Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth, who lost both her legs when her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq in 2004, visited the country late last month for the first time since her injury as part of a congressional visit touring the Middle East.

She sat down with defense reporters last week to discuss what the return trip was like, and what she told Iraqi leaders about her hopes for the country where she nearly died:

“I had a lot of anger the first few weeks after I was injured. After I woke up in the hospital, I wanted to go out and find that bastard that shot me down, hunt him down and kill him. I moved off of that years ago.

“I just wanted what I did to not have been in vain … See, I didn’t believe in the war in the beginning, at all. I didn’t think we should have been there. I still don’t think we should have been there. I wanted to go after al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and I felt we didn’t belong in Iraq.

“But I truly love and believe in the Constitution, and I truly believe that the military is subservient to the civilian (authorities). That is why our democracy is so great.

“So when my commander in chief … issued that order, I wanted to go. At that point, I had been in the Army for 12 years. I had been in the National Guard for 12 years. I had been collecting a paycheck, doing all of that training. It was time. It was my turn to go, to prove to the American people that investment in me, the $200,000-plus spent to train me as a pilot, the paychecks that I cashed were worth it.

“So I was proud to go. I had just left command. These were my guys. There was no way in hell I was going to stay stateside and wave goodbye. So I volunteered.

“Those were all my reasons for going, which was enough for the injuries I sustained. That said, after I woke up in the hospital, one day Paul Wolfowitz came in and showed me pictures of the Iraqi people voting for the first time with the ink on their fingers. I had an emotional reaction. I cried. I was so happy they had that free election.

“What I said to the Iraqi president when I sat down with him (on this trip) was that Iraqis spilled blood to save Baghdad from ISIS, and Iraqis have fought for this country. But remember that I spilled my blood here, too.

“And my commitment to you and to Iraq, what I want is for you to become a successful, strong independent nation, not beholden to anyone, whether that’s the U.S. or Russia or Iran or anyone else. That version of Iraq is the best ally the United States in the region. Not a little brother. I want an Iraq that is economically strong, a voice in the Middle East. …

“It was interesting to be back. I told the Iraqi leadership that one of my heroes was John McCain, has always been. If John McCain could go back to Vietnam after what he endured, and lead the engagement and opening of Vietnam … He did it for the benefit of the United States with a desire to improve relations with Vietnam.

“And now there are veterans going on vacation in Vietnam, some of them in places they served, many of them bring their kids and grandkids. What I said to the Iraqi leadership is that someday I would like to bring my girls here on vacation. That’s the vision and hope I have for Iraq.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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