Peoria Journal Star

March 18, 2005

Veteran appeals for benefits for 'warriors'
Duckworth says strong services will keep more soldiers in uniform

By Otto Kreisher
of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, d.c. - A feisty young woman in a wheelchair had the rapt attention of senators, senior military officers and a packed hearing room Thursday as she made a compelling appeal for veterans benefits she said would strengthen the armed services.

Illinois Army National Guard Maj. L. Tammy Duckworth, who lost part of both legs and the full use of her right arm when her Blackhawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq, told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that high-quality veterans services would help keep service members in uniform.

Although senior Army and Veterans Affairs officials testified that they are cooperating to ensure that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan get all the help they need, senators and a Government Accountability Office analyst expressed concerns that the two institutions were not providing the "seamless" chain of services they claimed.

Duckworth, wearing her Army green uniform with a Purple Heart medal beneath her silver pilot's wings, urged the senators to think of military and VA medical care together as "a force multiplier" because it would enable injured service members, like her, to continue to serve.

"Our warriors are expensive and indispensable. I believe we must jealously guard this resource, retaining as many as possible in the service and sparing little effort to return one of them to duty," said Duckworth, who has vowed she will fly again despite her severe wounds.

And, she said, the assurance that any wounded service member will get "the best doctors and cutting-edge technology" will help maintain high morale and performance in the military.

A pilot with the 1st Battalion, 106th Aviation Regiment based at the Greater Peoria Regional Airport, Duckworth had nothing but praise for the medical care she has received, from the combat hospital in Baghdad to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center here, where she is going through rehabilitation.

But, she added, "VA will have to face the challenge of providing care at the high level set by the military health care facilities." VA can do that if "it is given enough resources and if it listens to disabled service members and puts forth the effort to meet our needs."

Duckworth's testimony and her determination to continue to serve won praise from most of the senators at the hearing, including Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who said she and the 11,284 other service member who have been wounded in Iraq "are our heroes. They deserve our deepest gratitude and support."

Committee Chairman Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said Duckworth's determination to fly again "challenges us all."

But, he complained, the government "has not adjusted our definition of military service" to keep up with the advances in medical science that can enable amputees like Duckworth to remain in uniform.

Craig also noted that despite the claims by military and VA officials that they were committed to ensuring the "seamless" transition of wounded personnel from military to veterans health care, the GAO found that the military still could not give VA the medical records it needed to begin treating discharged service members.

Other senators expressed concern that neither the military nor the VA was fully prepared to find and treat combat veterans with mental problems, such as post traumatic stress disorder.