WASHINGTON – As Tammy Duckworth sees it, her path to Congress began when she awoke in the fall of 2004 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She was missing both of her legs and faced the prospect of losing her right arm.
Months of agonizing therapy lay ahead. As the highest-ranking double amputee in the ward, Maj. Duckworth became the go-to person for soldiers complaining of substandard care and bureaucratic ambivalence.
Soon, she was pleading their cases to federal lawmakers, including her state's two U.S. senators at the time — Democrats Dick Durbin and Barack Obama of Illinois. Obama arranged for her to testify at congressional hearings. Durbin encouraged her to run for office.
She lost her first election, but six years later gave it another try and now is one of nine veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who will serve in next year's freshman class in the of House of Representatives.
Veterans' groups say the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is welcome because it comes at a time when the overall number of veterans in Congress is on a steep and steady decline. In the mid-1970s, the vast majority of lawmakers tended to be veterans.
For example, the 95th Congress, which served in 1977-78, had more than 400 veterans among its 535 members, according to the American Legion. The number of veterans next year in Congress will come to just more than 100. Most served during the Vietnam War era. In all, 16 served in Iraq or Afghanistan, not all in a combat role.
"We're losing about a half a million veterans a year in this country," said Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America. "We are not going to be in a world where a significant plurality of people spent some time in the military, so to have 16 men and women who fought in this current Congress is incredibly significant."
Tarantino said he recognizes that the 16 Iraq and Afghanistan vets have wide-ranging political views. But at the end of the day, he said, their shared experiences make it more likely they'll put political differences aside on issues like high unemployment and suicide rates among returning veterans, or in ensuring that veterans get a quality education through the post-9/11 GI bill.