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Thu, Aug 12, 2010

Duckworth Flies Again

Wounded Veteran Regains Pilot Certificate After Losing Both Legs In Combat

Gen. George S. Patton once said: “Success is how high you bounce when you hit the bottom.” For Tammy Duckworth, a major and an Illinois Army National Guard aviator, the bottom came in 2004, when her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq. As a result of the attack, Duckworth lost both of her legs and partial use of one arm.

Tammy Duckworth Shows Off Airman Certificate

Duckworth has achieved much since being wounded in 2004, but regaining her pilot’s license has given the wounded warrior and top VA official a unique perspective on the control she has over her destiny.

Since returning to the States, Duckworth has devoted her life to public service, advocating on behalf of the veterans and the disabled. In 2009, she was confirmed by the Senate to serve as the Department of Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. And she has devoted her time over the last five years to winning back, for starters, her fixed-wing pilot’s license, recently passing the Federal Aviation Administration certification.

“When I woke up at Walter Reed, all I wanted to do was to go back to my unit and fly again,” said Duckworth, a 19-year veteran of the Illinois Army National Guard. “This fixed-wing license fills in the gap in my life that has been there since the day I was shot down,” Duckworth said. She completed about six months of training before taking her final check ride at Manassas Regional/Harry P. Davis Field in northern Virginia July 19.

“Tammy was a great student; well disciplined and hard working,” said Ben Negussie, a flight instructor at Dulles Aviation in Manassas, VA. “She wanted it more than any other student. She pushed more and has a great attitude. She never complained, which has made me think a lot before complaining about anything.”

Duckworth has not flown a helicopter since her Black Hawk was shot down, but said she hopes to return to the pilot’s seat of a helicopter again. She said being a passenger in the aircraft is not the same as being behind the controls as a pilot. Duckworth said aviation provides a unique way for her to control her own destiny. She was able to climb into a Black Hawk while at Walter Reed and ever since has been excited to fly again. “I also got into the Black Hawk flight simulator, and it just felt right,” Duckworth said. “That cockpit is where I belong.”

Tammy Duckworth In 2006

The first time she flew in a Black Hawk was to welcome her unit home from deployment. “I cried riding in the back of the aircraft,” Duckworth said. “I was happy to see the guys from my unit, but it hurt tremendously to be a passenger and not part of the crew.” Duckworth said she plans to purchase a small airplane to help her commute between Illinois and Washington, D.C.

In the meantime, she said the fixed-wing license is a stepping stone to get back to flying a helicopter again. “It took five years to work my way through the FAA’s medical system to prove that I could fly again with my disabilities,” Duckworth said. “The fixed-wing license was the best way to demonstrate my abilities.” Since Duckworth already has an FAA helicopter license, all she needs to do is some refresher training in a new civilian helicopter. “I couldn’t get to this point without doing the fixed-wing rating first,” she said.

Duckworth has become an inspiration to many people, including Negussie. “She is an example to others not to give up on anything in life,” Negussie said. “Things are not always going to go your way, but anything is possible if you have the right attitude.”

But Duckworth said people who inspire her are the crew members who helped save her life. “Not a day goes by that I don’t say thanks for my crew and their heroic effort in saving my life,” she said. “I wake up every day knowing that I have to live a life worthy of their actions.”



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