Peoria Journal Star

February 12, 2005
A different battle
War-tested soldier fights to walk again

By Dori Meinert
of Copley News Service

Through a Plexiglas window at her feet, she saw the rocket-propelled grenade hurtling toward the Black Hawk helicopter she was flying over Iraq. She heard the explosion when it hit and saw a bright orange fireball erupt at her knees.

As Army National Guard Maj. Ladda Tammy Duckworth struggled to land the damaged helicopter, she began feeling weak. Things seemed to be moving in slow motion. But she didn't know why.

She didn't realize her legs and part of her right arm had been blown away.

"I don't remember feeling pain," said Duckworth of the 1st Battalion, 106th Aviation Regiment based at Greater Peoria Regional Airport.

She lost consciousness as the helicopter went down.

She awoke a week later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Her husband was whispering to her over and over: "You were hit. You've lost your legs."

Two months and 20 surgeries later, Duckworth, 36, is going through painful and tedious

rehabilitation she hopes will allow her to walk again with the use of artificial limbs.

But walking won't be enough. She wants to fly again.

A good day turns bad

Duckworth and the rest of the crew were returning from a mission over Baghdad on Nov. 12. They'd had a good day. She smiles as she recalls the stir-fry and made-to-order milk shakes they had for lunch. Little things like that stand out when you're far from home. She bought Christmas ornaments for family and friends back in the states. But as they were heading toward their air base 40 miles north of Baghdad, insurgents opened fire.

Duckworth was the junior pilot, training to be a pilot in command. When they were hit, she couldn't tell if the others, including the senior pilot, were injured. She couldn't hear them respond to her calls, and she was too concerned about landing the aircraft to turn her head.

She believes the pilot in command did most of the work landing the aircraft. She credits him and two other crew members with saving her life.

Duckworth was taken to a combat hospital in Baghdad for emergency surgery. She then was flown to a military hospital in Germany, where she was stabilized and transported to Walter Reed, within 48 hours of being wounded.

Walter Reed has treated 195 amputees from the Iraq war and 21 from Afghanistan. Duckworth is one of 10 currently hospitalized, while dozens more are being treated as outpatients.

Her left leg ends about eight inches below the knee. When she arrived at Walter Reed, she had part of her right leg, but it was shredded and infected and doctors amputated the remainder. She's had about 20 surgeries so far, but she remembers only the last eight or nine.

As serious as her injuries are, Duckworth said they could have been worse. Her helmet and visor shielded her eyes and face from the flames. Her body armor protected her torso. Her flame-retardant flight suit kept the rest of her body from being severely burned.

"One of a pilot's nightmares is to be burned alive," she said.

What she does remember is that those first few weeks were filled with "pain and guilt."

"I was just hurting so bad. The morphine didn't really work for me. ... It's supposed to make me not care about the pain. But it didn't do that. It just made me hallucinate and talk to three other people about how much I hurt," she recalled.

"It was so painful that I was literally living from one minute to the next," she said. Her husband and mother took turns counting with her to 60. Then, they'd start over.

A long road to recovery

"I can't get it," said Duckworth as she struggled to take the cap off a marker during a rehab session at Walter Reed. She was supposed to be trying to write with her badly damaged right arm.

The occupational therapist who had set up an easel in front of her gently reprimanded her.

"Ah, you said, 'I can't,' " said Capt. Katie Yancosek in a playful tone.

The phrase, "I can't," is forbidden in the occupational therapy room, where amputees relearn everyday life skills like buttoning a shirt.

Duckworth is right-handed. Her right arm has been rebuilt with metal plates and screws. Skin and other tissue was taken from her abdomen and thigh to cover it. She hopes eventually to regain about 80 percent mobility with her arm. But right now, it's weak and stiff.

She tosses a large blue rubber ball to her therapist. She plays games at a computer, grasping a large control handle that allows her to exercise her arm and wrist as she turns it. She shakes a colorful maraca, a gourd-shaped percussion instrument, but it's difficult because her hand can't grip it tightly.

"Two months ago, I was flying a multi-million-dollar aircraft at 120 knots and now I'm playing the maraca," she joked.

Then, Duckworth is asked to grab the handles on a vertical wheel and pull it down as Yancosek adjusts the tension. A computer screen monitors Duckworth's power and the time spent on the machine.

Her therapist calls it a "work simulator," but Duckworth calls it "the wheel of torture." She works up a sweat.

"Every time you do something well, they make it harder," she complains. But she's smiling.

Duckworth's morning starts with occupational therapy about 9:30. After that, she undergoes an hour or more of physical therapy. She has to exercise her whole body to be strong enough to use her artificial legs.

Just recently, therapists strapped her to a table and slowly raised her to an upright position so she can get used to standing on her new legs. She can't stand alone yet.

After lunch, she sleeps for an hour or two. Therapy takes a lot out of her. Then, she heads back to occupational therapy where she's been painting an eagle sculpture and making a dream catcher. The art therapy helps develop her fine motor skills and is a welcome distraction.

Every eight hours, she gets antibiotics through an IV to fight off an infection in her arm. She gets shots twice a day to thin her blood and help avoid clots. She gets medication for muscle pain, for her digestion and for phantom pain in her missing limbs.

Sometimes, she gets a sharp pain that feels like her missing leg is being squeezed in a vise. Or she'll feel like her foot itches or an old knee injury will ache.

"The brain still remembers what used to be there and sends you messages like those limbs are still there," she said.

The doctors are teaching her relaxation techniques. She'll try to visualize that she's relaxing at a beach and reaches down to scratch her toes.

The most difficult part of rehabilitation is having patience, she said.

"I want to walk now. I want to run now. I want to go back and climb in that helicopter and fly now," she said. "But that's down the road."

The heart has to heal

Duckworth said she doesn't allow herself to get angry about what happened to her.

"There's nothing I can do about my legs - they're gone," she said. "I truly believe this happened to me for a reason. There are so many times that I could have died. But I didn't.

"I can't dishonor the effort that everybody took to save my life by sitting around feeling sorry for myself," she said, her eyes glistening with tears.

"I can't worry about where my toes are any more. I just have to worry about getting back on my feet, fighting to stay in the Army so I can serve in the Illinois National Guard, fighting to get back on flight status so I can fly again, and fulfilling whatever it is that I'm supposed to be doing with my life later on, whatever I was saved for, because I don't know what that is."

Her mother, who was born in Thailand and has spent the past two months at Walter Reed attending to her daughter, is a devout Buddhist. Her father, who passed away last week, was Methodist.

Duckworth didn't attend church regularly, "but I believe in a higher being," she said. "I know there's more to life than just what you see. ... When you go through something like this, you're bound to become more introspective, more reflective. I've just decided that I've been saved for some reason. I don't know what that is. It's probably motivating me to just go forward."

Give something back

Duckworth's father served in World War II and Vietnam. His work with a United Nations' refugee program took the family to Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Although an American citizen, Duckworth didn't live in the United States until she was 16. That's when she realized how easy it was to take for granted the opportunities that exist here.

"My folks always stressed that you have to give something back," she said.

For her, that meant joining the National Guard. She knew the risks.

While Duckworth is focusing on rehabilitation, friends including retired Guard members are working to make her suburban Chicago house wheelchair accessible. She's been flooded with cards and care packages from people she knows and some she doesn't.

Her husband also is a Guard member. Army National Guard Capt. Bryan Bowlsbey is commander of Charlie Company, 133rd Signal Battalion of Carbondale and works with the ROTC program at Northern Illinois University. He expects his unit to be deployed soon.

She doesn't hesitate in saying he must go.

"He's their commander. You can't leave your soldiers. You make this commitment to the Army and this commitment to your people and you go. That's who we are," she said. "If I have to move someplace because I still can't take care of myself, that's what I'll do. But he's not going to go back on his commitment, and I wouldn't want him to."