Even today, Tammy Duckworth says she gets questions about whether women belong in combat.
"Where do you think I was?" she responds. "In a bar fight?"
Duckworth lost both legs and partial use of one arm when the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was shot down during a 2004 mission in Iraq.
A major in the Illinois National Guard, she now serves as assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs — a position for which she was nominated by President Barack Obama.
She recently resigned the latter post and is rumored to be planning a run for U.S. Congress. Appearing Saturday at the annual Women With Wings event at Chanute Air Museum, Duckworth said she cannot speak about any potential run for Congress yet.
Duckworth said women serving in the military are becoming increasingly common. But she said many people forget that women's service started many years ago, citing the World War II service of the Women's Army Corps.
She told of a recent women's national aviation conference in Reno, Nev., attended by several WAC veterans.
"They are superstars," Duckworth said. "There were NASA astronauts following them around wanting their autographs."
Duckworth said studies have shown that women make better natural pilots.
"It has to do with multi-tasking," she said, adding that male pilots generally catch up to the women through training.
In her job with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Duckworth said she has two primary roles — public affairs and intergovernmental affairs.
In the first role she is responsible for communicating recent Veterans Affairs developments. For instance, many veterans do not know that the VA now deems that three additional illnesses could have been the result of exposure to Agent Orange — Parkinson's disease being one of them.
In her second role, she actively works with units of government such as municipalities and counties to educate them about available grant money to help end homelessness among military veterans.
"When we started 2 1/2 years ago there were 139,000 homeless veterans in the United States," Duckworth said. "The (VA) secretary and President Obama said, 'We need to eliminate homelessness among veterans.'"
That number dropped to 107,000 two years ago and is now at 76,000.
"We partner with the cities and not-for-profits (such as) a charity in the community that maybe is setting up ... housing for the homeless, and we'll give them money for more housing and actually working with groups trying to prevent homelessness," she said. The VA is also working to help veterans receive job training.
Duckworth also works with law enforcement in dealing with veterans.
"With the large increase in post-traumatic stress disorder, there are a lot more veterans self-medicating with drugs and alcohol and getting in trouble with the law," Duckworth said. The VA is helping to set up court systems for veterans and working with law enforcement, "so if they go to a veteran's service call, (they will know) that this might not be a typical domestic disturbance but maybe somebody with post-traumatic stress. We (also) work with the vet and their spouse."
Duckworth said veterans experiencing difficulties may call 1-800-273-TALK, a nationwide suicide-prevention help line.