I went to Iraq in 2004 because I believe in doing my duty, not because I agreed with the war.
I thought we never should have gone into Iraq in the first place. I wanted to go after Al-Qaeda and hunt down Osama Bin Laden for attacking our country. We should have completed the fight in Afghanistan instead of starting a new war in Iraq.
Military service is a tradition in our family. My dad served in multiple wars, ending his career in Vietnam. My ancestors have worn the uniform of our military during every period of conflict since the Revolution. I was so proud when I was commissioned into the Army. Everyday of my life since, like so many of our brave military men and women, I live the Warrior Ethos: to always put the mission first, never quit, never accept defeat and never leave a fallen comrade behind.
Eight months and 11 days into my tour in Iraq, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the Blackhawk helicopter I was piloting over Baghdad. It exploded in my lap, vaporizing one leg, crushing the other and ripping apart my right arm. My crew thought I was dead but they did not give up on me.
You wouldn't be reading this if not for the brave men in my crew. As dedicated as I was to the mission, they were just as dedicated to making sure I made it out alive, even if it meant risking their own lives.
As I recovered at Walter Reed, I worried about the soldiers who pulled me out of my helicopter that Friday afternoon. Would they make it back okay? And what about all the other soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who were also putting their lives on the line every day?
From my hospital bed, I saw more and more of them join me -- many of them amputees like me, wounded by roadside bombs or left vulnerable by insufficient armor. Others suffered from Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI), a signature wound of the war.
Far too many didn't even make it to a hospital. Those of us who made it back home were welcomed by an administration that hung a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," but neglected its responsibility to help us fully recover from the very human costs of that mission.
That's why I refocused my dedication to service on something I believe in deeply: making sure that Iraq and Afghanistan Vets like me can come home to a country that gives us the care and respect we deserve. In my home state of Illinois, I stepped up to increase Veterans' coverage for screenings and treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and TBI -- the invisible scars often borne by combat Veterans like me.
And when President Obama asked me to serve in his Department of Veterans Affairs, I knew that this Commander-in-Chief -- the one who knew that the Iraq war was wrong from the start -- shared my dedication to the right mission: not just honoring with words, but really taking care of those of us who served. In his first year, he increased veterans' benefits by the largest amount in 30 years, and by nominating Secretary Shinseki to head the VA, showed that he truly understands the cost of war and is committed to serving our veterans.
Now, the final U.S. troops are leaving Iraq. We absolutely must support them as they enter veteran status. It's more than just a slogan; we need to work to make it happen.
That's why I'm proud that the country and president I serve are dedicated to keeping the commitments they make. President Obama kept his word to the American people by bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end, just as he's keeping his commitment to veterans by helping us find jobs when they come home.
The President has supported us through both words and deeds. He created tax credits for businesses that hire unemployed and disabled Veterans, and he reformed how government works with vets so we can more easily transition into private-sector jobs. He worked with bipartisan support in Congress to make it easier for vets to afford college with the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, and he made sure our medical care will always be funded a year in advance.
I know what's hard. I gave eight months of my life and both my legs to a war I never wanted, and I'd do it all again in a heartbeat because I am proud to serve our country. When I think about what it takes to support our veterans and honor their sacrifices, nothing seems easier.
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