After Tammy Duckworth was injured while fighting in Iraq in 2004, a volunteer at Walter Reed Army Medical Center told her to train for a marathon.
Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran, lost her legs and severely injured an arm after her Black Hawk helicopter was ambushed north of Baghdad. During her rehabilitation at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C., a group of trainers spotted her and encouraged her to take up wheelchair racing.
“She told me, ‘You’re going to do a marathon,’” Duckworth said. “And I looked at them and thought to myself, ‘I’m pretty sure I’m on some heavy medications because these crazy people just told me that I’m going to do a marathon.’”
Two years after she was discharged from Walter Reed in 2006, Duckworth, a Purple Heart recipient, finished the Chicago Marathon as a wheelchair athlete. The next year, she did it again. Duckworth, now the assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, has competed in various road races including the popular three-mile meet hosted annually by the American Council of Life Insurers in Washington.
For the past 30 years, the ACLI race has drawn politicians and journalists who run side by side to test their fitness. Last year, Duckworth anchored herself inside her speedy wheelchair to win her ACLI division uncontested.
“Doing these races, I feel strong, and when you are injured as so many of our war wounded have been, they don’t get to feel strong in their bodies like they did before,” Duckworth said. “But you get on these racing wheelchairs and we can totally kick ass and be strong. It brings back a level of confidence.”
She was the first wheelchair athlete to compete at the ACLI. And this morning, Duckworth is scheduled to be with a team from the VA. Her colleague Chris Nowak, director of the VA’s paralympic program office, will join her in the wheelchair division.
Although she gets caught up in competition, Duckworth said she uses the ACLI challenge as an opportunity to promote the VA and the contributions from disabled veterans.
“I was the first wheelchair to show up that really was the messenger for the disabled community and especially the disabled veterans,” Duckworth said about her showing last year. “We have all of these vets who are at the top of their physical conditioning on the day they were wounded, and they want to be back to that.”
Aside from Duckworth, today’s ACLI Capital Challenge will feature several hundred runners from various agencies, media outlets and Capitol Hill. About three dozen lawmakers also are expected to run, including Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who has taken part in the race for the past decade and will lead his office’s team, the “Bada Bingamans.”
“I really go out there and push to finish it. Let’s see what happens,” the New Mexico Democrat said earlier this year.
Other lawmakers running include Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who will compete for his 30th straight year, and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), last year’s winner in the female Senate division. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) also will aim to lead the Senate male runners for a third straight year.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will be there with her team, the “Fast and the Sebelius.”
“I’ve got guys on the security detail that run with me. Over the course of a year and a half, some of them have had to stop running because of various injuries. I keep teasing them because I’m much older and I’m still running,” Sebelius said in a recent interview.
The race at East Potomac Park is sponsored in part by Roll Call, with proceeds benefiting the Special Olympics District of Columbia.