When images of joyous Iraqi voters with purple thumbs were broadcast around the world in January 2005, Tammy Duckworth watched with heartfelt tears from her hospital bed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Just months earlier, the Army captain had been shot down over Iraq while flying a Black Hawk helicopter. Nearly a decade later, now-Rep. Duckworth (D-Ill.) walks the halls of Congress on Army-camo-and-American-flag prostheses.
Duckworth, the first female double amputee in the Iraq War, very nearly gave her life in a war she didn't believe the U.S. should be fighting, but she says she is proud to have helped clear the way for Iraq's first democratic election in more than half a century. The Iraq War also set her on a path to become an assistant secretary of veterans affairs under President Barack Obama, a powerful speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and now a vocal Capitol Hill force on foreign policy, national defense and veterans' issues.
Almost 10 years to the day Operation Iraqi Freedom began, the congresswoman, Illinois National Guard lieutenant colonel and Purple Heart recipient spoke with The Huffington Post to reflect on the lessons of the Iraq War, taught at such grave cost.
When did you first become aware that it might be a possibility that you would serve in Iraq?
I was in command of a Black Hawk helicopter unit at Midway Airport in Chicago. I was their first female commander, and when 9/11 happened, I knew that we were probably going to go to war. ... But I always thought that it was Afghanistan where we were going to go to war. I never thought it was going to be Iraq. ...
I did not agree with the invasion of Iraq that happened earlier in the spring [March 2003] because I felt that it was sketchy intelligence on weapons of mass destruction at best, and I really felt that it was really more of a personal vendetta between President Bush and his family and Saddam Hussein. I wanted us to be focused on Afghanistan. I wanted to be in Afghanistan and I wanted to go check in every cave where there might be al Qaeda and go after those folks, because they're the people who murdered so many innocent civilians.
Was it difficult to have those feelings of not necessarily agreeing with the invasion and thinking that we should be focusing on Afghanistan, but also being part of the military?
It wasn't difficult because I have been part of the military my entire adult life, and my belief system is anchored in the belief of the supremacy of the civilian government over the military. It's why I love this democracy; it's why I'm willing to die for this democracy. And my commander-in-chief, with the support of the United States Congress, said this is where we're gonna go.
I did not personally agree, but I was proud to go and I was proud to be part of my unit and I did the best damn job I could while I was over there. I think civilians want to say -- they're looking for, like, a split in you or that you had some sort of reservation. There never was that. There never was a question in my mind what I would do, that I would carry out every lawful order that had been given to me with every core of my being.
I was in my hospital bed at Walter Reed after that first election that they had in Iraq, and [do you] remember all the pictures of the Iraqis who for the first time actually voted? Of their own free will, and they were walking around and showing their purple fingers? I laid in my hospital bed and cried. I didn't happen to believe it [the invasion] was the right thing to do, but I was proud that those people in Iraq got to vote, that I had some part in that.
As we look at the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, do you think that there was a failing on the part of our leaders in government, on the part of Congress, in not engaging in that discussion?
Absolutely. I don't think there was ever an honest discussion of the true cost of the conflict.
I think that there was a fervor to invade. I also think that the Bush administration was not truthful with Congress, that there was a desire to go, and I think a lot of members of Congress were held hostage by having their patriotism questioned. And remember in 2003 -- this is not long after 9/11 happened. I think that a lot of people were bullied into casting votes that they would not have cast if we had had a truly honest discussion of what the cost was going to be and what was truly the danger in Iraq.
I think good things happened in Iraq, occurred in Iraq as a result of us being there. We got rid of Saddam Hussein -- that's a good thing. I just don't know that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was worth a trillion dollars of our national treasure.
Had you been in Congress at the time, how do you think you would have engaged in that debate over the war?
I have to say that it would have been different than how I would've engaged now, but the basis would have been the same. I think that today if we have a similar discussion -- and it is truly one of the reasons why I decided to run for Congress, I want to be here the next time this Congress has a similar debate about whatever conflict we're thinking of engaging in, whoever the president is and whoever is in control of the House and the Senate. If I'm here, you can count on me to stand up and say, "What is the true cost of this war?" We've spent a trillion dollars, we've borrowed a trillion dollars, and plunged our nation into greater debt in order to pursue the conflict in Iraq. It wasn't the right thing to do, and you know we've got over a million new veterans.
I think that my being here will allow others [to stand up] when I stand up and say, "Look, you don't get more patriotic than I, than me, and I have questions, so let's have an honest discussion." I think that there are those of us who have been there, done that, you know, got the t-shirt, we can have this discussion. … I may be the one that has the most visually obvious position or authority, but I'm not the only one who can do it.
From the standpoint of the U.S. military, as defense faces some pretty dramatic cuts, budgetary challenges, how do you think that we will fight the wars of the future?
What I hope that we do, as appropriate, is engage our allies more. I think that how we have become involved in Libya was a good example, where we let our NATO allies take the lead. We certainly were a significant component in supporting the rebels as they sought to overthrow [Muammar] Gaddafi. We were engaged, we had skin in the game, we were supportive, but we let others take the lead in that. And a lot of these things are happening not in our backyard and yet we go in on these expeditionary enterprises, and sometimes we need to do it because of joint agreements. Other times I think we need to let our allies take the lead.
We look at what's happening in Syria. It's a tragedy, it's an atrocity what's happening to the people of Syria. But I do think it's important for the Middle Eastern nations to put some more skin in the game than they have been. This is their backyard. So we can't be invading Syria just because we think what's happening there is wrong. We need to be fully supportive of our allies with the work that they're doing in Syria. But our allies need to have some more skin in the game, especially those in whose backyard the atrocities are being committed.
What are the most important lessons of Iraq that we need to take with us moving forward, as the war in Afghanistan draws down and as we look ahead to the potential conflicts the U.S. may face?
I think that we need to talk about the cost to our military men and women and their families. Iraq and Afghanistan have been very different than the conflicts that this nation has engaged in in the past. Unlike those conflicts, we have the same military deploying multiple times, and that is a tremendous cost on them and their families, on their mental health, on their physical health and on their family relationship.
Are we prepared to provide this generation of Iraq War veterans and Afghanistan veterans, with the kind of visible and invisible wounds they're suffering, the support that they're going to need?
We are going to be paying for benefits and care for these veterans for a good 60 more years at least, because if they're in their 20s, they're going to live into their 80s. And that is a long-term significant cost.
If you look at the Vietnam veterans, it took them 40 years to develop a lot of the cancers from Agent Orange exposure, leukemia, Parkinson's disease. They didn't show up for 40 years. I am deeply concerned about the respiratory illnesses that will emerge in Iraq and Afghanistan [veterans] and neurological disorders, because I saw firsthand flying through plumes of burning garbage and giant toxic clouds in the sky our troops were living under.
[Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric] Shinseki said that the VA is still paying benefits to two descendants of Civil War veterans. I can only imagine how far into the future we will be paying benefits to this generation of veterans -- and we should! We should fully support them and it is the right thing to do, but we have to understand the cost of the commitment that we have entered into and live up to that.
One of the unique aspects of this generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan is the number of women represented. How do you think this will impact the relationship our country has with conflicts in the future?
I think that it's a myth [that war will change]. I think that our female service members have shown an ability for leadership and an ability for valor. For future wars -- I don't know that women conduct it differently.
When women are in change, I think that how we care for our troops may shift a little bit. If we have more female leaders, I think the issues of military sexual trauma will be alleviated. And by the way, military sexual trauma, in 50 percent of the cases the victims are male -- so I think having more women in military positions will help with that for all victims. Those shifts are gonna happen, but I think that it's good that our military starts to reflect more of our nation.
What were your feelings when you first found out that then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was going to be lifting the ban on women in combat?
My response to the decision was, "About time." Women have been fighting, so they didn't even have to make the decision. The military can't function without women. ... "Let's just get on with it" has been my attitude.
I don't think it was a surprise. You have to remember that the folks at the highest level of the Pentagon right now were serving at a time when women sort of became a much more active part of the force -- if not equal, on the way to becoming equal. I think it's really a generational shift, and it took this time to get the current generation into leadership.
This was a war that changed your life, and it's a war that means a lot of different things for our country, and yet you wouldn't be who you are and where you are today if not for this war.
I think that's true. But I would tell you that if there was a magic genie and I got just one wish, my wish would be to be back flying my aircraft. I think in any human being in life, you have sort of different paths that your life takes, and we just have to deal with it as it comes. Yes, I have been able to build a different life and a different narrative. I have prospered in my life in spite of and because of my military service. But that doesn't mean that the path that has happened is the one I would have chosen.
If I had a choice -- "If you could choose to get blown up in Iraq, knowing that you would become a congresswoman, or not get blown up in Iraq and just have had your regular life and continued to work at Rotary International and be flying?" -- I would seriously have not been blown up. But it is what it is. And I've had to make the best of it and ... I lost a lot. But I won't deny that I've also gained a lot as well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.