Senator Tammy Duckworth

Senator Tammy Duckworth

This article was originally published on June 20, 2005

Army Capt. Tammy Duckworth felt her Black Hawk helicopter start to sink from the sky.

An insurgent’s rocket-propelled grenade had torn through the Plexiglas floor of the cockpit and exploded in a fireball. It was late in the afternoon of Nov. 12 of last year, on what had been a beautiful day in Iraq.

Soldiers live and train for how to respond in moments of crisis. But until the chaos of combat is confronted, no one knows for sure how he or she might react. Duckworth, 36, a member of the Illinois National Guard, often had wondered how she might handle such pressure. Pushed in part by her desire to please her father, she had been an overachiever all her life, an honor student, a varsity athlete and one of only a handful of women to pilot a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq.

Now, her military training took over. She looked at the instrument panel. The gauges were dark. Alarm bells that would signal an engine failure made no sound. She couldn’t talk to her crew. The blast had knocked out the electrical power. An eerie silence enveloped the helicopter.

Her eyes focused on the top middle gauge — the engine temperatures — to see whether the two power plants were still working. She noticed the gauge seemed unusually large.

She grabbed for the controls but for some reason couldn’t seem to bring the helicopter’s tail under control. The rudder pedals under her feet that controlled the helicopter’s side-to-side movement seemed useless. The nimble machine’s movements felt sluggish. She spotted a small spot of green below, a clearing in the trees. It might be the only chance for a safe landing. The aircraft shook as if it would come apart. Smoke filled the cockpit and small pieces of burning metal littered the interior.

The Black Hawk continued its rapid descent. Suddenly a palm tree loomed ahead and seemed to fill the windscreen. The helicopter passed just over the top of the tree and came down hard in a furrowed field overgrown with scrub brush and tall grass.

Only now did the scene begin to take on a surreal sense for Duckworth. She looked down through a gaping hole in the Plexiglas chin bubble and wondered why grass was sticking through it.

“Wow, that’s really green,” she thought to herself. And then she passed out.

Keeping posted

Back home in Hawaii, Duckworth’s parents had kept up with their daughter’s exploits as best they could since her deployment to Iraq in March of last year. She tried to call them once a week to let them know she was OK. Conversations with her father were brief.

“Hey, how you doing? OK, well, here’s your mom,” he’d say.

More than anyone, her father had shaped Duckworth’s commitment to duty and country.

A veteran of World War II and Vietnam, Frank Duckworth had set the high standards that his daughter always sought to achieve. But despite her successes in school, athletics, her civilian job and the military, Duckworth never recalled her father ever telling her that he was proud of her. They were words she longed to hear.

Even now, she craved his favor. From Iraq, she would order the Midwest steaks that he loved and have them delivered to his home.

Less than two weeks before, Frank Duckworth had posted a picture of his daughter and a brief note on a Web site operated by their local newspaper, the Honolulu Advertiser. The note mentioned Duckworth’s local roots and her duties in Iraq.

“We are very proud of Tammy and pray for her daily, so long as she is involved in combat actions,” he wrote.

But Tammy hadn’t seen the note.

Once a strapping athlete, Frank Duckworth was now 76 and had been in failing health for several years. Just a week or so before his daughter had been shot down, he had suffered a heart attack and been hospitalized.

Shot down, rescued

The Black Hawk came down less than a half-mile from where it had been hit, close enough that Duckworth’s fellow pilot, Dan Milberg, feared that whoever had shot them down would come quickly to finish off the crew. While Duckworth thought she had been flying the aircraft, it was actually Milberg who had guided the crippled Black Hawk to the ground.

He reached up to shut down the engines. He looked over and saw Duckworth’s upper body pitched forward, her shoulders straining against her safety harness. Her blackened face hung just inches from the control panel. Her mouth hung open and her eyes were closed. Blood covered her midsection. Milberg, a Des Peres public safety officer in civilian life, thought she was dead.

He leaped from his seat to the ground. He told the gunner on his side of the helicopter, Kurt Hanneman, to set up a defensive perimeter. Hanneman, who normally worked in the tactical operations center with Duckworth, dropped to the ground and pointed his M-4 rifle toward the rear of the Black Hawk.

On the other side of the helicopter, Sgt. Chris Fierce, the crew chief who sat behind Duckworth, unhooked his seat belt, disconnected his headset cord and reached up for the handholds to lift himself from his seat behind his .60-caliber machine gun. But he couldn’t get up.

A piece of shrapnel had gouged out a nearly 2-inch chunk of skin and bone just below his kneecap. Milberg pulled Fierce from his seat, and both fell to the ground. He picked him back up and carried him about 25 feet away from the aircraft. Milberg then returned to the Black Hawk. He feared the helicopter could still explode or that the rotor blades might break apart. He yelled at Hanneman to move farther away.

“I can’t. I’m hit,” Hanneman shouted back.

It was then that Milberg noticed that the seat of Hanneman’s pants were soaked with blood. He had been hit by an AK-47 round.

In the air, the crew of a second Black Hawk saw Duckworth’s helicopter in trouble and began to issue Mayday calls. Milberg waved down the second helicopter. It landed just feet in front of Duckworth’s crippled aircraft. Out jumped two crew members and an Army colonel along for the ride. Together with Milberg they struggled to carry the injured across the uneven ground and tall grass. They fell several times. To Milberg, it seemed like a nightmare. He ran but seemed to get nowhere. He feared insurgents would appear at any moment. But he wasn’t going to leave Duckworth’s body behind.

At last, they heaved Duckworth onto the floor of the second Black Hawk next to Fierce. The helicopter lifted off toward the nearby military base at Taji.

While in the air, Fierce felt something warm on the helicopter floor, reached down and found his hand covered with blood. He realized the blood was probably Duckworth’s.

It took them less than five minutes to reach Taji, where a medical evacuation helicopter sat on the tarmac with its engines already running.

Soldiers loaded the injured onto gurneys and placed them aboard the helicopter.

The medics went to work on Duckworth. When one checked on Fierce, he signaled that he was all right and that they should concentrate on Duckworth. He had felt her warm blood. He thought she might still have a chance.

Within about 20 minutes from the time they were hit, Duckworth entered the Combat Surgical Hospital in Baghdad, well within the so-called “golden hour” when severe injuries still can be treated and lives saved.

Meanwhile, back at the crash site, Army helicopters fired Hellfire missiles into the downed Black Hawk to prevent the aircraft and its equipment and weapons from falling into enemy hands. The explosion destroyed the aircraft and with it Duckworth’s helmet bag in which she carried Christmas ornaments and small American flags that she had planned to give to her parents and in-laws when she got home.

A chilling call

Back in the United States, Duckworth’s husband, Bryan Bowlsbey, listened to the message on his cell phone while sitting at his parents’ kitchen table in Maryland.

The family had just returned home from a rehearsal dinner for his younger brother’s wedding, scheduled for the next day. Bowlsbey would stand as best man.

Bryan and Tammy had talked about the chance she might not return from Iraq. Rocket and mortar attacks on the base where she lived were so common that troops had nicknamed it “Mortaritaville.”

Bowlsbey fully expected the day would come when a casualty officer knocked on his door to tell him that a mortar shell had landed on her bed and that Tammy was gone.

Now her father was on the phone telling him to call as soon as possible.

He felt as if he had been punched. He dialed the number.

On the phone, Frank Duckworth spoke in a matter-of-fact tone. He told Bowlsbey to get a pencil. He needed to write down a phone number. He told him it was the Army casualty office.

“You are safe”

The airplane that carried Tammy Duckworth landed in Washington on the afternoon of Nov. 14, two days after her Black Hawk had been brought down in the Iraqi desert.

For the next several days, doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center used drugs to keep her in a semiconscious state. Periodically, Duckworth would fight through the sedation and open her eyes. Almost always she would see Bryan and her mother, both of whom had moved into rooms at the hospital. Her father had stayed behind in Hawaii to recuperate from his heart attack.

Over the next week, as his wife underwent surgery after surgery, Bowlsbey, in a quiet voice, repeated a mantralike phrase hundreds of times to her:

“You were injured. You are home now. You are safe.”

On Nov. 20, eight days after she had been shot down, Duckworth regained full consciousness. Almost as soon as doctors removed her breathing tube, she turned to Bryan and her mother and told both, “I love you.”

She complained about the pain in her feet and asked why the medication didn’t seem to help. Bryan sat on her bed, took her hand in his and uttered the most difficult words he’d ever spoken. “You’ve lost your legs,” he told her.

He told that her she had lost most of her right leg and that her left leg below the knee was gone. Her right arm had been shattered. The nerves in her left shoulder had been damaged. She had limited movement in that arm and hand. She had shrapnel wounds in her face. Still, Bryan told her, she was alive and they could look forward to a long, happy life together.

Duckworth listened in stoic silence.