Major Tammy Duckworth

Most of us, when overcome by feelings of disconnectedness from our surroundings, experience a sense of inner agitation, which is not that different from the experience of being a stranger.

The other day I read this below in an article on ProPublica.org.

After Duckworth said, “My family has served this nation in uniform going back to the Revolution,” Kirk responded: “I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.” (Amid outrage over the comments, Kirk apologized to Duckworth via Twitter.)

Reading the article reminded me of a C-SPAN program I saw way back in 2005. It featured Major Tammy Duckworth as a soldier wounded in Iraq war. I sat in front of TV, my attention riveted to the screen, a mix of intense emotions passing through me.

I kept thinking that most of us, when overcome by feelings of disconnectedness from our surroundings, experience a sense of inner agitation, which is not that different from the experience of being a stranger. No matter how many years and decades go by, this feeling of disconnect, the inner agitation, doesn’t go away. It seems to persist, is still left dangling, in search of home. Where, then, is the home for this feeling, for this disconnect?

Those who saw “Conversations with Soldiers Wounded in Iraq” on C-SPAN (originally aired March 10, 2005, with subsequent repeat broadcasts–here’s a snippet of it with Major Duckworth in it) would likely have experienced a glimpse of very such home. In the video you hear how the soldiers very nearly died in the mess and blood of war, but listening and watching them still infuse a renewal of life into our experience. These soldiers speak of their experience without the melodrama and narcissism that a more self-conscious narrator, for example a modern day blogger, would fill it with.

To see what I mean, let’s start with a simple question: “Where were we on Nov 12, 2004?” Because on that day Major Tammy Duckworth, of Illinois Army National Guard, was on a free fall, her Blackhawk helicopter shot over the skies of Iraq.

From her own narrative of the events of that day, “It was actually end of the day, we’ve been flying missions across Baghdad, mostly transportation of equipment. Had a great lunch, bought some Christmas ornaments from the post exchange (it was middle of November). We were ten minutes from getting back to the base when an RPG shot by the insurgents hit the chin bubble (a Plexiglas window under the pilot seat of the Blackhawk.)”

She sat next to her husband with the C-SPAN interviewer.  Her infectious smile, dark beautiful eyes and a gentle face would have you believe she may have just escaped with minor bruises.

Initial charge exploded between her knees and nicked one of the Blackhawk’s blades. Instantly they lost the electronics, and the Blackhawk started to descend. Tammy immediately attempted to land the aircraft, little realizing that she lost the foot pedals and her legs. The control panels were gone. When she woke up in the emergency room the right hand was broken. The last thing she remembered was that she saw that the grass on the fields, coming through the chin bubble as they landed, was about six feet tall and she remembered thinking, “Wow, that’s really beautiful green grass,” before she passed out.

Tammy lost her right leg. Lost her left leg below the knee to amputation. Her right arm bones were crushed and broken the moment the Blackhawk hit the ground. Doctors at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where this C-SPAN interview was taped, rebuilt the arm using metal pins and screws and grafted the tissue taken from her stomach.

And then there is Cpl. Michael Oreskovic – US Army, 23 years’ of age at the time of this interview. Lost his left arm from shoulder on: “Flopping around somewhere like a chewed up hamburger.”  He went through eleven surgeries and was using a bio-electric arm.

This is a group of people who describe things that happen to them–such as ripped arms, detonations in front of their faces, warm blood pouring down their faces, soaking their clothes–with a gentle smile on their faces. Not a hint of self-pity, not a hint of a loss, just a strange serenity in their faces, a jaded tiredness but a permanent light in their eyes.

“Tough situations brings you closer.” He waits until the question is asked: “Was anybody else injured at all?” “Yeah, my squad leader died instantly.”

The casual approach, the self-effacing manner in which these soldiers speak is maddening: “Tying the shoes and pulling the zipper are the hardest things to do.”

There is not a hint of wasted thought, wasted emotion, in these soldiers’ thinking. Perhaps it comes from being so close to life and death.

It is almost as if in their gentle smiles this disconnect, this tin-box of day-to-day clutter in our minds that we call agitation, has found a home, and having found it, has disappeared.

Shouldn’t this be one such home, a home where life shines brighter at the sight of death that we should all be searching for and be striving for?

Raj Karamchedu