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What Joe Walsh Needs to Know About Tammy Duckworth

Once again this year, Duckworth's alive day will come a few days after a Congressional election she's running in. By then, voters will have decided if she's enough of a hero for them.
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The bombastic Republican Congressman Joe Walsh of Illinois has raised an uncomfortable question by criticizing his Democratic opponent, Tammy Duckworth, for talking too much about her military service.

Duckworth is an Army National Guard officer who lost both her legs when a Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting got shot down in Iraq in 2004. After an excruciating yearlong recovery, Duckworth became an outspoken advocate for veterans. Eventually, President Obama appointed her to a top job in the Veterans Department. One of the main issues she worked to improve was the alarmingly high level of homelessness among vets.

Walsh has argued that by repeatedly invoking her military credentials, Duckworth toots her own horn too much, which means she's not a "true hero." "My God, that's all she talks about," he said recently on CNN. "Our true heroes, it's the last thing in the world they talk about. I have so much respect for what she did in the fact that she sacrificed her body for this country. Ehhh. Now let's move on."

I profiled Duckworth in my recent book, Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. I thoroughly researched her story and interviewed her personally. Here's what Joe Walsh and any other critics of Duckworth ought to know about her.

First, Tammy Duckworth is not necessarily a hero just because she agreed to serve in uniform, or because her chopper got shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade her crew never saw coming. The rate of military service in the United States is so low that many people reflexively assign the "hero" label to servicemembers simply because they volunteer for duty that most Americans would prefer to avoid. Whether he realizes it or not, Joe Walsh has tapped into a kind of unease many people feel about the diluted meaning of heroism these days: Among other things, military service is a profession that is inherently no more heroic than nonprofit work or ethical forms of business that help people earn a livelihood.

True heroism is reflected in the way people respond to adverse circumstances, including life-threatening ones. So if Walsh wants to determine whether Duckworth is a genuine hero, he might consider what she did after her legs were blown off by the RPG Iraqi gunners fired at her chopper on Nov. 12, 2004.

By the time the grievously injured Duckworth made it to an emergency room in Baghdad, she had lost so much blood that medics were surprised she was still alive. A few weeks later, the army official who had been running the ER when she arrived tracked her down at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where she had been transferred. Duckworth didn't remember him, but he had a vivid memory of her. "You were propped up on one arm, saying, 'I want the status of my crew. How are my men?'" he told her. "I just wanted you to know that."

Like many amputees, Duckworth initially felt "phantom pains" in legs that weren't there -- her brain's way of withholding the terrible news. When Duckworth's husband, army officer Bryan Bowlsbey, and a doctor first told her she had lost her legs, she said to her husband, "I love you. Now put me to work." By work, she meant whatever it took to recover. Her first form of physical therapy was moving her left wrist, one of the few parts of her body she was able to move without crushing pain, in three sets of 10. It was a tiny but important start. Recovery became her mission, just as if her unit had been assigned a mission in the field. She felt duty-bound to fulfill it.

At one point, an unusual medical condition required doctors to switch Duckworth from one painkiller to another. But the weaning process required her to endure five murderous days when she was essentially on no pain medication at all. "It took literally everything I had to breathe and to keep going," she said. Duckworth didn't think she could survive the pain for an hour. But she thought she could survive for a minute, so she counted to 60, over and over and over, until five days had finally passed and the new painkillers kicked in.

Duckworth battled many moments of despair. But she avoided prolonged self-pity by recognizing that there was always somebody else at Walter Reed who was in worse shape than she was. She also learned to use humor as therapy, wearing T-shirts, for example, that read, "It's just a flesh wound," or "Lucky for me, my husband's an ass man."

"Peer visitors" at Walter Reed turned out to be a tremendous help. These were fellow amputees from earlier wars who had gone on to live meaningful lives despite their disability. They'd chat with patients like Duckworth, offering support and demonstrating that life could still be rewarding. Once she recovered, Duckworth became a peer visitor herself. By then, she had learned that fully recovering from a devastating injury required dogged self-reliance. "The tough thing is to struggle and learn how to do it yourself," she said. She called this type of perseverance "owning the suck," a phrase soldiers use to describe the grit it takes to endure miserable conditions in the field.

I didn't include Duckworth among my "Rebounders" simply because she survived severe injuries. She made the cut because of something more extraordinary -- she found a way to turn profound adversity to her advantage. That makes her a model for other people suffering hardship. Being forced to recover from an extreme challenge amplified Duckworth's sense of purpose. "I was always about other people's approval," she said of herself looking back, before being shot down changed her life. Afterward, she said, "I had a new sense of fearlessness, because even on my worst day, nobody was shooting at me."

That fearlessness led her into politics, and her first run for Congress, in 2006. She had always feared rejection, and when she lost, it felt crushing. Then, a few days later, it was Nov. 12 -- her "alive day," two years after she had lost her legs in the 2004 attack. She spent the day in St. Louis with her former crewmates. The shock of losing the election quickly faded.

Once again this year, Duckworth's alive day will come a few days after a Congressional election she's running in. By then, voters will have decided if she's enough of a hero for them. "I earned these wounds because I served my country," Duckworth told me when I interviewed her. "This wasn't an accident. I didn't get drunk, drive down the road, and crash into a tree. These wounds are the equivalent of wearing a medal on my chest." Joe Walsh may want to find something else to criticize her for.