RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
One Congressional race this year involves a former Army National Guard helicopter pilot who was shot down in Iraq. Last week, Tammy Duckworth won the Democratic nomination from a district in the suburbs of Chicago. We first met Major Duckworth a year ago, when NPR's Joseph Shapiro watched her stand up on her prosthetic legs and walk for the first since her injury.
Recently, he went to Illinois to see Duckworth campaign. She is one of a long line of veterans with serious war injuries who wind up in politics.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:
With a jerking gait, Tammy Duckworth comes through the automatic doors and into the lobby of a rehab hospital where Max Cleland, a former U.S. Senator, is joining her for a campaign event. Cleland has never seen Tammy Duckworth walk until now.
Mr. MAX CLELAND (Former U.S. Senator, Democrat, Georgia): Oh, my God. Oh, my God, I can't believe it.
Major TAMMY DUCKWORTH (Former Pilot, Army National Guard ): I know. I don't think you've seen me walk before.
Mr. CLELAND: No, I have not. Gee. Show off.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CLELAND: God almighty.
Major DUCKWORTH: I know.
SHAPIRO: Duckworth balances herself with a cane in her right hand. Below her skirt, there are sticks of dull metal, her new legs. She leans over to hug Cleland in his wheelchair. Duckworth almost died in Iraq. A rocket-propelled grenade downed the helicopter she was flying near Baghdad in 2004.
Cleland almost died in Vietnam. A grenade explosion ripped off his legs and right arm near Khe Sanh in 1968. At the Marian Joy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton, Illinois, Cleland and Duckworth say hello to an elderly man in a wheelchair. He's a veteran.
Unidentified Man: I've got careers in WW II and Korea.
Major DUCKWORTH: I've always just been inspired by both the World War II generation and the Vietnam generation, because I saw those--you know, those guys came home from a war, and they went back into life, and then many of them went into public office and they changed the world. You know, President Kennedy…
SHAPIRO: This year, nine veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are running for Congress. Tammy Duckworth is the only one with a severe disability. From George Washington on, American soldiers have come home from war and stepped into politics. In more recent wars, as soldiers survived with more serious injuries, veterans with disabilities got into politics, too.
Like three wounded soldiers from World War II who became U.S. Senators, and important ones at that. Sixty years ago, all three just happened to end up in the same Army hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Mr. BOB DOLE (Former Senate Republican Leader): Yeah, now the building is named after us. It's called the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center.
SHAPIRO: That's Bob Dole. He was Senate Republican Leader and candidate for president. Democrat Daniel Inouye has represented Hawaii in Congress since it first became a state in 1959. And the late Phil Hart was a Democrat from Michigan. One of the three Senate office buildings is named for him.
Mr. DOLE: Well, it's a good story to think that three guys who didn't know each other end up in a hospital together, and then would go off on our separate ways, and we end up in Congress together.
SHAPIRO: Dole says there weren't a lot of jobs for men disabled by war in the 1940's. But anyone could get into politics, and sometimes having a disability helped.
Mr. DOLE: If you've overcome a disability, I mean, a lot of people admire that and feel that if you can do that, you'd probably do a pretty good job whatever you chose to do, whether it's representing them, or whatever.
SHAPIRO: But perceptions cut both ways. Dole says his inability to fully use his arms sometimes made him look weak and incapable. Dole wanted to be the Republican nominee for president in 1988. Those hopes faded after he lost the New Hampshire primary to George Herbert Walker Bush.
Mr. DOLE: And I really think my disability may have cost me the nomination, because we had this tremendous snowstorm, and all I could do is walk around grocery stores and shake hands with people, and here George was out there shoveling snow and driving one of these big snow plows, and I just couldn't do it. So people that didn't know, and then when they saw the evening news, saw Bob Dole in a nice warm grocery store, George Bush had to figure this young guy out there shoveling snow. I often wondered about that snowstorm.
SHAPIRO: Last year, Dole's wartime autobiography came out. He dedicated it to several people, including a woman he met at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Tammy Duckworth. And at that Washington Hospital, Duckworth met another disabled soldier turned Senator, Max Cleland of Georgia. On this day, Cleland has joined his fellow Democrat Tammy Duckworth on the campaign visit to the rehab hospital in Illinois.
Major DUCKWORTH: Here, have you met Senator Cleland?
SHAPIRO: They check out a room with bars and steps used to help people walk again. It makes Cleland think about the soldiers with severe injuries he's met recently.
Mr. CLELAND: The term poly-trauma is coming to us out of Iraq. Multiple traumas, multiple amputations, shrapnel, the concussions.
Major DUCKWORTH: I would never have survived. I wouldn't have. If this was the first Gulf War, I wouldn't have survived. I had my helmet, my ballistic visor stopped shrapnel that would have taken off my face. Basically, any part of me that was sticking outside of the armor in the armor seat was injured, or is no longer with me.
SHAPIRO: Cleland says politics is like war; in both, you get shot at.
In 2002, he lost a nasty race for reelection as U.S. Senator from Georgia. Still, he says there's something about surviving a wartime injury that leads to politics, because you start asking the big questions about life.
Mr. CLELAND: Why is serving so important when you've been hurt so badly? Because it's the way to turn your pain into somebody else's gain, and it validates you, and provides some sense of meaning to your life.
Because when you get blown up and traumatized, you wonder why you lived. Why did I make it back? Why was I the one pulled from the helicopter? That's part of what's driving Tammy. I know.
SHAPIRO: Duckworth calls it the good slap in the face. Her amazement that her life didn't end in the wreckage of a helicopter, that her co-pilot, Captain Dan Milberg, rallied the crew to go back and get her.
Major DUCKWORTH: They thought I was dead, but they still tried to carry me out of there. And it was pretty gruesome.
And they dropped me because I was so bloody, and I fell on them, and they picked me up. And they're wading through six-foot tall grass trying to get me out of there. And I think about him going through all that, just to bring what he thought was a body back. And I just really feel like, you've jut got to be more. You've got to be worthy of that effort, you know?
SHAPIRO: Duckworth says politics, like the military, attracts people who want to serve their country.
Last summer, Duckworth was just trying to walk again. She had no thoughts of running for office, until Illinois Democrats recruited her. She was getting a Ph.D. in political science before she went to Iraq. She says she thought the decision to invade Iraq was wrong, but she was eager to serve with the soldiers she'd trained in the Illinois National Guard and Reserve.
Now, she says there needs to be a plan to replace American troops with Iraqi soldiers. Her opponent, Republican State Senator Peter Roskam, supports the Bush Administration's Iraq policy. He's making tax cuts the big issue. For Duckworth, its good healthcare for injured soldiers and everyone else.
She got top of the line military healthcare, like that new leg she's wearing. It's run by a computer chip, and costs about $100,000 dollars.
Major DUCKWORTH: Hi. How are you today?
SHAPIRO: It's the next day.
Major DUCKWORTH: Good morning. Good morning.
SHAPIRO: Duckworth pushes herself in her wheelchair into her sparsely furnished campaign headquarters in a suburban strip-mall. She's not wearing that fancy prosthetic leg.
Major DUCKWORTH: Because I did the tour of the hospital yesterday, and I walked, what do you think that was? About a mile, mile and a half? It was a long day, and I was on my legs the whole day. And this morning I got up and I was like, you know, I could wear the leg, but everywhere I'm going will be accessible, so I just didn't wear it.
SHAPIRO: One thing about campaigning with a severe disability, it can be exhausting.
Duckworth is now a politician. But she's also still a patient. On this day, she'll spend three hours at a hospital for her own rehab therapy.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: Former Georgia Senator Max Cleland talks more about how his war injury influenced his political career at npr.org.
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