Q&A with Army Maj. Ladda "Tammy" Duckworth

Select quotes from the interview, conducted by email on August 25, 2005, appeared in Audrey Magazine’s October/November 2005 feature article, “A Call to Duty: The Voices of Asian American Women in the Military." 

Tammy Duckworth in Black Hawk Helicopter

Army Maj. Ladda "Tammy" Duckworth of the Illinois Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 106th Aviation Regiment, was an Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot, who suffered the loss of both her legs in Iraq, when a rocket-propelled grenade penetrated her helicopter beneath her feet and exploded at her knees. She is currently a U.S. Senator for Illinois.

When did you enlist in the military?

Duckworth: I was 22 years old when enrolled in the Reserved Officers Training Corps (ROTC) in 1990 and was awarded my commision as a Second Lieutenant (2LT) in 1992 at 24 years.

What compelled you to join?

I have always felt a duty to serve my country. I originally planned on serving in the diplomatic corps. However, during graduate studies at The George Washington University's Elliott School for International Affairs, I realized that all my friends were either current or former members of the military. They encouraged me to try ROTC to see if military service was for me, and I found it filled my desire to serve.

Are you still active? 

I have always served in the Reserved Forces, first in the U.S. Army Reserves, and then in the Illinois Army National Guard. I was activated from my civilian life to deploy to Iraq in Dec 2003. I have remained on active duty orders as an activated National Guardsman while recuperating from my injuries. I have served 14 years and plan to request the Army to let me continue to serve in the National Guard once I am released from the hospital. 

What were general attitudes toward Asian Americans during your service? 

I have not felt any special treatment or attitudes because of my race. I have just come across the Model Minority stereotype, but since I kinda am a nerd and fit the stereotype, it doesn't bother me much.

How about specifically toward women?

I have faced some negative initial reactions to my service as a woman, mostly because I am one of a few women in a combat job — flying helicopters. Most of the time, it's just a couple of guys who have the reaction. I just ignore them, do the best that I can, kick their butts and move on. I would say 99% of the time, my gender and race have made no difference in how I am treated in the Army. That's what I love about the service. Your buddies don't care if you are male or female, white or yellow. They just want to know that when the shooting starts, you'll be there covering their back and they'll cover yours.

What jobs have you had and what kind of work did they entail? 

In the Army, I have been a platoon leader, a detachment commander, a battalion logistics officer, a company commander, and a battle captain. As a platoon leader, I was in charge of a platoon of helicopters and the soldier who maintained and flew them. As a detachment commander, I commanded a platoon of helicopters that was located away from the company that was its parent unit. This was a little more challenging than leading a platoon that is located in the same place as your boss, the company commander who can give you immediate help and guidance.

As a battalion logistics officer, I was responsible for the logistical support of an air assault helicopter battalion. I kept track of, and supervised the flow of all materials from food to tents to helicopter parts. The total dollar value of equipment under my supervision was over $1 billion. As a company commander, I commanded 3 helicopter platoons. As a battle captain, which was the job I was performing when I was injured in Iraq, I was the assistant to the battalion operations officer. I was in charge of running the day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute combat operations for the battalion. I ran the battalion's Tactical Operations Center, the nerve center of the battalion, for my boss, the operations officer. Right now I am attached to the medical hold company at Walter Reed Army Hospital where my job is to get well and rehabilitate my body.

I have faced some negative initial reactions to my service as a woman, mostly because I am one of a few women in a combat job — flying helicopters. Most of the time, it's just a couple of guys who have the reaction. I just ignore them, do the best that I can, kick their butts and move on. I would say 99% of the time, my gender and race have made no difference in how I am treated in the Army. . . .They just want to know that when the shooting starts, you'll be there covering their back and they'll cover yours. Tammy Duckworth in 2005

Did you encounter other Asian women in the military during your term?

Not in my field. However, I have met them in combat service support jobs like doctors or nurses. There just aren't many women in the circles that I operate in. I've served directly with a total of 7 other women in my entire army aviation career.

Why do you think there aren't many Asian women in the U.S. Armed Forces?

I don't know the demographics, but I have not noticed that Asian women are a smaller percentage of the Armed Forces than they are in U.S. society. If that is the case, it may be because there's not been much direct recruiting of Asians by the U.S. Services the way there are campaigns aimed directly at Hispanic or African Americans.

Was your family supportive of your decision to join?

My mom was scared and my dad was completely noncommittal. Although he was retired military himself, it was always expected that my brother would be the one to serve. My dad's only comment when I said I'd enrolled in ROTC was, "Do you think you have what it takes to make it?" Both my parents became very proud of my service.

Did you experience any racism?

I have never experienced any racism in the military. My most vivid experience of racism was growing up biracial in Southeast Asia. (My mom is Thai and my dad was Caucasian.) Many traditional Thais were prejudiced against Amerasian children, especially those like me who are Vietnam War–era children of American GIs and Thai women. That has gotten better nowadays though. For a long time, I just avoided talking to Thais when my mom wasn't with me. She always could handle it.

How long were you stationed in Iraq?

I had been there exactly 8 months to the day when I was shot down.

You served as an Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot. What attracted you to that job, and were there many other women flying those helicopters?

There are something like a total of 300+ women who have trained to fly the Black Hawk helicopter. I don't know how many are still active. I wanted to serve in aviation because this was the only “combat” job open to women in the Army. I didn't think it was fair that my male counterparts had to risk combat yet I could avoid it solely because of my gender. Of course, pretty much all Army jobs in theater are now combat jobs. In Iraq there are no front lines and terrorists are attacking us wherever they can.

You suffered great losses during your time there. Please share your overall experience of being in combat and how it has changed you and your perception of war.

Combat is that cliche of long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of intense pressure. I was stationed at a base where we were under constant mortar and rocket attacks. After a while you just learn to ignore them unless one lands near where you are located. On the day I was shot down, I had a smooth mission and was nearing the end of my long uneventful day. The rocket propelled grenade (RPG) that hit me induced those few minutes of intense concentration and pressure as I tried to land the helicopter.

I don't think my opinion of combat has changed. It sucks and should be avoided. However, if we have to fight, then we're going to do it as a team, and we will fight the enemy with as much fury and military might as we can muster. If anything, combat has shown me that I can rise to the challenge and that the love and friendship that I share with my buddies truly make us brothers- in-arms regardless of race or gender. After all, I am alive today because my crew refused to leave what they thought was my dead body behind, carried me out, got me to a medical evac helicopter and saved my life.

What were your expectations before you entered the military (and Iraq)?

I expected to serve with other people who truly felt the desire to serve their country and defend those values of the United States of America. I have found that while that sentiment runs in the military, there are some who started out joining the military for the college money. My feelings have not changed. I am truly privileged to be allowed the honor of wearing the uniform and serving as a leader in this country's army. I don't know of many other countries in the world that would let an Asian American minority female serve as a helicopter pilot and a leader in its fighting forces. What a democracy!

What has been most challenging about your service?

I think the most difficult thing has been juggling my civilian life with my military service. As a National Guard pilot, my work week consisted of working my civilian job and then at least once a week, reporting to my unit to fly missions at night after work. Then I'd get home after midnight and have to go back to my civilian job the next day. I once worked every weekend for the Army for 12 weeks straight. It can be tiring.

And the most rewarding?

The opportunity to serve with some of the finest men and women this nation has to offer. I've also served on many humanitarian missions where we built schools and hospitals in developing nations. It's always great to see the smiles of little children whose lives you've improved.

Photos courtesy of Duckworth: "One is of me from Iraq, posing in front of my helicopter. I am holding 'candy bombs,' packages of candy, toys, and school supplies that we put together from our personal care packages and dropped to Iraqi children as we flew over them. The other is a picture of me now as I work to stay in the army and return to duty as a helicopter pilot."



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