Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” Every Veteran and active Servicemember embodies the meaning of this quote. They joined the military aware of the consequences of putting themselves in harm’s way. Yet they made the selfless decision anyway, all to keep their loved ones and country safe. Here we bring you a story about two of these Heroes, who are still continuing to serve others even though they are no longer in the service.
Future HFOT home recipient Kevin Blanchard and U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth recently reunited in Washington D.C., more than a decade after recovering together at Walter Reed. In this entry, Kevin recounts his experience catching up with Senator Duckworth again.
I first met Army Lieutenant Colonel Tammy Duckworth in the Physical Therapy (PT) room at Walter Reed Medical Center in August 2005. Today, Tammy Duckworth is the junior U.S. Senator of Illinois, and I am a future home recipient of the Homes For Our Troops (HFOT) program. This led to our unexpected reunion on Capitol Hill after recovering together 12 years prior.
It was only the second time away from my hospital bed when my therapist, Captain Rogers, escorted me down to the PT room in my wheelchair. I was anxious, basically mute, as I battled with the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress. The hallways seemed to fold in on me with each rotation of my chair’s wheels. We turned the corner to the noisily open aired room. Roger’s explained that it was there that I would spend the next year learning how to walk again.
There were dozens of amputees in therapy and even more pieces of exercise equipment. Out of the 30 or so veterans recovering that day, there were probably 35 legs missing. My anxiety turned to comfort. My nervous facial expression slowly changed to a smirk as I transferred from my chair to the padded therapy table. The PT room wasn’t a sad place. I quickly realized there was a particular culture in that place like nothing else. The veterans would call each other stumpy, say their favorite restaurant was IHOP and the severely burned didn’t mind being called crispy. There was a clear distinction among the veterans that had been there a while and the newbies. There was rambunctious energy, joyful humility, and a great sense of humor. If one veteran felt discouraged, another would tell a joke and motivate them to snap out of it.
LTC Duckworth was great at motivating. She was one of the more severely injured in the room that day. She lost one leg at the hip and the other below the knee from a rocket attack to her helicopter. I remember watching her try to run and laugh when she fell down. I knew she had the right idea for how to move forward. After discharge from the military we lost touch until meeting again on January 4th in the U.S. Capitol.
Last week I joined HFOT’s team for promoting awareness on Capitol Hill. We had setup a number of meetings with congressional representatives to share the mission of HFOT and ask for the members’ support. I joined HFOT to share my story and what the program means to me as a future home recipient. I had the opportunity to meet with Senator Duckworth, this time under very different circumstances than before.
We talked with one of her staffers as we waited for Senator Duckworth to arrive. I was excited to see her and also curious if she had changed. Senator Duckworth arrived in her wheelchair, still smiling like I had remembered. She wasn’t wearing her prosthetics on the side that was amputated at the hip, and so I asked why? She said, “Because it’s a pain in my rear, literally.” She still had a great sense of humor. She was already very familiar with HFOT, so we mostly discussed what we had done since those days at Walter Reed and what our futures hold. I told her about my entrepreneurial aspirations, writing a book, and graduating from George Washington University, just as she did before entering the Army.
I look back over the last 12 years and think about how much we have grown as individuals. In Walter Reed we were contemplating the conundrum of lost body parts, while mapping out how we should move forward with our lives. Although we have taken very different professional paths we certainly have one thing in common, we never let our injuries negatively define our futures. I can’t help to think, what our lives would have been like if we never joined the military, never deployed to combat, or never had gotten blown up? It appears that our injuries were an opportunity that completely reshaped our journey through life in a profoundly different way than expected.
Reuniting with Senator Duckworth last week reminded me of a very valuable lesson I had learned years before. That is, life is unpredictable; it’s impossible to control every aspect of it, but when an unexpected trauma does happen we still have the power to choose. We can choose to overcome it, and even use it as a tool for positive growth. I would like to think that the bombs that took so much from Senator Duckworth and me, ultimately gave us so much more in return.
By: Kevin Blanchard