SPRINGFIELD, IL (10/14/2014)(readMedia)-- Story by Staff Sgt. Aleah M. Castrejon, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs Office
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. –Lt. Col. Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates, Illinois, an Illinois National Guardsman with Joint Force Headquarters, announced her military retirement 10 years after her Blackhawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq and she lost both legs.
Duckworth commissioned with the Army Reserves in May 1992 and joined the Illinois Army National Guard in 1996, with dreams of becoming a Foreign Service officer, and someday an ambassador, she said.
"I was studying for my master's degree and in my classes were a lot of vets, drilling Reservists and Guardsmen," said Duckworth. "I just naturally gravitated toward those folks as my friends."
Her college friends advised her to understand the military better and attend military classes. Before long, she was heading off to military training.
"I had just been laid off from my job and everything worked out," said Duckworth. "I was able to go to basic training. So off I went to cadet basic training. It was miserable, but I loved the challenge."
Duckworth faced many hurdles throughout her career. In 2004, she deployed to Iraq as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot for the Illinois Army National Guard. She was one of the first Army women to fly combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade Nov. 12, 2004. Duckworth lost both legs and partial use of her right arm in the explosion and received a Purple Heart for her combat injuries.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kurt Hannemann of Chicago, with Company B, 1st Battalion, 106th Aviation in Peoria, Illinois, served as a door gunner on the same Blackhawk that was shot down. Hannemann said he considers Duckworth a mentor, admiring her mission-focused attitude and attention to detail.
Having been in the military for 23 years, Duckworth said balancing her civilian job and military career was the most challenging.
"I've always been a Reservist or Guardsman," said Duckworth. "During my command of Company B, 106th Aviation, it was a part-time job. That balance between being a citizen-Soldier and my civilian job has always been a real challenge throughout my career."
While Duckworth mentioned many fond memories and many testing situations, she always had a mentor to guide her.
"The person I have worked both closely with and for has been Colonel Sikowski," said Duckworth. "He taught me to be thoughtful, whereas the Army teaches you to be decisive. You want to make a decision and execute, but he taught me to be patient."
Sikowski responded to situations after taking time to think and come up with a better solution, one that had better long-term effects, said Duckworth.
"I carry his thoughtfulness to Washington and I teach that to my staff," said Duckworth, who is also a congresswoman. "I've always admired that and I carry that through the rest of my career."
Duckworth was not originally scheduled to deploy to Iraq in 2004, but volunteered for the deployment, said Sikowski.
"She was my right-hand person as far as operations for the entire task force," said Sikowski.
Sikowski required his staff to fly twice a week and remain fully engaged in the mission during the deployment.
"Tammy's always been driven," said Sikowski. "She's the type of person who can accomplish anything she wants to do whether this incident happened or not."
After her helicopter was shot down, Duckworth was determined to stay in the military.
She said she learned to enjoy other aspects of the military just as much as flying. She joined to become a pilot and flying was her passion; however, working in a tactical operations center (TOC) is something she enjoyed second to flying.
"I am a total TOC rat," said Duckworth. "I love writing operations orders, even though I cannot fly. The other thing I really love is TOC operations and being in the Joint Operations Center."
"It has been a privilege to serve with all of these amazing folks. I am so proud of what they do," said Duckworth. "The American people do not know what our National Guardsmen give up to wear the uniform."
Duckworth recalled many notable missions during her military career. She said she flew Bell UH-1, also known as a Huey, around the Pyramids in Egypt, Blackhawks over glaciers in Iceland and completed a deployment to Iraq.
"The greatest part of my career was when I was in command of Company B, 106th Aviation," said Duckworth. "As tough as it was and the hard work that it was, that was by far the best part of my career."
Duckworth maintained many great relationships and built a network of friends while in the military.
"We all have friends that go way back," said Duckworth. "You may not see them for ages, but when you do it's old home week. I treasure it."
In talking about her 10-year anniversary, Duckworth tears up thinking about that day and the Soldiers who saved her.
"They literally carried me off of the field," said Duckworth. "It's my turn to do a little carrying. Not a day goes by that I don't get up and say, 'What can I do to pay back?"
Choosing to remain in the military after the incident, Sikowski said it is quite an amazing accomplishment given the severity of her injuries that she continues serving so well.
Duckworth recently got her fixed wing pilot license and started flying again. Her motivation comes from the lifestyle of being a pilot, said Sikowski.
"The requirements, time and effort it takes to become a pilot becomes a lifestyle," said Sikowski. "It doesn't leave your blood. It's another one of those accomplishments that requires the drive that she possesses."
As she continues with her civilian career, she is working to ensure the veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom receive the care they need.
"I am working with respiratory and neurological associations to do studies," said Duckworth. "I don't want our Soldiers to wait 20 years before they are treated like agent orange and Gulf War syndrome."
Duckworth recently announced her pregnancy and said she has big plans after retirement.
"I plan on continuing my civilian job, raising this baby and being as big a cheerleader of the Guard as I can," said Duckworth. "I'll be a Guard spouse, as my husband is still in."
In the last decade, Duckworth has accomplished many personal goals including scuba diving, surfing, skydiving, marathons, going back to school, and helping in her community.
"Through her, I have learned that humans can be very resilient, both physically and mentally," said Hannemann. "I am very proud of how she has taken a negative thing and turned it into such a positive outcome."