Duckworth Delivers Commencement Speech at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Graduation Ceremony
[BETHESDA, MD] – Combat Veteran and U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) delivered the commencement address for advanced medical degree graduates at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s 2023 National Capital Consortium graduation ceremony. The graduation ceremony celebrated more than 200 military medical graduates, honoring their commitment and service to the United States. After Duckworth’s helicopter was hit by an RPG while deployed in Iraq, she spent the next year recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, now part of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Photos from last week’s ceremony are available here.
“Even before I’d ever spent a moment there, I knew what Walter Reed meant. I knew the kind of excellence it stood for. I was still unconscious when my husband raced to the hospital. Still heavily sedated long after he got there. Yet hour after hour, day after day, Bryan sat by my bedside and whispered the same thing into my ear, just in case I could hear him. He’d lean down and say, ‘Tammy, you were wounded. You’re safe. You’re at Walter Reed. Tammy, you were wounded. You’re safe. You’re at Walter Reed.’ He knew that no matter what I was going through… no matter how disoriented I felt or how much pain I was in… if I realized I was at Walter Reed, I would know that I was gonna be alright.”
“You know the real, life-altering consequences to the work you perform. But you have been trained to the highest level. You uphold the highest standard. And there is no one better to serve our warriors than their fellow patriots like you. Because you, too, sacrifice for our country. You, too, make America stronger. You, too, know that true American strength isn’t defined by the size of our weapons arsenal or the number of commas in our defense budget. Rather, true American strength is measured by the passion of the people who serve her… who dedicate their lives not just to doing well for themselves but to doing good for those around them.”
“Think of yourselves not just as being on the healing end of warfighting, but sharpening the tip of the spear as well. Because when my buddies and I were in danger, we felt you right there with us. Your existence allowed us to remain focused under fire. Your expertise enabled us to stay determined and decisive, which kept us as safe as possible. So thank you for doing what you do.”
Full remarks as prepared:
Thank you for that too-kind introduction. And thank you for inviting me to speak to you all today.
It’s an honor.
Now, to the most important people in this room. Our graduates.
Let me start off by simply saying congratulations.
You know, every commencement marks a feat worth celebrating.
Every graduation marks a step forward that was hard-fought and hard-won.
And every commencement address tends to focus on progress… recognizing yesterday’s trials and looking forward to tomorrow’s triumphs, with, well, maybe a glass of champagne or two in between.
But looking out at you all today, I don’t just see the usual wear and tear that comes with making it all the way to graduation day.
I don’t just see the papers written or the grunt shifts slogged through.
I don’t just see the number of lectures attended or the all-nighters spent in research labs.
I see a kind of grit… a kind of grace… not given, but earned by harboring a love for your country so deep that you’ve dedicated your life to caring for those who wear her uniform.
I see a kind of resilience forged over countless hours spent in clinics… hospitals… by patients’ sides… demanding the highest of yourself…
Believing so strongly in the sacred work that you do, that in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, you decided just one medical degree wasn’t enough…
Knowing that to complete your own personal mission, you would need to learn more. Train more. So you could treat more. Save more. So you could serve more of the troops who spend their own lives serving others.
Looking at you all today, I see strength. I see passion. And perhaps most importantly, I see compassion.
So let me begin by just saying thank you.
Thank you for your hard work. Thank you for your sacrifice.
Thank you for making our nation proud by looking after the men and women who look after the rest of us.
Some of you may know my story, and why I feel such a connection to each of you graduating today.
I still remember nearly every detail of the morning of November 12th, 2004.
The dry-baked, powdery dust of the Iraqi desert was swirling down the flight line, mingling with the sweet smell of hydraulic fluid and the sharp diesel scent of JP-8 fuel.
As I climbed into the cockpit of my Black Hawk, I was engulfed in a mix of hot metal, sweat and body armor.
It was my paradise—and certainly better than the smoke and fire that filled my nostrils just hours later, when a lucky shot from the enemy sent an RPG tearing through my helicopter, with the fireball detonating right in my lap.
I should’ve died that day. I would’ve died that day if it weren’t for the heroism of those around me.
Heroes like my crewmates, who thought I was dead, yet risked their own lives to drag my limp body from the debris of our Black Hawk to safety… thinking of my family, instead of the very real danger they faced themselves.
Heroes like the medevac team, whose skill and speed got me to Baghdad less than 60 minutes after the shootdown—within the all-important “golden hour.”
And heroes like the unbelievable team at Baghdad’s 31st Combat Support Hospital, who later described my injured legs as “mud and blood, that’s all there was”—yet who never stopped fighting to push and shove life back into my lifeless body.
I’d lost half the blood in me.
Yet, still, they refused to give up.
They gave me every unit of blood they had on hand, then started running around, waking folks up in their bunks, searching for anyone who could give another drop.
I have no recollection of any of this. Or of my primary transfer to Germany. Or my secondary transfer a few hours later to a little-known hospital just south of here… Walter Reed.
Listen, I’d never imagined that I’d be as badly injured as I was.
I’d never thought it’d be necessary for me to spend months-on-end confined to a hospital complex.
But even before I’d ever spent a moment there, I knew what Walter Reed meant. I knew the kind of excellence it stood for.
I was still unconscious when my husband raced to the hospital. Still heavily sedated long after he got there.
Yet hour after hour, day after day, Bryan sat by my bedside and whispered the same thing into my ear, just in case I could hear him.
He’d lean down and say, “Tammy, you were wounded. You’re safe. You’re at Walter Reed. Tammy, you were wounded. You’re safe. You’re at Walter Reed.”
He knew that no matter what I was going through… no matter how disoriented I felt or how much pain I was in… if I realized I was at Walter Reed, I would know that I was gonna be alright.
The same would’ve been true for any of the incredible training centers that we’re celebrating today.
Don’t get me wrong, Bryan was terrified.
But because I was being seen by experts like you, he believed that somehow, someway, I’d be okay.
He was right.
I am only able to be here this morning… I’m only a mom of two beautiful little girls… only a U.S. Senator… only alive today because of the dedication of my medical team.
I stayed at Walter Reed for months. I was treated around the clock. I had umpteen surgeries, including an 11-hour marathon to try to reconstruct my mangled mess of a right arm.
The doctors weren’t even sure if it could be saved—calling it a hamburger at that point would’ve been a compliment.
But they huddled together. They planned. They innovated. And they found a way to get it done.
Maybe I shouldn’t say this in front of mixed company, but they ended up taking a patch of skin from my butt to use as a graft.
So really, I had my ass saved by my buddies in Iraq only to have it literally skinned by my doctors when I got back home.
Some of you may know Dr. Potter.
He was just a resident at Walter Reed back when I was a patient—now he helps run USU’s surgery department.
I’d like to say that I’ve grown up with him… but he didn’t have any hair back then either. So really, he’s been old all along. The rest of us are just catching up to him.
Well, Dr. Potter operated on my arm during that last surgery.
And the kind of professionalism he showed, even as a resident, is why all the military families out there…
All the moms and dads and spouses waiting… worrying… sitting by the phone, praying for news…
It’s why they know that even if the unthinkable happens and they get a call like Bryan did, their loved one will be cared for by some of the most skilled doctors in the world.
They will get the best. Because you are the best. And you demand the best of yourselves.
That, in short, is what each of you stands for.
You know the real, life-altering consequences to the work you perform.
But you have been trained to the highest level.
You uphold the highest standard.
And there is no one better to serve our warriors than their fellow patriots like you.
Because you, too, sacrifice for our country.
You, too, make America stronger.
You, too, know that true American strength isn’t defined by the size of our weapons arsenal or the number of commas in our defense budget.
Rather, true American strength is measured by the passion of the people who serve her… who dedicate their lives not just to doing well for themselves but to doing good for those around them.
As someone who served in Iraq during the height of the violence there, I can tell you this:
By providing the absolute best level of care, you are sending out a message to the troops on the frontlines that they are not alone.
So when a Soldier is kicking down a door… or when a young Black Hawk pilot is taking fire… they don’t have to worry what will happen to them if they get hurt. They can focus solely on the mission at hand.
They know you have their backs. And I am certain that that quiet confidence alone… even without a doctor touching a scalpel… has saved countless lives.
So if you take anything from my words today, let it be this: Think of yourselves not just as being on the healing end of warfighting, but sharpening the tip of the spear as well.
Because when my buddies and I were in danger, we felt you right there with us.
Your existence allowed us to remain focused under fire.
Your expertise enabled us to stay determined and decisive, which kept us as safe as possible.
So thank you for doing what you do.
Thank you for being good enough at school to be able to pursue medicine in the first place...
And thank you for being good enough, period, to want to pursue this path at all.
Thank you for believing in your patients, even when we don’t believe in ourselves.
Even when we’re stubborn.
Even when we whine.
Even when we think—and say to your faces—that you’re sadists. That you’re delusional.
You know, early on in my recovery, someone on my team told me I was gonna finish a marathon one day.
I thought they were nuts. I’d always hated running. I wouldn’t have run 26.2 miles when I had legs, so why would I do it when I didn’t?
But now, I’ve done five.
The outrageous heights of my team’s expectations taught me that I wouldn’t have to lead a less full life just because of that one bastard’s lucky RPG shot.
And eventually, their belief in me… their insistence that I could and would still do anything I wanted… led me to believe that, hey, maybe I could recover.
That maybe I could find a new peace… a new place… in this strange new world with these strange new titanium legs.
That maybe I could find a new mission, outside the cockpit… a mission that turned out to be advocating for other troops and Veterans… first from my hospital bed at Walter Reed, and now from the floor of the United States Senate.
I know that some of you are the first in your families to earn advanced degrees.
I also know that tomorrow, the tomorrow after that and all the tomorrows to come, you’re gonna keep earning more “firsts”... that you’re gonna keep paving the way for those coming up behind you by caring for those in front of you.
You’re going to keep showing that the American dream isn’t just some green lawn with a nice white picket fence around it—but rather, it’s the pride you feel every time you put on your uniform…
Or the joy you feel when a patient takes a step in her prosthetics for the first time…
Or when a Wounded Warrior tells you that you changed their life, as—Dr. Potter—you did mine.
So while your diploma may be physically handed to you this morning, just remember that it was never simply “given” to you.
Everything this diploma represents… this journey, your education, your tomorrow… you earned all that.
Now, your dreams have become the hopes of us all, as we count on you to keep our troops, and our country, strong.
Now, the real journey begins.
Now, your story begins anew.
For today marks the start of what more you can and will do for our nation, as well as for all the men and women she depends upon to keep her safe.
And who knows—maybe one of you will show up to work someday and treat a young woman who’d just barely survived an RPG attack.
Maybe one of you will be the next Dr. Potter, and save the life of another future U.S. Senator.
I think everyone here is ready to celebrate.
So let me end here, with a “cheers” to each and every one of you.
Cheers to your grace in moments of victory and your grit in moments of doubt.
Cheers to your resilience and your brilliance… your passion and your compassion.
I’m so proud to call you Americans—and now, to call you graduates!
Congratulations, Class of 2023!!
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