BURR RIDGE – Trinity Lutheran School students greeted former U.S. Army National Guard Lt. Colonel Tammy Duckworth with eager, outstretched hands and a standing ovation Tuesday, as they lined up to meet the soldier turned U.S. Congresswoman as she made her way to the podium for a Memorial Day address.
Tuesday's visit was the last of several Memorial Day stops Duckworth – who currently represents the 8th Congressional District in Illinois – made from May 24-27. During the Trinity Lutheran assembly, she spoke to the student body and staff about the importance and significance of the holiday.
"I hope that at some point during the weekend you said a little prayer or maybe said grace," she said. "That you mention the men and women who died for our freedom in this country and the reason we're able to have a day off to celebrate is because they were there for us."
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the aviation incident that injured Duckworth. In a November 2004 mission north of Baghdad, a rocket propelled grenade struck the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting.
"One of [the RPGs] happened to hit right beneath where I was sitting in my helicopter," she said. "It blew off my legs and I almost lost my right arm."
Duckworth attempt to pilot the helicopter, but eventually passed out from blood loss. Fellow Army National Guard servicemen and women fellow helped her to safety and saved her life, she said.
But Duckworth didn't dwell too much on the incident; instead, she celebrated her accomplishments and encouraged the young students – several of whom were born near the beginning of the Iraq War – that they could do anything they put their minds to.
For Duckworth, she is a proud member of a small, but elite community of female helicopter pilots.
"The reason I was able to do that is because I lived in America, and in America you can be anything you want to be as long as you're willing to work hard and try," she said.
Trinity Lutheran Senior Pastor Rev. Bob Geaschel served with Duckworth and has known her since 1996. He said Duckworth was the most "brave, courageous, determined woman" he had ever met.
He also shined a light on Duckworth's character, telling a story in which she took exception to the derogatory comments her fellow soldiers were making about the Iraqi people.
"This brave officer stood up at a commander's meeting and said, 'This is what I've been hearing and this is not how we should be talking about the people who live here,'" he said. "It was the right thing to say, and the right thing to do."
Know more about U.S. Army National Guard Lt. Colonel Tammy Duckworth:
• After the helicopter accident, Duckworth spent the next year recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
• She became the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs in 2006.
• In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Duckworth to be assistant secretary of veterans affairs.
• Duckworth was elected to Congress in 2012.
• Since her recovery, Duckworth has taken up scuba diving, surfing, skydiving and flies as a civilian pilot. She has also completed several marathons.
• Duckworth's husband, Bryan Bowlsbey, is a major in the Illinois Army National Guard, where he has served since 1987.