A wounded warrior returns to flight
Tammy Duckworth couldn’t stand the idea of staying behind. Although she had recently completed a stateside assignment at an Illinois Army National Guard helicopter unit and could have remained at home when the group got orders to deploy to Iraq in 2004, she didn’t just volunteer to go. She insisted on it.
“You’ve got to take me with you,” Duckworth, then a captain and UH-60 Black Hawk pilot, told her commanding officer. “I don’t care what assignment I get—but you’ve just got to take me.” The idea of living in safety and comfort in Illinois while her peers and the young soldiers she had helped train shouldered the burden of a yearlong overseas tour in a war zone was out of the question.
Duckworth, then age 36, got her wish. She became an assistant operations officer in charge of mission planning for 44 helicopters, mostly Black Hawks and CH-47 Chinooks, based at a sprawling U.S. military installation at Balad in central Iraq. She also flew missions that covered all parts of the war-torn country.
On November 12, 2004, she had been flying all day with Chief Warrant Officer Dan Milberg, a veteran pilot who had flown Black Hawks in the same region during the first Gulf War 13 years earlier. Their final scheduled stop for the day before returning to Balad was at Taji, a busy air base in a fertile, palm-tree-lined area north of Baghdad. In an effort to get U.S. forces off narrow streets where they were vulnerable to deadly roadside bombs, the U.S. Army increasingly relied on helicopters to whisk them between dozens of military installations.
By the time Duckworth and her crew arrived at Taji, however, their passengers had already caught a ride on another helicopter, so they lifted off and flew toward their home base as low and fast as possible. Traveling at treetop height meant less exposure to ground fire, but the thick vegetation along the Tigris River provided numerous hiding places for insurgents, and helicopters were far from impervious to it.
Milberg was flying when Duckworth looked down into a date palm grove and saw a barrage of gunfire coming at them. Almost instantly, a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the right side of the helicopter, penetrated its metal skin, and exploded beneath the instrument panel in front of Duckworth. The violent blast instantly and permanently destroyed both her legs and nearly severed her right arm. Her armored seat was knocked back with the front, right corner sliced off, while the cockpit filled with acrid smoke.
“My right leg was vaporized, and the left sheared off where it hit the instrument panel, but I didn’t realize I was hurt at the time,” Duckworth said. “I was more concerned about our helicopter. We’d lost all our avionics and flight instruments, and that’s something that almost never happens in a Black Hawk because the systems are so robust. I knew we’d been hit but I didn’t realize how severely, and I was doing everything I could to help [Milberg] fly the aircraft.”
Many of Duckworth’s military flight instructors were Vietnam veterans, and as the Black Hawk’s engines lost power, she let their training guide her. “I could hear every instructor I’d ever had telling me, ‘You’ve got to fly the aircraft!’” she said. “It was as if they were all right there on my shoulder.”
The Black Hawk and its four occupants touched down in an open field. Two had been injured by the initial blast, and Duckworth’s wounds were by far the most severe, and almost certainly fatal. She was losing blood at a furious rate, and without medical intervention she’d expire within an hour—but she still wasn’t aware of her condition.
“I remember reaching up and trying to go through the emergency engine shutdown procedure,” she said. “That’s the last thing I can recall before losing consciousness.”