Wounded Warrior Diaries: VA Official Celebrates ‘Alive Day’ With Crew
By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 10, 2009 As the nation honors its past and present servicemembers on this Veterans Day, many who have worn the uniform of their country will reflect on their service’s creed and what it means to them.
L. Tammy Duckworth, severely wounded in Iraq while serving as an Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter pilot, is now the Veterans Affairs Department’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs. Department of Veterans Affairs photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
One wounded warrior drew strength from the Soldier’s Creed during some of the darkest days in her recovery.
Maj. L. Tammy Duckworth, an Army National Guard helicopter pilot and the Veterans Affairs Department’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, taped copies of the Soldier’s Creed outside her door and across from her bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here as she struggled to recover from injuries she suffered in Iraq in 2004.
These are the words she said helped her survive:
“I am an American Soldier. I am a Warrior and member of a team. I serve the people of the United States and live the Army values. I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade. I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills. I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself. I am an expert and I am a professional. I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat. I am guardian of freedom and the American way of life. I am an American soldier.”
“For me, the Soldier’s Creed was critical to my survival after I was injured,” Duckworth said. “When I woke up and I was going through everything I was going through in an intensive care unit and when I finally went to my room, they just had my name on the outside of my door. And, I wanted people to know that a soldier was in this room.
“I put that creed outside of my door because that is what I lived by,” she continued. “I put it on my room on the wall opposite of my bed so that I could read it every day, and on the days when I didn’t think I could make it.”
This year, the day after Veterans Day, Duckworth and the Black Hawk crew that was with her the day their helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade will get together to reminisce and celebrate their “alive day” -- a day known to wounded warriors as the day they were wounded and lived.
“We get together once a year on ‘alive day’ to celebrate survival, to celebrate a new birthday,” she said. “That day will be stuck in our minds for the rest of our lives. It can be a really sad day or it can be a really happy day, and we chose to make it a happy day.”
The crew has come together to celebrate every year since 2005, except for last year, when some deployed with the Missouri National Guard. The crew, all of whom serve with the Illinois and Missouri National Guards, consists of Chief Warrant Officer Dan Milberg, Chief Warrant Officer Pat Meunks, Sgt. Chris Fierce, Warrant Officer Kurt Hanneman, Sgt. Matt Backeus and Duckworth.
Deployment to Iraq
Duckworth, a Guardsman for 18 years, deployed to Iraq in March 2004 as the assistant operations officer for an aviation task force consisting of more than 400 soldiers and 44 Black Hawks and Chinook helicopters.
“I was a battle captain,” she said. “I ran the tactical operations center, and I did everything from receiving missions, assigning them to the various task forces, keeping track of aircraft as they flew their missions.”
In addition, Duckworth sought permission to carry on flying twice a week.
“All aviators want to do is to just fly,” she explained. “We don’t want to man a desk. We want to go outside the wire and fly.”
Duckworth had logged about 200 hours of flight time when her aircraft was struck. When she wasn’t flying, she was managing aircraft from the tactical operations center.
“We had aircraft mishaps, but nobody was injured by hostile fire,” she said. “It was really interesting, because I was the battle captain when those mishaps happened, and I had to be the one to lead the response. … And as a result of a series of mishaps before mine, I had actually put into place and refined a procedure of how we would operate for the next mishap.”
On the day Duckworth was injured north of Baghdad, she had served in Iraq eight months to the day.
She recalled that she and her crew were approaching the end of their eight-hour mission when they received orders to divert to Taji to retrieve some passengers.
“We diverted over, but the personnel were gone by the time we got to their location,” she said.
After reaching Taji and with no additional passengers, Duckworth and her crew resumed the last leg of their flight to Balad. “We had a really great day, as a matter of fact,” she said. “We had a crew that I really enjoyed flying with.”
Duckworth said she had always looked forward to the flight with Milberg, a senior pilot who had flown in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and always prepared for the “what ifs.”
“I had just handed over the flight controls to Dan when I heard the ‘tap, tap, tap’ on the fuselage, and I knew that we were hit,” she said. “I was in the position of reaching forward when the RPG hit, and that blew off the entire back of my right arm. It basically anatomized my right leg. It kicked my left leg up into the instrumental panel, and that sheared my leg off and the cockpit filled with smoke.”
The RPG punched a gaping hole into the aircraft’s floor and control systems. Duckworth continued to attempt to fly the aircraft, but was in and out of consciousness. With her entire instrument panel inoperable, she recalled calling on her other crew members to check their status, but received no response. She thought she was the only one alive. She instinctively fell back on her training to try to complete the landing, she said.
At the time of the landing, she recalled, she didn’t know her legs weren’t attached. “How often do you look down to see if your legs are there?” she said. “I could still feel them.”
While Duckworth searched for a safe place to land, the perfect clearing materialized. “We were over a grove of trees with no place to land, but it was like a miracle when I saw an open space in a field,” she said.
Duckworth was fading in and out of consciousness, but unbeknownst to her, Milberg also spotted the same clear landing. It was Milberg who flew and landed the aircraft, she said, adding that she is satisfied she attempted to do her job despite being incapacitated.
Duckworth credits Milberg’s superior pilot skills and his clear-headed actions with saving their lives. Milberg later received the Distinguish Flying Cross for his actions.
Once their Black Hawk landed, a medical evacuation helicopter arrived in seconds. Duckworth’s crew did not realize she was alive, due to the severity of her injuries. But the crew chiefs of the two aircraft suspected she might still be alive and called for medical attention, even as one of them was severely injured himself.
The medevac aircraft crew checked on Duckworth and realized she was in critical condition; her femoral artery was severed along with her legs. She would have bled out within minutes without the proper medical treatment.
Duckworth received treatment in Baghdad and later Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany to stabilize her condition. She woke up eight days later at Walter Reed.
Though she didn’t know it at the time, it was the procedures Duckworth had written that ultimately helped her unit handle the downing of the aircraft. Her immediate supervisor later told her that the center’s staff began pulling together the proper procedures to follow, and at the time, he realized they were using what she had recently implemented. Essentially, her best efforts to save others in time of distress would instead be used to respond to her own shootdown.
Arriving at Walter Reed
“When I woke up in Walter Reed in intensive care, I had the imprints of the flight controls bruised into both of my hands,” Duckworth said. “I was hanging on to them as hard as I could, even though they were probably severed from the blast.”
Waiting by her bedside were the first four female amputee warriors, whose friendship she values in the bond they share.
“Before I even woke up, all four of the previous female amputees had been in to see my family and to see me,” Duckworth said. While they may not see each other every day, they are always there for her if she needs to talk, she said.
One of the female wounded warriors who helped her during the most difficult part of her recovery was Army Sgt. 1st Class Juanita Wilson, who helped Duckworth manage the pain when her body wouldn’t tolerate morphine before one of her many surgeries.
“I lay in bed for five days in pain. She was the only one who really understood,” Duckworth recalled. “She radiated this peace and this serenity, and I would lay there in absolute agony, counting down the minutes, and I would look at her and she would just smile … and tell me that I could do it. Even so soon after her own injuries, she was still a true [noncommissioned officer], and backbone of the Army for this soldier.”
Duckworth spent 13 months at Walter Reed, and was released on Dec. 14, 2005, nearly a year after she was injured.
Soon after leaving Walter Reed, Duckworth became the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, where she served until 2008. The U.S. Senate confirmed her for her current job on April 22 and she was sworn in by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on April 24.
“There is no way I could have predicted that I would end up here,” she said. Prior to her deployment, she worked for Rotary International, working on international public health projects.
“The last thing I was trying to do before I was deployed was trying to get wheelchairs sent to Iraq for war victims and civilians who had been injured,” she added. “I loved that public health aspect, and I am very concerned about the health aspect.”
Duckworth said she reflects on her injury day, and while she doesn’t know why she survived, she realized very soon afterward that she would make it count.
“I don’t know why I survived Iraq, and I don’t know why I made it home, but I want to use this time to give back to my buddies from Iraq,” she said.
Despite her injuries, Duckworth is still able to fly. When she returns home to Illinois and the weather accommodates, she flies a Piper Warrior.
“Being able to still fly is two things: it is joy, … and the other component of it is just control of my life,” she said. “And, it is not letting the insurgent who shot an RPG at me have control of my life, and he is not going to take something away from me. For me, it is also a determination to live my life the way I want to live it.”
For her heroism and ability to live up to the Soldier’s Creed, Duckworth was awarded the Purple Heart, the Air Medal and the Combat Action Badge.
(This is the 15th installment of the Wounded Warrior Diaries series. Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)