Duckworth Delivers Message of Strength in Diversity, Caring

The decorated Veterans Affairs official survived being shot down in Iraq, now champions disability rights.



By Vickie Chachere News Manager


Tampa, Fla. (Oct. 12, 2010) – When L. Tammy Duckworth was shot down in the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting over Iraq in 2004, a University of South Florida ROTC and College of Nursing graduate – Army Lt. Col. Tony Peverini – was among those who pulled her from the wreckage and helped treat her massive injuries.


Tuesday, Duckworth – now the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs – paid tribute to what she called the culture of nurturing and support that has allowed injured veterans to create new lives for themselves at USF. Appearing as the keynote speaker at Accessibull, USF’s celebration of people with different abilities, Duckworth told a crowd of more than 300 that for injured veterans, the hardest part is taking the first step.


“The tough lesson I learned was not that I lost my legs, the tough lesson was finding a new normal in my life,” she said. “Getting to that normal is a journey in itself. It is not a journey you can take yourself; it involves your family and your community as well.”


Yet in the diversity veterans with disabilities bring to their communities comes a new strength in collective caring and support, she said. That is a strength worth celebrating, she told the crowd on a day set aside just for that.


The third annual Accessibull celebration show-cased artistic performances and exhibits, panel discussions and displays of the latest innovations in disability assistive technology.


Since 2009 Duckworth has lead the VA’s programs for veterans struggling with lingering physical and mental health issues as well as education, economic and housing problems.  USF – the first university in the nation to create specialized services for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans under the new GI Bill – also is at the forefront of research on veteran’s health issues and in developing new technologies for veterans with disabilities through a close research partnership with the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.


Duckworth was a major in the Illinois National Guard when the helicopter she was piloting was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. She lost both legs and partial use of one arm.


It was by coincidence that among her rescuers was Peverini, a 1992 USF graduate whose sister-in-law is Raquel Peverini, USF's ADA coordinator in the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity who coordinated Tuesday’s event. Duckworth now celebrates her “Alive Day” – the anniversary of her injury and what she calls her second birthday – with her rescuers each year.


Duckworth described Tuesday that the last thing she remembers was fighting the fire in her aircraft, waking up days later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. An online diary kept by her husband Bryan Bowlsbey during her recovery noted just six days after her arrival at the hospital: “As soon as they pulled the breathing apparatus out of her throat she looked at her mother and me, and said, "I love you", and then "Put me to work".


In creating what she describes as her “new normal,” Duckworth said she had the advantage of new technology to help her achieve personal goals, including participating in the Chicago Marathon in 2008 and 2009 in a hand-cranked wheelchair. She also now pilots small aircraft as a hobby.


 She said many veterans – injured or not – are simply eager to get on with their lives and return to work and school, but still need supportive communities to help them through the transition.


“They go from being the ones running into burning buildings, they go from being fit and able to the ones needing help,” she said. “It’s a long journey back.


“What I say to the general public is we can all help each other,” she added. “It’s all of our jobs to be there.”


Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.