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Out of the War, Into a Fierce Battle for Congress

Times Staff Writer

Sitting on a couch inside her cramped campaign headquarters, the Army major seems equally comfortable talking about how she piloted a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq as she does her candidacy in one of the country’s most talked-about political races.

Each time she reaches a possible ally or potential financial supporter on the phone, the double amputee takes a quick breath and launches into her pitch.

“Hi, this is Tammy Duckworth,” she says. “I’m running for Congress, and I’d love to talk to you about my ideas for improving healthcare.”

“Yes,” she says to those who ask, “I’m the one who was injured.”

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The life of this 38-year-old political novice was radically changed in November 2004 when her helicopter was shot down over Baghdad, leaving her with catastrophic wounds.

As the Democratic candidate running in the Republican stronghold of DuPage County, the loss of her legs and the severe injuries to her right arm have done more than distinguish her from rivals. The wounds, which inspired her to enter the public spotlight, underscore some of her campaign messages -- including a desire to hold the White House more accountable for the nation’s military presence in Iraq.

“We had steak and lobster dinners every Sunday, and not enough armor,” Duckworth said. “I didn’t go to war expecting lobster. I would have happily exchanged it for better armor.”

She faces a fierce battle for the 6th District seat being vacated by Rep. Henry J. Hyde, a Republican who is retiring after holding the seat for more than three decades.

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Her Republican rival, Peter J. Roskam, has the endorsement of Hyde and, like Duckworth, national party support. Roskam, 44, has a track record in Illinois politics: He has been a state senator since 2000 and served in the Illinois House from 1993 to 1999.

Duckworth is among nearly a dozen veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who are vying for congressional seats this election cycle. Many are running as Democrats, and political analysts say they could help the party obtain a majority in the midterm elections and gain traction on issues such as national security.

“The more Democrats nationalize the election, and tie local races to what’s happening nationally and the president, the more difficult it’s going to be for the Republicans,” said Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “That’s what you’re seeing happen in the 6th District.”

Born in Bangkok, Thailand, Ladda Tammy Duckworth grew up in a military family. Her late father, Franklin, a retired Marine, worked for the United Nations and international corporations. The family moved to Hawaii when Duckworth and her brother, Tom, were teens. Her mother, Lamai Sompornpairin, a Thai native who is ethnically Chinese, still lives in Hawaii.

Fluent in three languages, Duckworth earned a master’s degree in international affairs at George Washington University. While pursuing a doctorate in political science at Northern Illinois University, she joined the Illinois Army National Guard.

Her unit was activated and deployed to Iraq in December 2003. Eleven months later, flying above Baghdad, her helicopter was hit with a rocket-launched grenade. It exploded near her feet.

“There was a big fireball,” said Duckworth, who was the pilot. “I didn’t know how badly I was hurt.”

Within 48 hours, she was transported to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. She lost both legs. More than 20 surgeries left her with partial mobility and scars crisscrossing her right arm.

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Her recovery took months, and was marked by an unexpected grief: Her father, while visiting her at Walter Reed, suffered a heart attack. He died before she was released from the hospital.

She got her first taste of the crossover between military service and politics from some of the center’s visitors: former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who was injured in World War II, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Navy pilot who was held as a prisoner of war in Hanoi.

A turning point came when Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) gave Duckworth and other injured Illinois veterans tickets to the 2005 State of the Union address. She began to contact Durbin’s office seeking aid for military families wrestling with employment and benefit problems and for veterans seeking medical care.

After she testified before congressional hearings on concerns over military healthcare, Durbin asked whether she would be interested in running for office.

Duckworth discussed the matter with her husband, Illinois Army National Guard Capt. Bryan Bowlsbey, and decided to run. Four days after she was released from Walter Reed, she announced her candidacy.

“I like to serve,” Duckworth said. “It’s part of who I am.”

The candidate goes to physical therapy twice a week and can now walk more than a mile wearing her prostheses. Sometimes she uses a wheelchair, “because there are times when it’s more comfortable to be without the legs.”

She’s tickled with her synthetic feet -- not only do they work well, they give her fashion options: “There’s a space between the big toe and the rest of the toes, so I can wear sandals” she said, gleefully pulling off her suede loafer and fuzzy white sock. “And look. My foot can arch so I can wear up to a 2-inch heel!”

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Though she often interjects humor when talking about the political race -- “If we’re going to debate gun control, think my opponent would be up for doing it out on the gun range? Best shot wins?” -- Duckworth understands she faces an uphill battle.

She won a three-way Democratic primary this spring with 44% of the vote, thanks in part to the support of Durbin and U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).

Some supporters of her closest competitor -- Christine Cegelis, a local businesswoman who challenged Hyde in 2004 -- cast Duckworth as an outsider brought in by the national party to big-foot a local favorite. But after the primary, Cegelis announced her support for Duckworth.

Both national parties are throwing their weight behind their picks.

The Republican Party is preparing to set up a substantial fundraising office in the district and plans to mobilize to get out the vote. And with fundraising help from House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Vice President Dick Cheney, Roskam has raised a war chest of at least $1.45 million.

The Democrats, eager to attract swing voters and Republicans willing to split the party ballot, have helped Duckworth pull in more than $1 million.

This weekend, however, Duckworth’s campaign will have to continue without her: The Illinois Army National Guard has granted her request to continue serving and has assigned her to an aviation safety team.

This is her regular weekend to train.

Outside the campaign office, her uniform hangs neatly pressed inside her new pickup. Her combat boots are next to an electrical cord and power converter -- which she can plug into the cigarette jack and use to power her artificial limbs.

On Friday afternoon, she walked away from the phone calls.

She put on her combat boots, slipped into her truck and drove toward Springfield.


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