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After waiting years, Tammy Duckworth knows her late father would be proud

Tammy Duckworth Democratic nominee for Illinois' 8th congressional district United States House Representatives celebrates with husbBryan Bowlsbey after defeating Rep.

Tammy Duckworth, the Democratic nominee for the Illinois' 8th congressional district of the United States House of Representatives celebrates with husband Bryan Bowlsbey after defeating Rep. Joe Walsh in Elk Grove Village, Ill., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. Duckworth, an Iraq War Veteran, served as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot and suffered severe combat wounds, losing both of her legs. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

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Updated: December 12, 2012 6:37AM

After a fierce battle against a lightning rod candidate, elation washed over Tammy Duckworth on election night.

With her mother, brother and husband in the room, the Iraqi war vet who lost both legs in combat made special note to mention her late father.

He would be proud of her at this moment, she said.

For Duckworth, a Democrat, the meaning took on a deeper significance.

Duckworth’s father, Frank, served in the Army and the Marine Corps.

He was Vietnam vet and his family had a long lineage of patriotism, having worn a U.S. battle uniform since the American Revolution. Duckworth, who describes growing up as “daddy’s little girl,” had always looked up to her dad.

Still, it was her brother who her military father expected to continue the family legacy by joining the military.

“I was going to go off to basic training, he just looked at me and said: ‘You think you can make it?’ All he said. Never said another word. Never encouraged me, never did anything.”

On Tuesday, Duckworth was elected to serve in the 8th Congressional district. She prevailed over Tea Party Republican Joe Walsh in a fierce campaign that saw more than $12 million spent on both sides.

Duckworth revealed that a part of her had long harbored disappointment that her father would not tell her he was proud of her.

She went on to be one of the only female Blackhawk helicopter pilots in combat. While in Iraq, she learned her father was growing ill, having suffering severe heart problems. She wondered if she would get back home to see him in time.

But on Nov. 12, 2004, everything changed for Duckworth.

She was co-piloting a helicopter north of Baghdad when her crew started taking enemy fire.

“A rocket-propelled grenade hit our helicopter, exploding in my lap, ripping off one leg, crushing the other, and tearing my right arm apart,” Duckworth described in her speech at the Democratic National Convention this summer. “But I kept trying to fly until I passed out.”

Severely injured, Duckworth was eventually taken to Walter Reed Medical Center, where she endured a painful recovery.

“Some of us had obvious injuries,” she said in her convention speech. “Others had scars on the inside that were less visible but no less real.”

There were times she was so weak she couldn’t depress the pain medication button herself, she said. She could barely get the words out: “Hurt, hurt,” so a family member could help.

Her father came to visit at Walter Reed. While there, the military vet suffered a heart attack.

In an incredible turn of events, she and her father were treated at Walter Reed at the same time. She was on the amputee ward on the fifth floor and he was on the cardiac ward on the fourth floor, she said.

“I would go down to see him,” she said. “When I finally got my first artificial leg . . . I [would] bring my new leg to show my dad. It seemed to really bother him that I lost my legs and said: ‘See dad, it has a foot on it and it’s going to be fine.’ ”

That’s when her father finally said something that a part of her had been wanting to hear.

“He said: ‘you know I’m proud of you, right?’ ” Duckworth said. “That’s all he said. I said: ‘I know dad.’ And then a couple of days after that, they took him to an operation that he never woke up from.”

“You have to look at it in a positive way. Had I not been hurt, my dad would have passed away while I was deployed and I would have never seen him again. And he would never have been able to tell me he was proud of me that one last time. You have to look at the gifts you get as you get them.”

Though her father wasn’t there the night of her victory speech, Duckworth said she knew he’d be proud of her. She brought him up in front of the sea of supporters, she said, because he represented a central part of her campaign, which was deeply personal. Her father lost his job at age 55, “through no fault of his own,” she said. He tried and tried to get another job but his age was a barrier to long-term employment.

“I have throughout the campaign talked about the struggles that my family went through. . . . I wanted people to know where I came from,” she said. “He lost his job at 55 and our family spiraled into near homelessness.”

Her family was living in a hotel room in Hawaii. Her parents drained their savings and were at the very end.

“We were overseas when my dad lost his job. We were in a hotel with the last of our savings and my dad couldn’t find a job.

“I remember being 16 and sitting in an American Legion and an old woman gave us a deposit and first month’s rent on a studio,” she said. “My dad just tried everything and did everything that he could. This was a man who built an entire life for us. He had gone through college, had come from poverty.”

If her father had been there on election night, he would have more to say after telling her he was proud.

Duckworth laughed, noting her father was into policy and would want her to make sure she was setting up services for her constituents.

“I think my dad would be talking to me about what I needed to do to set up a good district office,” she said.

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