female; it only mattered that I supported the mission,” she said. “In that cockpit, it didn’t matter if I was from Illinois and the pilot in command was from Missouri, or if he was a first Gulf War veteran and had been in 20 years and I had only been in 15. It was about the mission.”

And on Nov. 12, 2004, while supporting the mission, Duckworth and her Black Hawk crew were brought down by enemy fire.

“That day in my aircraft, bleeding, knowing that I was dying, when people came to rescue me, at no time did I check [whether] they were male or female before allowing them to carry me out,” she said.

But that day, which resulted in Duckworth losing the bottom portion of both legs, also brought other points to light. She paid tribute to others whose courage helped them survive.

“The day that I was shot down, I started out as the highest-ranking person of my crew. The lowest-ranking person in that aircraft was Spc. Kurt Hanneman,” she said. “He wasn’t the crew chief, he wasn’t in charge of that aircraft, [and] he wasn’t the pilot in command.

“At the end of that day, Kurt Hanneman was the most important person in our crew,” she continued. “At the end of that day, after we had been shot down and Kurt had taken AK-47 rounds into his back, it was Kurt who grabbed his weapon and maintained rear security to make sure the rescue could happen. Bleeding, going into shock [and] scared out of his mind, he was not going to quit his post,” she said.

And there were others in her unit who were equally as dedicated, including another female pilot, who stayed by Duckworth’s side.

“The day I was shot down, she volunteered to accompany me to Landstuhl” Regional Medical Center in Germany, Duckworth said. “And you have to understand what it’s like to one minute be flying missions and to know that a buddy has been hit and may be dying, and then to volunteer to accompany that person. And she went to Landstuhl solely to sit next to my bed in case I woke up, so that I would see a friendly face. She … continued to fly combat missions during the day, studied for the bar exam at night, came home, and three weeks [later] … passed the bar exam. That’s a warrior woman.”

And though many may say that the day Duckworth was shot down was tragic, she said it brought out one point for her.

“That day taught me, more than anything else, that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are. All that matters is that you don’t let your buddies down and that you stick with the mission and you never quit. You never give up.”

(Army Staff Sgt. Jon Soucy serves with the National Guard Bureau.)

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