I Owe My Life to the Warrior Ethos of My Fellow Troops

In this Aug. 3, 2017, file photo, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., followed by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., on Capitol Hill in Washington. Duckworth has announced that she’s pregnant with her second child, making her the first senator to give birth while in office. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
In this Aug. 3, 2017, file photo, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., followed by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., on Capitol Hill in Washington. Duckworth has announced that she’s pregnant with her second child, making her the first senator to give birth while in office. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Tammy Duckworth is the junior U.S. senator for Illinois and retired Army lieutenant colonel.

"I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade."

I can still recite the lines of the Warrior Ethos -- but I'm alive today because when it mattered most, when the stakes were highest and everything seemed to go wrong, my crew didn't just remember the Ethos. They embodied every word of it.

I'm able to write this because 14 years ago tomorrow, my buddies refused to leave me behind when a [rocket-propelled grenade] tore through the cockpit of my Black Hawk.

It was a lucky shot for the enemy. One of my legs was vaporized and the other sheared off by the instrument panel.

I was quite literally in pieces.

Somehow, miraculously, my pilot-in-command managed to land the aircraft. My crew thought I was dead, so they tried to give medical attention to my buddy Chris.

But Chris saw that I was still bleeding, which meant my heart was still beating. So he did what every service member is willing to do, even if they hope they never have to: he refused treatment for himself to save someone else.

And even though their own lives were at risk -- even though they were in shock and in pain -- my crew carried me, dropped me, picked me back up again and kept me alive until I could get medical attention.

They lived the Ethos and, thanks to them, I survived. Thanks to them, I woke up in Walter Reed with my life still ahead of me and my husband by my side.

So from that moment on, I made it my mission to honor my buddies who saved me.

I refused to believe that my opportunity to serve was over. Sure, I no longer had the same ability to fly combat missions. But my personal commitment to protect the nation I loved was as strong as ever.

So I found new ways to serve -- just this time from the VA, the House of Representatives and now the Senate, rather than from that Blackhawk cockpit.

***

My story isn't too different from those of a lot of other Veterans I know.

For centuries, our troops have risked life and limb for this country, willing to pay any price to protect our freedom.

Then, when they set foot on our shores again, many of them choose to continue serving even after taking off the uniform.

Their mission is always the same, though their paths may look a little different:

Some heroes trade their camouflage for police blue. Others put down their rifles and pick up pieces of chalk, becoming teachers instead. Or they go back to school, becoming doctors and lawyers and social workers with the help of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

To every Veteran reading this today, I want you to know this: the strength of our nation depends on your work here, just as it depended on your courage overseas. You are the backbone of this country, just as you have been for years--and just as your fellow Veterans were for centuries before you.

Whenever duty called, you were ready to sacrifice. Ready to do whatever it took. Ready to put strangers' lives before your own.

This country can never repay the debt we owe you.

But it's on us to try.

It's on us to make sure we don't just salute you on Veterans Day, but honor you on the other 364 days of the year, too.

People often confuse what it means to actually support our troops and Veterans--thinking it amounts to just letting them pre-board at the airport or giving them discounts at Home Depot.

Those are nice things, sure. But really honoring our troops takes a more concerted effort than handing out dollar-off discounts to those who risk everything for our country.

It starts with making it easier for Veterans to access the retirement or disability benefits they've earned and the health care they need. Easier for them to go to school and find good-paying jobs. Easier to afford safe housing, too.

It'll take ensuring that no Veteran is homeless. Because we're all dishonored when any Veteran is forced to lay their head down to sleep on the same streets that they risked their life to defend.

***

Fourteen years after getting shot down, I spend every day trying to continue serving this nation in any way I can--working to honor my buddies who saved me in that dusty battlefield that afternoon.

Because I can't and I won't waste this second chance they gave me.

So to each of them, to all of my fellow Veterans and all of your families, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

You are true heroes. You are my heroes. On Veterans Day and every other day of the year, too.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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