Tammy Duckworth knows what it's like to be a soldier who kissed her spouse goodbye and went off to war in Iraq. She also knows what it's like to come home grievously wounded.
Now Duckworth, the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs director who lost her legs during her 2004 deployment, is experiencing yet another reality of military life. Her husband, Maj. Bryan Bowlsbey of the Illinois National Guard, arrived this month in the Middle East for his first tour of duty, directing convoys from Kuwait into Iraq several times a week.
Bowlsbey was mainly concerned with preparing his unit as he approached his deployment, she said, but he also took some extra precautions for his own safety. Duckworth said they bought some extra armor for him.
"We certainly don't need another amputee in the family," she said, before laughing. It was vintage humor from a woman nearly killed when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting and exploded beneath her feet. She also lost partial use of her right arm.
Duckworth has called the war in Iraq "a mistake," but says that she and her husband, both 39, remain committed to their service. Also a major, Duckworth trains with her unit in the Illinois Army National Guard Headquarters in Springfield. Bowlsbey left for training in Indiana with his downstate transportation battalion in April.
"I have been completely humbled by the experience of being a spouse left behind," Duckworth said. "As the one who was always the one to be deployed, the full experience of being deployed never hit me."
Bowlsbey said that in certain respects being the soldier overseas is easier than being the spouse at home.
"For the deploying spouse, it is easy to get completely involved in your mission," he said in an e-mail sent Thursday from his post in Kuwait. "The one who stays behind can work hard, and try to exhaust themselves each day, but there is still a quiet time every night where you are alone with your fears."
Duckworth said she has felt a range of feelings during her husband's absence, from fear of his safety to minor frustrations such as needing his help when the gutters of their Hoffmann Estates home fell off during a recent storm. She has had to hire people to cut the lawn. She also has to plan ahead for what might seem like mundane things, such as making sure she fills her truck with gas while she's wearing her prothesis because it's too difficult in her wheelchair.
"To have to do it on your own is pretty tough when you've had this partner for so many years," Duckworth said. "And I'm by myself. I just imagine what the spouses left behind with children are going through."
For his part, Bowlsbey said the serious nature of his wife's wounds didn't change his attitude about military service. "My perspective on service has not changed," he wrote in his e-mail. "I am still a zealot and a true believer in every word of the Soldier's Creed. ... The Army is performing magnificently in all that it does. The young Soldiers are the very best of our populace, and they prove it by their actions every day."
As a spouse on the home front, Duckworth has questioned what Veteran Affairs can do for families while loved ones are deployed. She said she hopes a new state low-interest mortgage loan program for veterans and active military personnel may be a step toward giving families some peace. Called the G-I Loan for Heroes program, it's run through the state Housing Development Authority.
Bowlsbey has been with the National Guard since 1987 and was promoted to major last year. Originally assigned to another unit, he was named plans officer for the Delavan-based group because of a shortage of officers in the Illinois guard and across the country, Duckworth said.
Many officers have left the guard, Duckworth said, because they can't maintain the pace of making multiple tours of duty overseas while also trying to lead civilian lives and hold onto jobs.
Her past experience, she says, gives her comfort because she can imagine her husband's daily life better than most spouses but it also makes her keenly aware of the risks.
Duckworth and Bowlsbey met in ROTC at the University of Maryland and married in 1993 before moving to Illinois.
He received news of his wife's injuries the day before standing up in his brother's wedding on the East Coast. He kept the news to himself until after the bride and groom left for their honeymoon and was reunited with his wife the next day when she was brought to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland.
Bowlsbey kept a detailed online journal of her recovery, still posted on her Web site, tammyduckworth.com. At her side without sleep or a shower for hours until she awoke, Bowlsbey broke the news that she had lost her legs. "While that was probably the most difficult thing I have ever done, she received the news with poise, and stoicism," he wrote. " She listened to my run down of all the things amputees are doing here, and my explanation of how this injury will actually not have much impact on the quality of her life, (and amazingly, it really won't). She then told me, "I love you, but you stink. Go Shower."
Bowlsbey remained at his wife's side during her many months of recovery, then as she campaigned and lost by a narrow margin last year to Republican Peter Roskam for the 6th Congressional District seat.
Meanwhile, the couple sends e-mails to each other but they haven't talked since he went overseas.
Bowlsbey, a computer network engineer for a small consulting firm in Arlington Heights, could be on active duty for 12 to 18 months, Duckworth said.
"Those of us at home are just going to have to cope and love them and just try to live with the hole in our hearts and homes for a while," she said.
Mary Ann Fergus writes for the Chicago Tribune.