Tammy Duckworth speaks at SMC

As her Black Hawk helicopter was heading to the Iraqi ground after being shot by an RPG, Lieutenant Colonel Tammy Duckworth had only one thing in mind: “Do my job and land the helicopter,” she said.

Challenge completed. Little did she know that an even bigger challenge was waiting for her when she awoke in the hospital almost a week later.  Duckworth’s 2004 accident cost her both of her legs, and much of the function in her right arm.

Despite this horrific ordeal, Duckworth’s lust for life remained. She recovered from her injuries and involved herself in public policy, holding an administrative position at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. She vied for congress in 2006 and lost by 2 percentage points. But Duckworth didn’t give up, now she’s campaigning again.

Duckworth stopped at Santa Monica College’s Main Stage to speak last Thursday. The seats of the auditorium were packed with students, faculty, staff and military veterans eagerly listening to Duckworth’s heroic tale.

From the beginning, Duckworth captivated the audience “One of the benefits of losing both your legs is you can be any height you want to be,” she joked.  “If I can’t be supermodel thin, I’m going to be supermodel tall.

Duckworth’s speech was sprinkled with anecdotes about life as a military woman. She spoke about the “battle buddies” she didn’t know but was expected to share every experience with.  These buddies, she said, ended up saving her life following the helicopter crash.

Duckworth also urged the audience participate in community service. She urged students to “do something to serve this nation,” calling her visit to SMC “a call to serve.”  She suggested that non-veterans could volunteer at their local VA hospital and for student veterans to seek out organizations such as American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars after they graduate.

Her encouragement at SMC was in step with her message to the nation during her endorsement of Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention on September 4th.

“[This election] is also about whether we do for our fellow Americans what my crew did for me; whether we’ll look out for the hardest hit and the disabled,” she stated.

SMC student veteran Anthony Torrez agrees with Duckworth’s message of community service, stating that he feels it’s very important for everyone to be involved in the community and to be more aware of what is going on around them.

Students Samantha Gomez said she didn’t have to be a military veteran to feel moved by Duckworth’s personal experiences.

“It made me feel like I was there,” she said.  “It’s very inspirational because it makes us want to help [veterans] more because we understand their point of view.”  Gomez also supported helping veterans in the community. “It’s the minimum we can do because they are defending us with their lives,” she said.

Veteran’s affairs have been a major part of Duckworth’s life since recovering from her life-altering injuries.  According to an LA Times article in 2006, she decided to run for congress the first time just 4 days after being released from the hospital, telling her husband, Army Major Bryan Bowlsbey, “I like to serve.  It’s part of who I am.”

In 2009, President Obama appointed Duckworth as the Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs.  She resigned that position to run for Congress again in 2011.

Duckworth, who is campaigning as a Democrat, says she plans to cut defense spending if elected, according to her website. “I believe that we need to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent, crack down on big corporations who avoid paying taxes, and speak out against those who would go to war for the wrong reasons,” she said. “We need to create jobs, reform our tax code, and make sure that everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

SMC President Dr. Chui L. Tsang commented on the veteran. “[Duckworth] may have been severely injured, but she is not disabled.  Although she has lost both of her legs, she still stands tall,” he said.  “While her body was badly maimed, her spirit remains undaunted.”