Iraq War Veteran Tammy Duckworth, the Comeback Artist

Congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth triumphed over adversity after losing both of her legs in Iraq.

Tammy Duckworth, while serving with the Illinois Army National Guard, during her tour of duty in Iraq.
By SHARE

On the road to success, failure is always a possibility. But some people seem to have a surplus of resilience, that all-important trait that helps them bounce back, often again and again, to accomplish great things. In his new book Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success, Rick Newman, the chief business correspondent for U.S. News, examines what "rebounders" such as Netflix's Reed Hastings, former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, and Pandora founder Tim Westergren have in common, from defensive pessimism to knowing when to quit.

In this excerpt from his book, Newman describes how Iraq War veteran and congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth triumphed over adversity after losing both of her legs when her helicopter was shot down near Baghdad:

Sometimes a setback is an inconvenience. Sometimes it's a major disruption. Sometimes it's even bigger than that. Severe hardships can be the toughest tests we face in life, capable of neutralizing ambition and wrecking years of careful planning. People who overcome traumatic adversities often do it by applying habits learned through lesser setbacks. In the same way that small triumphs can help build incremental layers of confidence and toughness, overcoming major hardships can generate newfound capabilities that may not emerge any other way.

One day toward the end of 2004, 36-year-old Tammy Duckworth awoke in a hospital room, wondering where she was and what had happened. As consciousness came and went, she heard doctors and nurses talking about a helicopter crash. It came back to her in fragmented, terrifying snapshots. Iraq. Heat. Sky. Dust. A deafening flash. Screeching machinery. Blood. Fear. Something terrible had happened, and she had been in the middle of it. For days, in the hospital, she felt an overwhelming sense of dread as she grasped at comprehension. But over the following months, Duckworth would transform shock, horror, pain, and a crippling new disability into an intensified sense of purpose. Modest goals grew into more ambitious ones. Her pace of accomplishment accelerated. Barriers to advancement that had once seemed imposing no longer got in the way. Above all, Duckworth developed the confidence to try bold and difficult things because the risk of failing no longer intimidated her.

[See photos of soldiers returning home from Iraq.]

Capt. Tammy Duckworth, call sign Mad Dog 06, was a Black Hawk helicopter pilot assigned to the Illinois National Guard's 106th Aviation Battalion when it was sent to Iraq in 2004. Her unit was based northwest of Baghdad, near the notoriously dangerous Sunni Triangle, during a time of intense fighting. Through the first eight months of her tour, she had been fired on a few times, but never hit. She spent more time than she preferred on the ground, helping plan and oversee missions, which reduced her exposure to hostile fire. But she had gone to Iraq to fly, not to give briefings in a fortified command post. So she was enthused when assigned to fly an all-day mission on Nov. 12, 2004. As a captain, she'd be the senior member of her four-person crew.

Duckworth and her crew started flying around 7 a.m., ferrying troops and supplies around Baghdad in support of a big battle raging near Fallujah, about 40 miles west of the Iraqi capital. Everybody was on high alert, but the day had been uneventful until late afternoon, when the crew wrapped up the last of their logistical runs and began heading back to their base. When they were just 10 minutes from landing, Duckworth heard the alarming metallic sound of small-arms fire strafing the side of her aircraft: tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Almost simultaneously, a blinding fireball tore through the floor of the helicopter's right front quarter, where her feet were, and blew straight through the top of the aircraft. Duckworth later learned what it was: a rocket-propelled grenade, powerful enough to disable a tank and destroy a helicopter if it hit in the right place. Duckworth instinctively tried to press the foot pedals that controlled the helicopter, to get it on the ground. But the pedals had been blown off. So had most of her right leg, and her left leg below the knee. Her right arm was shattered and useless. Body armor had protected her vital organs, and while her face was somewhat burned, the ballistic shield affixed to her helmet had deflected much of the heat and shrapnel from the RPG, possibly preventing her from being blinded.