VA Official Duckworth Struggles To Return From Iraq

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Where To Go For Immediate Help

Call the Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1(800) 273-TALK (8255) or go to the Web site below.

Tammy Duckworth has felt the effect of war. Five years ago she was flying combat missions in Iraq when her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. She lost both of her legs and partial use of one arm. But she didn't lose her will; after recovering from her injuries, she ran for Congress and served as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs. Today she's assistant secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Host Scott Simon talks to Duckworth about the mental health of returning soldiers and her own experience coming back from combat.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, our Impact of War series continues with a look at a free counseling service for soldiers returning from war, and their families.

But first, Tammy Duckworth has felt the effect of war. Five years ago, she was flying combat missions in Iraq until her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Tammy Duckworth lost both of her legs and partial use of one arm. But Tammy Duckworth didn't lose her will. After recovering from her injuries, she's run for Congress and served as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. Today, she is assistant secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

She joins us from her office in northern Virginia. Ms. Duckworth, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. TAMMY DUCKWORTH (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs): It's a pleasure to be on.

SIMON: Our Impact of War series has been focusing on the emotional state and health of returning soldiers and the effect on their families. You have done a lot of work in this area. What do we need to know? What still needs to be done?

Ms. DUCKWORTH: Well, what people need to know is that oftentimes it is the community, it is the families, it is the co-workers who see the signs and the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder before the veterans themselves have figured out or are willing to admit that they're suffering from PTSD or a traumatic brain injury.

The other aspect of that is that many of the symptoms for PTSD and traumatic brain injury are very similar. Somebody who's lost the ability to control their emotions, or being very quick to anger - the service member themselves may not recognize this but the family members do. And that's why at VA we are making sure that we educate not just the veterans - many of whom are in denial - but also the families, so that the families can try to get help to the veterans as well.

SIMON: Ms. Duckworth, I apologize if this is too personal, but you've been so outspoken in this area. To all outward appearances, you've managed to overcome a highly traumatic ordeal, to say the least, in a relatively short period of time. But are there things that still linger with you?

Ms. DUCKWORTH: Well, there certainly are. I don't watch a lot of movies on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan because what happens to me personally is if I watch, say, a two-hour movie on the war or I read an entire book, I will dream about the war. I will go to bed and close my eyes and I think I'm waking up but I'm actually dreaming, and I wake - in my dream I wake up and I'm back in Iraq. And I will live an entire day in Iraq flying my missions, doing everything.

And it's not always a nightmare, it's just I'm living a full day of combat. I then hit the rack in Iraq, as we used to say, and open my eyes and it's eight hours later and I'm in my bed here safe and sound. But I am absolutely exhausted and completely emotionally drained.

The effects of war are there for everyone and we all deal with it in different ways. And one of the things the VA is trying to do is conduct more research to figure out, you know, how come some people react in one way to a traumatic event and others can recover and others are more resilient? What is it and what can we do to help our, as we call them, help our warriors better achieve a normal life?

SIMON: Don't want to make too much of a phrase, but I'm interested when you say you have dreams but they're not necessarily nightmares. Is that because at the end of the day you're proud of your service there too?

Ms. DUCKWORTH: Yes, I am proud of my service. And for me, in my dreams, I'm usually flying my helicopters and I usually have my legs. You know, it's been five years since I was injured and it's taken that long to now in my dream world, I know something's wrong that I shouldn't be able to do this. But in my dreams I haven't figured out yet that I don't have legs and I'm flying and I'm with the men and women that I was so proud to serve with and I'm with my buddies and I'm doing my mission.

SIMON: We're speaking with Tammy Duckworth, assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The military, of course, now has another tragedy to deal with - the Fort Hood shootings. Does a crime like this send a ripple through all ranks and services?

Ms. DUCKWORTH: Well, it certainly does. You know, and we all have some sort of a personal connection to Fort Hood in some way. At the VA level, we lost two of our great employees who are National Guardsmen and Reservists and one is still in the intensive care unit severely wounded. You know, we've suffered a very personal loss here at Veterans Affairs.

But anytime something this senseless happens, it just grips your heart and you wonder why did it have to happen and what could be done to have prevented it. And you ache, you ache for the families and you ache for the fallen heroes. You know, I wear the First Cav patch on my soldier because that's the mission I was on in Iraq when I was shot down. I have friends who are in the First Cav and who are deployed into Iraq right now.

And to have to deal with this happening at home while they're over there trying to do their jobs is incredibly difficult at a time when they need to be focused completely on surviving the missions at hand.

SIMON: Ms. Duckworth, you going to go back to Illinois and run for office again?

Ms. DUCKWORTH: You know, I've not rule that out but I love the job that I have right now. It's a really exciting time to be at VA. I get to work for Secretary Shinseki and I, you know, get to be here at a time when our president has given us a $25 billion commitment over the next five years. It's the largest increase in our budget in over 30 years.

And so I might run for office someday. There's been no opportunity that have presented themselves to me that have seemed more important than the work that I'm doing right now.

SIMON: Senate's seat open

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: coming open.

Ms. DUCKWORTH: Well, yeah. You know, but I don't see something that's more important than what I can contribute right now. I feel that this is important work that I'm doing that, you know, trying to live up to the second chance I got at life.

SIMON: Tammy Duckworth, assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs at the Veterans Affairs office, thanks so much.

Ms. DUCKWORTH: Thank you.

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