Franklin G. Duckworth Captain, United States Army


  • DATE OF BIRTH: 10/09/1928
  • DATE OF DEATH: 01/28/2005

Downed pilot finally hears uplifting words she awaited
Courtesy of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Monday, 27 June 2005

On a cold March day, a caisson pulled by six black horses carried a flag-covered coffin through the winding roads of Arlington National Cemetery, the hallowed ground where America buries its heroes.A crisp north wind bore through winter-bare branches. The rustle of dead leaves mingled with the click of horse hooves on pavement. A military band assembled on a hilltop played “Nearer My God to Thee.”

The grave site rested in the late afternoon shadows cast by a sturdy oak tree. Soldiers in blue dress uniforms unloaded the silver coffin with practiced precision. An Army chaplain said a few words. Seven riflemen fired three volleys each. A lone bugler played taps. Family and friends shed tears for someone who believed so much in duty, honor, country.

As the bereaved began to drift away, Tammy Duckworth lingered for a moment in her wheelchair. Three days shy of her 37th birthday, she wore her crisp, green Army dress uniform. Oak leaves on her collar indicated her recent promotion to Major. The Air Medal ribbon on her chest recognized her actions in combat. On November 12, 2004, the Black Hawk helicopter she had been piloting was shot down in Iraq by an insurgent using a rocket-propelled grenade. A blanket on her lap covered what remained of her two legs. She kissed her good hand and held it out toward her father’s casket.

“Bye, Daddy,” she said quietly.

More than anyone, Franklin Duckworth had molded his daughter into an overachiever. She tried so hard for so long to please him. Like every child, she longed to hear him express his pride in her. Even his wife urged him to let his daughter know his feelings.

But Frank Duckworth was a stoic man and like many of his generation often found it difficult to express his emotions, especially with his children.

Of course, he was proud of his daughter, he would tell his wife. Surely he didn’t need to come right out and tell her for her to know that.

Over time, Duckworth grew to believe she’d never hear the words from the man she still called Daddy. She moved on.

Frank Duckworth had been recovering at his home in Hawaii in late November when his daughter entered Walter Reed Army Medical Center in a fight for her life.

He had suffered a heart attack just a week before his daughter had been shot down, and another in early December. By mid-December, he had regained enough strength that doctors cleared him to travel to Washington to visit her. He arrived three days before Christmas, the same day that a general pinned the Air Medal and an Army Commendation Medal on his daughter’s uniform.

It had been a year and a half since Duckworth had last seen her father. The man who walked into the reception room that day at Walter Reed looked 10 years older than she remembered. A barrel-chested athlete in his younger days, he now looked thin and drawn. He leaned on a cane.

Frank Duckworth acknowledged the military brass in the room and then went straight to his daughter, hugged her and held her hand tightly. He sat down next to her wheelchair. Even now, he was sparse with words. They talked about his flight, how she was doing and whether she was being treated well.

He returned with his daughter to her hospital room where she got back into bed, exhausted by the day’s activities. He dozed in the chair next to her.

On Christmas Eve morning, Frank Duckworth suffered another heart attack and was admitted to Walter Reed, in a room one floor below his daughter.

After a few weeks at Walter Reed to regain his strength, Frank Duckworth transferred to a Maryland hospital to undergo heart surgery.

Frank Duckworth never woke from the operation. He held on for about two weeks before any hopes of recovery ended. The family gathered at his bedside to offer their final goodbyes before he was removed from life support. He died shortly after midnight on January 28, 2005, at age 76.

The day after her father’s funeral at Arlington, Duckworth was back at Walter Reed, where she pushed her damaged body through a grueling rehabilitation session that left her wet with sweat and out of breath.

The five-day-a-week regimen is part of her effort to reach what may be an impossible goal – to once again fly a Black Hawk for the Army.

She knows she could take her military discharge and disability payments and leave the Army behind. But her father had always taught her not to take the easy way out, to work harder than everyone else to achieve her goals. She wants to put her uniform back on, lead soldiers again and climb into the cockpit. It’s a matter of who decides when she stops flying – an insurgent who got off a lucky shot with a rocket-propelled grenade, or her.

Within the next year, a review board will decide the extent of Duckworth’s disability and whether she will be allowed to stay in the Army. In a way, she finds herself in a Catch-22 situation.

On the one hand, she wants to present herself as being 100 percent disabled to ensure she receives the maximum disability payment once she leaves the armed forces. On the other, she wants to prove to Army officials that she is still capable enough to fly. If her request to remain in the National Guard is granted, she is almost certain they’ll want her to take a desk job.

She has other ideas.

She hopes to appear before a flight evaluation board and a flight medical board and prove she can perform all the duties required of a helicopter pilot.

For now, she is delaying as long as possible her appearance before the medical evaluation board. She wants to get as healthy as possible first. She wants to show them not just that she can walk again, but that she can run.

Over the last several months, Duckworth has enjoyed and endured a measure of fame. She has talked to veterans groups, testified before a Senate committee and been a guest at the State of the Union address. She routinely says she is thankful to be alive, credits the actions of her fellow soldiers and lauds the Walter Reed staff.

In private moments, she admits she misses the feeling of being tall, fit and strong. Her life now involves compensating for her injuries. When not testing out her new artificial legs, she uses a motorized wheelchair. She spends most of her days in physical therapy, being fitted with her prosthetics and learning how to walk again. She spends most afternoons napping, exhausted by the work.

“I know that I’m going to be affected and upset by my appearance,” she said. “I’m not the same person that I was, but you just kind of have to acknowledge you have those feelings. If you have to feel them that day, then you feel them that day, but then you need to set them aside and get back to your job and do your job. My job is get myself back healthy and back in the aircraft.”

At times, she gets depressed.

On a recent night she found herself watching the television show “America’s Next Top Model.” She looked at the women and realized that she would never look that way again. The short skirts, the high heels, the feeling of femininity. At those times, she admits, she wept.

“The rest of my life is going to be spent compensating for the lack of legs and wearing clothes that cover that,” she said. “I cry, and it annoys me that I can’t wear pretty things anymore.”

But often at those moments, it’s her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey, who is there to put things back in perspective.

“Yes, it’s going to be a pain in the ass,” he’ll say, “for the rest of your long, happy life.”

Around her neck, Duckworth wears a medal that contains a portion of the soldier’s creed. Among its directives is to always place the mission first, never quit, never accept defeat, never leave a fallen comrade. It is a warrior ethos that her injuries did not dim.

At the hospital in Baghdad, personnel who treated her shortly after she was shot down later told Duckworth that she woke briefly. During that time, she repeatedly asked about the men aboard her Black Hawk. She is proud that despite her grievous wounds, she continued to try to fly her aircraft, that the mission remained paramount and that she continued to ask about the welfare of her crew even after she was injured.

“I don’t want to fail my soldiers, myself, the Army, the people I serve,” she said. “You make a commitment, and you live to keep it. It’s good to know that I was a professional, that I didn’t collapse under pressure.”

For now, Duckworth is on her mission to heal.

Her injuries no longer are considered life-threatening, and doctors expect her to lead a long life. She is learning how to walk again on her new artificial legs. She plans eventually to return to her civilian job with Rotary International.

When she looks back on the last six months, there are small victories she clings to: waking up alive, finding her husband at her hospital bedside, and then, finally, a chance to talk with her father in a way she never believed possible.

The moment had come after Frank Duckworth suffered his Christmas Eve heart attack. During her frequent visits to his hospital room at Walter Reed, Frank Duckworth seemed to open up like never before to his daughter. He told her he worried about her injuries, said he wanted to see her walk again and told her she’d had such pretty feet.

She told him not to worry, that she was fine, that she was alive and would move on. Still, she could tell he was mourning for her loss.

When she was fitted with her first artificial leg, she went down to visit him, thinking it might make him happy to see her with it.

He seemed relieved by her appearance, as if she was once again whole.

He looked into the eyes of his daughter, who had suffered and sacrificed so much.

“You know, I’m so proud of you,” he said as his eyes moistened with tears.

“Well, thank you, Daddy. That means a lot to me,” Tammy replied.

Today, Tammy Duckworth doesn’t know whether she will fly again or be able to continue her military career. Even so, she knows her father would be proud.

He’d told her so.

When Tammy Duckworth woke up November 20, 2004, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., she had no idea of her journey over the previous eight days.

Army Major Tammy Duckworth’s No. 1 cheerleader is her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey. His support helped her get through countless surgeries and demanding physical therapy.

The McKinley High School and University of Hawai’i graduate was missing almost all of her right leg up to her hipbone, and her left leg was gone below the knee. The 36-year-old Illinois Army National Guard pilot could feel the bandage over her broken right arm but didn’t realize she might lose it if doctors couldn’t restore its blood supply.

And Duckworth, who was plucked from her crippled Blackhawk helicopter after a rocket-propelled grenade tore through the cockpit as she flew across Iraq, wouldn’t understand until the haze of medication lifted that she was one of the lucky ones.

Major Ladda “Tammy” Duckworth and others will testify before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee today about military personnel who have been injured in the war and others without apparent injuries who may later seek health services from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Senator Larry Craig, R-Idaho, the committee chairman, said about one in four service members died from their wounds in Korea, Vietnam and the 1991 Gulf War, but today the rate of fatal battlefield injuries has been cut in half.

“But many are coming back with very severe disabilities, including missing limbs,” Craig said. “I want to ensure that for Tammy and others, there is a seamless transition from military service to civilian life.”

Duckworth is the daughter of Frank Duckworth, who died this year, and Lami Duckworth of Pearl City.

“Major Duckworth’s firsthand experience in Iraq and her evacuation to Walter Reed will help us as we grapple with how best to ensure that our service members … are provided with the care they need,” said Hawai’i Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, the top Democrat on the committee.

Duckworth said she gets through her vigorous physical therapy by focusing on her dream to fly again, either for the military or as a private pilot.

If her injuries had happened during World War II, Vietnam or even the Gulf War, doctors believe Duckworth, who lost nearly half of her blood in the assault, would have died. But a revamped emergency medical system rushed her to battlefield surgeons, saving her life.

Why more survive

Major Tammy Duckworth, a National Guard helicopter pilot — and McKinley High and University of Hawai’i graduate — rehabilitates at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

It has been the same for thousands of other injured soldiers, Marines and airmen whose bodies have been mangled, burned and shattered in attacks since the war in Iraq began March 19, 2003. In any other combat, at any other time, doctors say they would have died.

Military leaders point to three changes behind a higher survival rate: They gave troops better body armor, put surgeons in field hospitals closer to combat and created an air evacuation plan to get the wounded to surgical care within an hour.

Another factor is advances in first aid carried by medics traveling with the troops. One such advance is QuikClot, a mineral powder that adheres to exposed tissue and helps blood clot. Bleeding is a primary reason so many wounded die.

The goals are to keep the patient alive and with as many body parts as possible, and to whisk him or her out of Iraq to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the largest U.S. hospital in Europe.

Helping get them to Landstuhl is the newest, and what some call the most important, leg of the medical journey: a ride on a Critical Care Air Transport helicopter. These “flying ICUs” are the workstations for doctors and nurses who tend to patients during the eight-hour flight.

The physical therapy room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is full of soldiers who lost limbs in Iraq. Advances in care have cut battlefield fatalities dramatically since the Vietnam War.

The ‘golden hour’

Nearly 6,000 wounded troops have gone in and out of Landstuhl since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. But more than 1,500 troops have died, most before getting to Landstuhl. In Vietnam, most of the 58,000 deaths happened before the wounded could ever reach a surgeon, a wait of several hours or more. During the Gulf War, field hospitals were closer to the action, but it still could take several hours to get the wounded there.

For the war in Iraq, military officials knew they would need more mobile medical teams that were closer to combat and could get to the wounded by air or land within the “golden hour,” that daunting 60-minute window before a battered body begins to shut down.

Suicide car bombs, improvised explosive devices and RPGs have ripped into bodies with such trauma that immediate treatment is necessary to prevent shock or death from loss of blood.

The RPG that struck Duckworth shredded one leg, crushed the other and badly damaged her right forearm, breaking it in three places. She had seen a fireball hit below her feet and thought the helicopter engine had been taken out. Communications inside the aircraft were gone, so Duckworth couldn’t speak to the pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Dan Milberg, who was observing her flying that day. They both tried to land the chopper as Duckworth was fading in and out. The last thing she saw before she blacked out and fell forward was grass coming through the floor bubble. Milberg had managed to set the chopper down in a date grove.

It was then that he turned to Duckworth and could see her massive injuries. He thought she was dead.

Flying behind them, another pilot had already radioed for a medical evacuation helicopter, and troops on the ground rushed to do what they could, giving “Buddy Care,” the basic first-aid training all troops are taught before they’re deployed.

Stop the bleeding

In cases like Duckworth’s, it’s a life-or-death battle to stop the bleeding. Medics can apply a packet of QuikClot. Every soldier carries a plastic ring tourniquet that, with just one hand, can be slipped above a wound and pulled tight with a hand or mouth.

Duckworth’s femoral artery was severed when her right leg was torn off. She could bleed out within five minutes. The wound was so jagged and so near her hip that getting a tourniquet on was nearly impossible. Medics couldn’t stop the blood flow, but they pressed on the wound and slowed it down.

A helicopter flew Duckworth to Baghdad where surgeons amputated her right leg a few inches below her hip bone and cut off her left leg just below the knee. They reset the bones in her arm and stitched the cuts.

She was carried on a stretcher to a Critical Care Air Transport helicopter, and Duckworth was bound for the 350-bed Landstuhl hospital. She was in and out within hours, finally arriving at 10 p.m. November 14, 2004. at Walter Reed. Not even 60 hours had passed since the RPG exploded into her legs.

During Vietnam, if the soldier had lived, it could have taken a month to 45 days to get to a stateside military hospital.

When Duckworth woke up that November day at Walter Reed, she was in pain. Her legs ached. Her husband, Captain Bryan Bowlsbey, was at her side. He knew he had to break the news that what she was feeling was just phantom pain. So he told her what he had to say: Her right leg was gone, and there was nothing below her left knee.

He kept talking, and she quietly took it all in: that she wasn’t the only one having to go through this and, like the other amputees in the ward, she would get better.

She didn’t cry and didn’t ask why it had happened to her. Instead, she said she wanted to get on with it and do whatever was necessary. She told her husband that she loved him but that, hey, after six days by her side, he really needed a shower.

He was relieved. Her can-do spirit and humor were still very much intact.

But it was hardly easygoing the next few weeks.

Duckworth’s right arm was in jeopardy and needed repair. For stretches during November and December, she was having surgery every other day to improve the blood flow and to fight a stubborn infection.

After the surgeries

For Duckworth and other patients, it is a frustrating time, waiting for the body to heal enough so they can begin rehabilitation. There is little within the patient’s control. Limbs swell. Shrapnel no one ever knew was there suddenly breaks through skin and must be removed. Patients have to decipher what doctors are telling them. Every day can mean visits by new teams of doctors. The Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Service team. The Infectious Disease team.

Finally, the day comes when, barring the unforeseen, the surgeries are over and the OK is given for physical therapy. It’s a chance for dormant muscles to awaken and the patients to regain a little control over their bodies, to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s time to rebuild.

On a cold morning in late January, bright light flooded the physical therapy room on the third floor of Walter Reed. Duckworth stretched her muscles on a padded table. She watched a soldier try the parallel bars as he tried out the two prostheses attached to his legs.

Most of the people in the physical therapy room have lost a limb. Since the war started, at least 283 people have lost one arm or leg. Duckworth is among the 34 to have lost all or part of two limbs. Four have lost three. If there is someone who has lost both arms and both legs, Chuck Scoville, who manages the Walter Reed amputee patient care program and tracks such statistics, hasn’t heard.

Going vertical

Here, at Walter Reed and other surgical and rehab hospitals, progress is made by the slightest of measures.

The patients look forward to the day when someone will make casts of their limbs for prostheses. Before Duckworth can be fitted for her prostheses, she has to continue to work at being completely upright. After weeks in bed or in a wheelchair, a vertical position makes her light-headed.

Therapists move her onto a table and place straps across her body. They then levitate the table to a full standing position while her right leg rests on padding and her left inside a temporary prosthesis.

Duckworth’s husband is there to cheer her on. “You aren’t turning all white this time,” Bowlsbey jokes.

Duckworth grins and nods.

She feels she is lucky in that, at 36, she had a lot of years to enjoy her two legs. The 20-year-olds she sees in the room who are barely beyond their high school football days got a much worse deal, she says.

She gets through the physical therapy by focusing on her dream to fly again.

And she thinks about that day when the RPG hit and how she could have died. She calls the pilot her hero as she talks about those last seconds before the helicopter set down.

During those particularly hard days in therapy, she clings to her memory that she, too, was trying to get the helicopter down.

It speaks to who she is and how she will tackle the challenges ahead.

“I was still trying,” she says, her voice breaking. “I was still trying to do my job.”

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