Inside Tammy Duckworth's Harrowing Black Hawk Mission

There's nothing at all usual about Senator Tammy Duckworth from Illinois. In 2018, at 49 years old, she became the first woman to give birth while serving in the U.S. Senate. "About damn time," she said (via BBC). But her story begins before that history-making occasion. In 2016, she became one of the first Asian-American women to serve in Congress. And as a double amputee, she also became the first disabled woman to be elected to Congress. And before that? Senator Duckworth, out of her "true belief" in the Constitution, spent 23 years serving in the U.S. Army (via The Washington Post).  

Duckworth claimed her senate seat on Tuesday, November 8, 2016. As she wrote in a victory post, almost exactly 12 years before to the date, her Black Hawk helicopter had been struck down during a mission in Iraq (via Facebook). The tragedy — for which she received an Air Medal and a Purple Heart — would define her personal and political life. "Every day since ... I try to be worthy of my crew and of the miraculous second chance they gave me," wrote Duckworth. "I will go to work in the Senate looking to honor the sacrifice of all Americans who are facing challenges of their own ... I believe in an America that doesn't give up on anyone who hasn't given up on themselves." 

Tammy Duckworth's Black Hawk mission should have been routine

Duckworth has ancestors who fought in the American Revolution (via BBC). And when she joined the military herself, she fell in love with the "camaraderie and sense of purpose that the military instills in you" (via Politico). When the Iraq War started in 2003, Duckworth was a captain with the Illinois National Guard. Her former unit was called to duty, and she asked to go with them. 

By November 12, 2004, Duckworth had successfully flown more than 120 combat hours (via Stars and Stripes). Then, her crew flew to pick up soldiers in Taji, a town north of Baghdad that was home to a military installation. When they arrived, the soldiers had already departed. It was on their 30-mile return flight to Balad, Iraq, where she was stationed, that Duckworth's Black Hawk helicopter was struck, first by gunfire, then by a rocket-propelled grenade. This fell directly into Duckworth's lap. Incredibly, despite severe injuries to her arm and losing both of her legs, going in and out of consciousness, Duckworth tried to land the helicopter. She ultimately failed to do so. Her pilot in command, Chief Warrant Officer Dan Milberg, succeeded. When he did, Duckworth, still going in and out of consciousness, reached to turn off the helicopter's blades.

Even after 13 months in the hospital, Duckworth was ready to serve again. "This didn't change who I am," she told a congressional hearing. "I'm not about to let some guy who got lucky with an RPG decide how to live my life."