The final speaker at The American Legion's 53rd Washington Conference, recently elected U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., revved up the crowd of Legionnaires just before they set off for talks on Capitol Hill.
Crumpling her prepared remarks and tossing the paper on the floor – an act that drew hearty applause – Duckworth said, "I'm a freshman congressperson and I've learned a lot in my first five weeks here in Washington, and one of the things I've learned is that we need more veterans in Washington, because we know how to get the job done."
Calling sequestration "stupid," Duckworth said Congress needs to work together and find a better solution to the country's budget deficit crisis. "None of us got to go home from a deployment or from a combat zone just because we didn't like the guy next to us," she said. "You stayed, right?"
Duckworth spent much of her speech talking about the value of teamwork and what it means to work together to get a mission accomplished for the good of the country.
"Each of you that are sitting here today have already given to this nation, and have served this nation more than most of the people who live here in the United States," she said. Serving in the military is more than enough service to America, "but you choose to be part of this amazing organization, and you choose to give of yourself, with your time away from your families," she said. "You're traveling all across your state and nationally on behalf of all the other veterans – out of your own pockets – and you continue to dedicate yourself to doing this work.
"You need to recognize– and I don't think that you do, because you're so involved in the work that you do – that you don't realize the sacrifice you make every single day by being part of this organization, of The American Legion. and taking care of one another, because you're so focused on taking care of our vets. And I just don't think that a large percentage of the people in the United States get that."
Duckworth lost both legs and nearly lost her right arm when the helicopter she piloted was shot down over Iraq in November 2004. She paid homage to her three air crewmen, who saved her life as she lay unconscious inside the downed UH-60 Black Hawk.
One crewman, badly wounded, dragged himself forward to face the enemy and defended the crash's perimeter while the others were evacuated to a rescue helicopter.
"So he stood that perimeter," Duckworth said. "And I think about him when I think about you. Before I ever became a veteran, before I was ever wounded, before I ever knew that I was going to need help, the Legion was there. The Legion was there with my dad, when he helped found a new post in Centerville, Va."
She said Legionnaires have stood their perimeters on active duty, and "you stand the perimeter now. You stood the perimeter when it came to Agent Orange exposure for our Vietnam veterans, and you continue to stand a perimeter when it comes to sequestration and budget cuts.
"And yes, other Legionnaires before you have done this job and there will be other Legionnaires after you. But today, this afternoon, when you go to that Hill, it is your turn to take your place on that perimeter yet once again, and say, ‘You are not going to get these cuts through me, not as long as I am here, not as long as this is my job and I am here today.'"
Duckworth said she cancelled a trip to visit wounded warriors in order to speak at the Legion's Washington Conference. "The only reason that I would have cut a trip to Walter Reed to visit the wounded there, would be to come here to speak to you. Because you can go out and maximize the work and the benefits, and do more for the kids at Walter Reed right now than they would benefit from just seeing me this morning."