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First, it was the familiar weight of my body armor. Then, as I approached the helicopter the feeling grew.

The growl of the engine, the smell of hydraulic fluid and JP-8 fuel, the communication traffic in my headset — it was as if I were no longer in 2019 but was back with my crew in 2004, in the thick of the war.

It had been 14 years, five months and 10 days since I’d last been in Iraq, since the afternoon when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded in the Black Hawk helicopter I was piloting, costing me my legs and nearly my life.

But for a split second those years were gone, and all I wanted was to climb into the cockpit, “strap the bird to my back” and lift up above the Baghdad skyline.

Reality seeped back in. It was late April, and I was returning to Iraq — to the very battlefield where I almost bled to death — no longer as a soldier but as a senator, leading a congressional delegation to receive operational and intelligence updates.

As the helicopter reached its flight profile, I reminded myself that even though I was no longer in the pilot’s seat, it didn’t mean the mission I began all those years ago was over.

I remember lying in my hospital bed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in the months after I was shot down and seeing pictures of the first free elections in Iraq, in January 2005.

I remember looking at photo after photo of men and women who’d stood in line for countless hours holding up their purple ink-stained fingers to prove they’d finally been allowed to make their voices heard.

They were strangers to me. Yet I took one look at them and tears filled my eyes — proud that I’d played even the smallest part in making that milestone possible. Right then, I promised myself that I’d find a way to keep serving however I could, vowing to repay the troops who had risked their lives to save me.

That’s the memory I thought about as we lifted off in Baghdad and circled the dusty field where I’d lost my legs, and where we met with Iraqi leadership, Kurdish allies, American diplomats and our service members.

What I learned during that trip convinced me that the mission to keep Iraq independent is as urgent as ever — and that America’s continued engagement is key.

It’s key because, even while news of Iraq has fallen off of the front pages, Iraq’s position remains precarious:

Its economy is flagging while its dependence on Iranian oil grows.

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Its younger generation is struggling, with too few jobs for the 800,000 young people trying to enter its workforce every year.

Its military appears ill-equipped to sustain itself whenever the U.S. stops writing checks.

It remains dangerously vulnerable to a resurgent Islamic State, or ISIS, a group that’s as insidious as ever.

ISIS may no longer control territory, but that doesn’t make the group less lethal. It just means members are regrouping underground, rather than in the open.

Meanwhile, Iraq seems to lack a long-term plan to stop the group’s rebirth. Case in point: Iraqi government officials told me they’re considering isolating 30,000 ISIS-affiliated women and children in a camp in the middle of the desert.

How could that do anything but guarantee an ISIS resurgence? These are some of the group’s most ardent supporters, and they’d be given the time and space to regroup, to let their grievances calcify and their dreams of a new caliphate grow — and to train today’s children to become tomorrow’s army.

I do not want a forever war. I don’t want even one more American to have to shed a drop of blood on Iraqi soil.

But our nations’ fates are entangled, and with the Trump administration now relentlessly, recklessly trying to bait Iran, the need to keep Iraq standing has become dire. A destabilized Iraq would be felt throughout the region and beyond, bolstering our adversaries in Tehran while threatening our allies and even our own homeland.

So we cannot afford to disengage from Baghdad, or abandon Fallujah, or forget about our Kurdish allies in Irbil.

We cannot conduct diplomacy via tweet or come to military decisions by virtue of temper tantrum, deciding to shuttle troops into war zones or pull personnel out of embassies just to appease the hawkish ideology of some in the Trump administration.

If we want to prevent ISIS from reclaiming its caliphate, if we want the fledgling democracy that thousands of us lost limbs or lives for to survive, if we want to ensure that we have one more partner in a region where enemies abound, then we need to stay engaged in a holistic, thoughtful way: diplomatically, militarily, economically and culturally.

That sensory overload I felt my first day back in Baghdad — hearing the snarl of the helicopter engine, seeing the whirl of sand in our aircraft’s wake — just reminded me of the importance of what we’re fighting for: our own nation’s security.

All those sights, sounds and scents made me recommit to the promise I made myself in that hospital bed 14 years ago, vowing once again to do whatever I can to keep the U.S. the strongest it can be.

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Tammy Duckworth is a U.S. senator from Illinois.

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(17) comments

A Veteran

cape the coward---I have told you many times I will take your bet right after you take mine,but you are to much a coward to do that --are you not ?????

Cassandra2

Blah, blah, blah. Duckworth says she doesn't want the Forever War, but spends a whole column telling us why it is inevitable. Enough. We're nearly two decades into a war based on lies and now Bolton and Trump want us to start yet another war. Enough.

oldhomey

Cassie, this woman gave up her legs, partial use of one arm and nearly died for you and me and the rest of us. Of course she is going to have strong feelings about the country where this happened and the mission she was a part of. It should not have happened in the first place, but now we are responsible for what happened there. You may disagree with her, and so may I, but I certainly would not write off her and her thoughts with a Rickyesque 'blah, blah, blah''.

DMoney

Respect

A Veteran

old phony---even you see what a fool cassy is she is a moron !!!!!!

oldhomey

Cassie is one of the smartest people on these boards. She is no fool, like certain people who show up on these boards full of all caps and multiple exclamation points (and emoticons) because they have nothing intelligent to say. If she and I disagree at times, that is only human, but we do so out of mutual respect. Try it sometime. You might be surprised by it bringing back to you a modicum of what you lack entirely by your presence and behavior on these comment boards -- respect.

capedcrusader

oldhomey - all you have to do is bet "A Veteran" $100 and that's enough to have him scurrying off to the weeds with his tail between his legs. Or, just beat him down with the facts and some honesty.

A Veteran

old phony---Tell me who besides you give a $hit about your opinion you old phony BLOWHARD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

oldhomey

Well, I guess I have been told off really well by A Veteran (of no known military organization). I got both barrels from him, both all caps and a long line of exclamation points. The man really knows how to make and present an argument. Too bad he has to fake his military status to try to make himself sound important. The column is by Tammy Duckworth, a rightfully proud veteran who actually speaks for her comrades in arms.

Cassandra2

The alleged "veteran" cannot argue anything based on facts and, instead, rants and throws his Cheerios like a toddler.

A Veteran

old phony-----Hey you coward my bet on me being a Veteran still stands,step up and put your 10 grand up for charity and I will put up 10 grand and prove to you that I am not only a Veteran but a disabled one.So grow a pair and show what a big man you think you are,I will show you up as the blowhard a$$hole you are!!!!!! It is put up or shut up old phony FOOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

oldhomey

Hmm. Have you been snooping about my identity with crank, A Veteran (of no known military organization)? How else would you know that I am grossly overweight, making me "a big man". I am afraid that is the only aspect about me that would qualify that term as applicable to me. As I have explained to you innumerable times in the past, very few veterans would lower themselves to proclaim themselves loudly as a veteran as you do simply because you think a veteran's status confers upon your opinion any more truth or wisdom than anybody else's. A veteran's status carries a great deal of weight when talking about the military, about war and about the treatment of veterans. It does not carry over, however, to every other issue that comes up for debate in a forum like this. And it has been my experience that nearly every loud mouth who yells that he demands respect in all things because he is a veteran turns out to not be a veteran at all. That is why I suspect you are not a veteran. If my suspicion upsets you, use a different screen name when posting your opinions on issues that have nothing to do with the military or veterans' affairs. You embarrass other veterans when you expound so ignorantly on nearly every subject that arises on these boards.

Cassandra2

Homey, I don't disrespect her for her service or her sincerity. I do disagree that she "nearly died for you and me and the rest of us." If anything, she nearly died to support a failing empire and the military/oil/arms complex. I also firmly disagree with the notion that, since we screwwed up we need to continue screwwing up. We are mired in the longest and most expensive war ever fought. The only ones who are "winning" are the arms manufacturers and the oil industry. It's time to cut our losses and create a new paradigm. Continuing along this failed path is not a viable option.

A Veteran

cassy--hey fool when are you going to show us your facts that this is a poor economy that even the NYT, TWP and many other news sources have said the liberals are LYING about the economy.Only a foolish LOON would try to get that lie past people,I guess you proved you are a foolish LOON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

oldhomey

Well, Cassie, I expect Sen. Duckworth in fact believes she did nearly die in the service of your and me and everybody else in this country. We can create new paradigms, but they would be our paradigms, not those of the rest of the world, particularly those forces who think ill of us and view us as mortal enemies. I think we took a big step after WWII with the U.N. and defensive alliances that we cobbled together. It has not stopped almost constant warfare in other parts of the world as brushfire wars and more extended conflicts like Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War. But so far we have avoided another global conflict, we have had unprecedented peace in Europe and I think we have begun to prove to hardline enemies like China and, perhaps, even Russia, that peace, cooperation and prosperity are better paradigms to follow. It could take another century, but if we can stave off the phony populism that Trump and right-wing movements across the world represent, we might achieve something approaching true global peace. So I disagree with you. I think we have viable options.

A Veteran

old cowardly phony----Like I said before PUT UP OR BE A MAN AND SHUT UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

oldhomey

What do you want me to put up, A Veteran (of no known military force)? What do you want me to shut up about?

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