Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran who has served in the U.S. Senate since 2016, is raising awareness to the long-lasting effects of America’s two-decades long conflict.
Before being elected to represent Illinois, Duckworth’s roots ran deep within the U.S. military.
She joined the Army Reserve Training Corps in 1990 after graduating from George Washington University, following a family tradition since her own father had served in both World War II and the Vietnam War.
In fact, her family had served in every major conflict dating back to the Revolutionary War.
She began a doctorate program when she was called to war. Duckworth was in the Army National Guard flying helicopters until her deployment in 2004 when she was shot down by Iraqi insurgents. She became the first female American amputee of the war, losing both legs due to the attack.
She went on to serve in uniform until she retired in 2014 and successfully ran for Senate two years later.
As the country marks 20 years since the day that changed everything, Duckworth is reflective of how much it changed her life.
“I think that what 9/11 did was it just changed the trajectory of so many military careers and military families,” she said. “The National Guard is a good example, the reserve forces. The op-tempo for the last 20 years has been crazy high.”
Before 9/11, members of the reserve component maintained a predictable schedule and the opportunities for deployment were minimal. Duckworth acknowledged the good and bad, sharing how although it was a challenging time to maintain a civilian career it also proved the capabilities of reserve forces.
“It changed the dynamic between active duty and reserve forces,” she said. “But on the other hand, it created this whole challenge for those families because now you have reserve families who aren’t on bases and don’t have wrap-around services. Very often they were off by themselves.
“It added a level of complexity to the lives of our military families that just wasn’t there, and it was sustained for the last 20 years.”
In 2020, the nation recorded 1 million Guardsmen and reservists being called up to serve in the war on terrorism. President Joe Biden announced a troop withdrawal plan for Afghanistan earlier this year, and though news pundits have referenced the closing of a chapter, Duckworth said the aftermath of war will continue to reveal itself.
“You’ve got those, like me, who are wounded and will need long-term care for the rest of our lives… That’s going to last for decades,” Duckworth said. “But then we have these illnesses that will not manifest itself for 15 or 20 years. I think we have an Agent Orange situation happening.”
She was adamant in her belief that the effects of the war conditions might not show up for decades, similar to what was Vietnam War veterans experienced.
“It’s going to hit … we better be ready,” Duckworth said.
The burn pits and respiratory conditions of combat zones already are making waves. In April, the DOD estimated that around 3.5 million veterans had been exposed to the toxic fumes of burn pits. Despite this, the VA denied 75% of veterans’ claims.
“It behooves us and behooves advocates to make sure that the American people understand that there is potential for a situation where troops will not be taken care of because the price tag will be too high,” Duckworth said. “I see that in Congress all the time.”
She also referenced the public not recognizing the true cost of war, with the majority thinking about the budget for maintaining bases or building things like new helicopters.
“We don’t think about the 40 years of health care support … when we talk about the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and pulling our troops from Afghanistan. We need to have a real, honest conversation with the American people that the cost for Afghanistan is not over,” Duckworth said. “Let’s be honest about how much it costs to go to war.”
As Americans sit in remembrance for the lives lost to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and to the 20 years of war that followed, Duckworth said she hopes we’ll all be ready for what’s coming.