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In November 2004, while on a combat mission in Iraq, Tammy Duckworth lost both her legs when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting.
Duckworth, a captain in the Illinois Army National Guard at the time and now a U.S. senator from Illinois, was the first American female double amputee of the Iraq War. But not the last.
A year later, on Thanksgiving Day 2005, while patrolling the southern Baghdad area known as the “Triangle of Death,” Army Spc. Marissa Strock lost both her legs when her Humvee team was hit by a command-detonated IED.
The blast instantly killed both the team leader, Staff Sgt. Steven Reynolds, and the driver, Spc. Marc A. Delgado. Strock suffered traumatic brain injury and a broken wrist, collarbone and arm. Cranial swelling left her in a coma for nearly a month.
When she came out of the coma, Strock consented to have both legs amputated below the knee. Like Duckworth, she was awarded a Purple Heart.
Despite their heroic military careers, Duckworth, Strock and many more American women like them continue to endure indignities on the home front.
Latest example: Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s recent comments in which he called Duckworth a “coward.”
When she was asked on CNN about whether statues of George Washington should come down because Washington owned slaves, Duckworth called for a “national dialogue” on the issue. She did not voice support for the removal of any Washington statues, and she refused to go on Carlson’s show.
Carlson, who hosts the most watched show on cable news, called Duckworth “unpatriotic” and said she “hates the country.” He called her a “moron,” a “fraud” and a “deeply silly and unimpressive person.”
Duckworth, who’s reportedly on presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s shortlist of choices as a running mate, did not take Carlson’s unfounded shots sitting down. She tweeted in reply, “Does @TuckerCarlson want to walk a mile in my legs and then tell me whether or not I love America?”
President Trump then retweeted Carlson’s rant and had his campaign release a statement charging Duckworth with using her military service “to deflect from her support for the left-wing campaign to villainize America’s founding.”
Strock and several other female combat veterans interviewed for this story say they took Carlson’s comments about Duckworth personally.
Strock doesn’t know Duckworth, but she’s felt a connection with her since the time they were both recovering and rehabilitating at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
“In many ways Tammy is my sister-in-arms. We’re both double amputees, we were both in combat in Iraq and we were at Walter Reed at the same time,” Strock says. “She was a leader, and I saw her at several of our Friday night dinners.”
The dinners, hosted by Fran O’Brien’s Stadium Steakhouse in the Capitol Hilton, were thrown by veteran advocates and attended by hospitalized warriors, including amputees. The dinners were a respite from the hospital monotony and represented a few hours of normalcy.
“Tammy was willing to give her life for her country she loves,” Strock says. “She went to war and lost both legs when her helicopter was hit with enemy fire. Where do you get ‘unpatriotic’? I might be mistaken, but how long did you serve, Tucker? You sit at your desk like the pretty boy that you are and have an opinion about her bravery that you just don’t get to have. She’s proved her bravery; she doesn’t need your validation.”
Carlson’s comments about Duckworth weren’t the first time he’s demeaned American women in the military. In 2013, when the Pentagon said it would lift a 1994 prohibition on women serving in combat roles, Carlson tweeted: “The [Obama] administration boasts about sending women to the front lines on the same day Democrats push the Violence Against Women Act.”
Carlson then compounded snarkiness with tastelessness: “Feminism’s latest victory: the right to get your limbs blown off in war. Congratulations.”
Marilyn Rodgers, a retired Army major and medic in the first Gulf War who subsequently pursued a career as a physical therapist, was one of the most important people in Strock’s life in her postwar days.
For 18 months, Rodgers helped Strock relearn how to walk with prosthetic legs. In that time, they had many heart-to-heart conversations. Strock sometimes resisted her, and there were some tense moments, Rodgers says. But they remain close to this day.
“Marissa is amazing, and she can empathize with Tammy,” Rodgers says. “For Carlson to throw trash talk at a woman who lost her legs fighting for her country is inexcusable. And it’s sad that not one Republican came out in support of Tammy.”
In 2007, Strock posed for Newsweek’s “Failing Our Wounded” cover story, which revealed serious shortcomings in the care that veterans were receiving, both at Walter Reed and at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics.
The photo of a somber Strock sitting on a stool in an Army T-shirt with her prosthetic legs at her side was both moving and controversial.
Strock told this reporter at the time that on the morning she came out of amputation surgery, she was obviously suffering, but was denied her pain medications because of what she says was an inattentive nurse.
“The doctors were fantastic,” Strock said. “But some of the nurses and other staffers here have been a nightmare.”
Duckworth says she had a positive overall experience at the hospital.
“Walter Reed Army hospital saved my life,” Duckworth tells Yahoo News. “The doctors, nurses and staff were top-notch — they saved my arms. Despite being overwhelmed by the number of patients at the time, they were incredibly dedicated.”
Valerie Whelton, who served in a combat role south of Baghdad for 14 months from 2006 to 2007, says Carlson’s comments about Duckworth were uninformed and an insult to all women who serve.
“What he said about Tammy makes my blood boil,” Whelton says. “None of us are cowards. Women in the military have it hard. We have to prove ourselves and work twice as hard as the men. And we are often still not accepted.”
Despite pushback from certain media pundits and the White House, women in the military are making historic strides.
In June 2018, Michelle Macander, an Iraq War veteran who led a platoon in Kuwait, became the first woman to lead a Marine Corps ground combat battalion. And this month, the first female Army Special Forces Qualification Course candidate received her Green Beret and Special Forces tab.
“The graduation of the first female U.S. Army Green Beret is an important and hard-earned milestone,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities.
Duckworth notes that for more than a century, even before Congress allowed women to join the military, brave women left their homes and disguised themselves as men to defend the Constitution.
“As the number of women in our armed forces continues to climb, it is our sacred duty as members of Congress — and as Americans — to show our appreciation for women veterans by fulfilling our promise to care for those who have borne the battle,” Duckworth says.
Recently, Duckworth helped introduce a resolution to designate June 12 as Women Veterans Appreciation Day, in honor of the nearly 50,000 female veterans from her home state and the many others who have served down through the generations.
“I also introduced bipartisan legislation to ensure proper-fitting body armor, which would enhance troop readiness by helping make sure our female service members are properly equipped for combat,” she says.
“All Americans deserve access to the best health care possible — especially the veterans who risked life and limb to defend our nation and made significant sacrifices on our behalf, which is why I introduced common-sense bipartisan legislation, the Veterans Preventive Health Coverage Fairness Act, to ensure we’re no longer asking veterans to pay more for essential health services than every other insured American.”
Strock isn’t taking political sides on the issue.
“I had early hope for Trump, but I’ve soured on him. The things that come out of his mouth. I wish they would change the Wi-Fi password at the White House,” says Strock, who likes Jo Jorgensen, the Libertarian Party’s nominee for president in 2020.
“I will always support Tammy, but I try as hard as I can not to watch the news,” Strock says. “To be 100 percent honest, I’m sick and tired watching people get national attention for running their mouth like they’re in middle school. It’s the kind of name calling you do when you are 12.”
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