Like a bird I’d strap to my back
Duckworth didn’t grow up around aviation and she has no early memories of wanting to fly. The daughter of a career U.S. Army officer and an Asian mother, she grew up in Indonesia and Thailand before her parents moved to Hawaii when she was 16. She graduated from high school there and earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Hawaii. She came to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., for a master’s degree in international affairs and joined the Army ROTC program.
In Washington, she met Bryan Bowlsbey, also an Army ROTC student and a private pilot. Bowlsbey took her flying in a Cessna 150, encouraged her to pursue Army aviation, and the two married in 1993, the same year Duckworth went to flight school at Fort Rucker in Alabama. Bowlsbey learned to fly as a civilian but less-than-perfect vision disqualified him from military flying.
Aviation appealed to Duckworth because it was the only army specialty that allowed women to serve in front-line combat units. She wanted to lead soldiers, and as a leader, she wouldn’t accept being exposed to less physical risk than her soldiers. She worked at an aviation unit for one year before starting flight school, and her enthusiasm for flying soared. “I can’t describe how much I loved it,” she said. “It’s hard to believe there was a time in my life that I didn’t dream about flying. As I gained experience, the aircraft became an extension of me, like a bird I’d strap to my back.
“It’s hard to believe there was a time in my life that I didn’t dream about flying. As I gained experience, the aircraft became an extension of me, like a bird I’d strap to my back”
“I came to love being part of a crew and multiship formations,” she added. “You get to a point at which you’re thinking and acting as one, even though you’re five different crews. Other than leading soldiers, flying an aircraft was one of the most rewarding things I’d ever done in my life.”
The medical evacuation crew that carried Duckworth to a military hospital expected to retrieve a body, not a living patient. Her fellow soldiers did what they could, but her body was limp and broken with two limbs missing and one mangled. Nearly half the blood in her body was gone by the time she arrived at Balad.
Medical teams made heroic efforts to keep her alive, however, and they loaded her onto a specially equipped C-17 that flew her to Germany, and then to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She was unconscious for nine days—and the emotional low point of her near-death experience took place during that time.
Although unconscious, Duckworth was aware of the conversations taking place around her. She heard one member of the medical staff ask another about the nature of Duckworth’s injuries, and the answer shocked her. The leg amputations, it was said, were the result of a helicopter crash.
Duckworth was less concerned about her physical disfigurement than the word “crash.”
“I was indignant,” she remembers. “I didn’t mind so much about my injuries, but I was really mad about the crash part. I clearly remembered our landing, and it was a good landing. What crash were they talking about?”
But the more she thought about it, the more she questioned her own memory. Maybe she had crashed. Maybe the Black Hawk had rolled over. Perhaps some of her fellow crewmembers were injured or dead as a result. “If I had hurt my crew,” she thought, “then maybe I deserved to lose my legs. Failing as a leader, failing as an aviator—it comes with a price.”
When she emerged from the nine-day coma, Duckworth was morose about the harm she believed she had caused her crew. Her husband was at her bedside and tried to console her, but without success.
“I was crying about the crash to my husband,” Duckworth said. “He kept telling me we hadn’t crashed, but I didn’t really believe him. Finally, he showed me a photo of our bird sitting in a field in Iraq, as pretty as she could be. The picture convinced me that everything he’d been telling me was true. We landed our aircraft, and the crew was safe. I hadn’t let them down.
“I’ve been fine ever since.”