Leading the Charge Up the (Capitol) Hill

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Tammy Duckworth leaves the stage after addressing the Democratic National Convention in September 2012.

Early on the morning of Nov. 4, 2008, I gathered up my things, and like most days that year headed out on a mission into southern Baghdad. After a quiet patrol on a chilly day, my troops and I came back to our base just in time to see on the CNN satellite feed that the polls had opened back home. Late that night, just before the sun came up, we learned that Barack Obama had been elected President.

Four years later I watched the proceedings from the 23rd floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. It’s impossible not to appreciate the feeling of history unfolding, the result of American exercising what historian Theodore White called their “unpredictable–invisible” right to choose the direction of their country. Like most of America, I spent much of the day focused on the two men at the top of the tickets, but at the end of the night, the result that gives me the most hope for this country is the imminent arrival of Tammy Duckworth to Capitol Hill.

Eight years ago next week, Tammy Duckworth was piloting a Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq when a rocket propelled grenade exploded underneath her. The blast tore off her legs, and as her co-pilot landed the crippled aircraft, Duckworth lost half of the blood in her body. Thanks to her co-pilot, medics, doctors and nurses, she survived.

“This didn’t change who I am,” she said seven months later. “I’m an air-assault pilot. I’m not about to let some guy who got lucky with an RPG decide how to live my life.”

Staying true to her word, Duckworth ran for Congress from Illinois in 2006 and lost a tight race. After serving as an assistant secretary in the Department of Veterans Affairs, Duckworth tried again. This time she defeated Republican incumbent Joe Walsh, and when she takes office, she will become one of the first female veterans, and the first wounded veteran from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be elected to Congress. She leads a class that includes at least a half dozen Army, Navy and Air Force veterans who either won or kept a seat in the House of Representatives.

“We’ve got the biggest increase in the number of veterans in Congress in decades,” says Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “They all worked together in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hopefully they can get everybody to work together in Washington and bring a new shot of energy to a Congress that’s been really ineffective.” (See IAVA’s roster of vet races here.)

The veterans entering Congress face the same steep challenges to productivity as the rest of the government–entrenched partisanship, intractable opposition to the other party and a legislative body that’s helplessly gridlocked. But there is hope that they can remember their experience when they were part of something larger than the petty squabbling of Washington.

After she won Tuesday night, Duckworth tweeted: “I would not be here had the real heroes and the healers not saved my life.” United by their former service, there’s a chance that they just might be the catalyst for the changes our country desperately needs.

The 42 veterans who ran for national office this election are only a fraction of the former service members who competed in local, city and state races. In the next few election cycles, we’ll undoubtedly see more former troops like Duckworth who experienced heroism and horror during a decade of war.

If they seek out the once and still fearless chopper pilot now representing Illinois’ 8th District, perhaps they can move the needle just a little bit in advancing the country they’ve already faithfully served.