The last time she heard the whirring staccato of helicopter blades, took in the fumes from hydraulic fluid or felt the blowing dust — all at once — Tammy Duckworth was a soldier in Iraq.
As an Army pilot, Duckworth left there 15 years ago on a stretcher. She lost both legs after her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Last week, Duckworth returned for the first time to the place that forever altered her life — this time as the junior U.S. senator from Illinois leading a bipartisan delegation taking the temperature of government, military and ISIS operations. When there was time, Duckworth said, she took stock of her own life as the familiar sights, sounds and smells offered comfort and clocked her loss.
While her travel took her past the area where her Army helicopter was shot down, she said it was seeing the soldiers during the five days of travel there — reminders of her old life, of that camaraderie — that hurt a bit.
“The emotions snuck up on me,” the Hoffman Estates Democrat told the Tribune in a brief telephone interview.
“When I was around other soldiers, I wanted to be another soldier. Being there — the last time I saw those things, the last time I felt those things, I felt that dust, I heard those sounds, I was a soldier,” Duckworth said in the interview. “To smell the hydraulic fluid and not be in a flight suit in the cockpit was … very weird. I just felt wrong.”
Duckworth said she at first felt disjointed, but her equilibrium eventually came. “It was almost a sense of comfort when I put my body armor on for the first time” during last week’s trip. “I put it on and thought, ‘Oh, there it is, there it is.’ ”
Flying over the area where the helicopter was shot down was a painful place to revisit, Duckworth said.
“I had a moment on that first flight where it was pretty emotional,” she said in response to a follow-up question about the experience. “I did tear up on that, looking out of the aircraft windows and seeing the scenery.”
Her return visit also marked the passage of time.
The United States invaded Iraq in 2003, successfully overthrowing leader Saddam Hussein. The invasion plunged the country into a civil war, and more recently Iraq was locked in a bloody three-year battle with the Islamic State.
Last year, the nation held an election, and a new government is now working to chart a course toward independence and diplomacy. But with all the hallmarks of peace seemingly in place and no armed conflict, the threat of it still persists. U.S. troops remain.
When the plane carrying Duckworth, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, and Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine and the rest of the delegation landed in Baghdad, they boarded a Chinook helicopter and, for security purposes, put on body armor and helmets. Their five-day trip also took them to Taji, the once-volatile area north of Baghdad where Duckworth’s helicopter was shot down, and Irbil.
Duckworth said she accepted that the trip would stir up old emotions, but she compartmentalized and stayed on mission: “I wanted to see what’s happening on the ground with the new Iraqi leadership and Iraqi military, but also the other nations’ forces that are still there and what level of engagement needs to be maintained to help Iraq be independent and not beholden to Russia or Iran or the U.S.
“It’s on the precipice of a downward slide backwards if we’re not careful,” Duckworth said. “ISIS is very much present. They hear they have been defeated, but there are 30,000 women and children who are hardcore ISIS supporters they (Iraqi leaders and military) have to deal with.”
The combat veteran also said she felt — and still feels — a sense of duty to those soldiers who saved her life and the thousands of U.S. service members who remain there. Being a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over the nation’s common defense, military operations, service member pay and retirement, military family benefits and the selective service system, allows her to keep a close watch on their welfare. So did the trip. When she was a “wounded warrior, my buddies helped in bringing me back to my family,” Duckworth said. “When I went this time, I had the ability to help our troops now and make sure they’re doing OK.
“I’ve been waiting to leave Iraq on my terms for a long time,” she said. “It bugged me I didn’t leave under my own power. I was carried out of there. This time, I left on my own. I was glad I got to do that. It felt empowering, like I took back the narrative.”
© 2019 the Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.