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 was 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.
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 no longer may 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.
In this case, that means working with our allies and the Iraqi people to ensure Iraq remains independent and democratic. It’s only by guaranteeing that future generations of Iraqis also will be able to walk out of voting booths, proudly holding up their ink-stained index fingers, that we can best protect America’s interests in the Middle East and beyond.
Tammy Duckworth is a U.S. senator from Illinois. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.