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Tammy Duckworth: 'This is my second chance at life'

Tammy Duckworth, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, lost her legs in 2004 after a rocket-propelled grenade hit the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting in Iraq. Here, she's shown arriving at the World War II Memorial for a ceremony honoring World War II veterans on March 11, 2010 in Washington D.C.

Tammy Duckworth was prepared to die for her country. But the Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot never expected to return home severely injured. Helicopter pilots who are hit by enemy fire usually perish in a fire when their aircraft crashes.

"I thought I'd come home in a box or I'd be fine," she says, of her time serving in the Iraq War. But when her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, severing her legs, she went from "being a hotshot stud helicopter pilot to near death in a split second."

Her story, told in her own words, concludes msnbc.com's series of essays by Iraq war veterans who, like the victims of the Haiti earthquake, are a growing number of amputees learning to rebuild their lives after limb loss.

Duckworth was nominated last year by President Barack Obama to serve as the Department of Veterans Affairs' assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs. She's also completed the Chicago Marathon, fulfilling a promise she made to herself when she was recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center. She continues to serve as a major in the National Guard.

By Tammy Duckworth

It was exactly eight months to the day from when I first arrived in Iraq. My crew woke up early that morning and we flew the entire day -- it was a really good day.

On the way back to Balad from Baghdad, we received a radio call asking us if we could divert and pick up some soldiers in Taji who needed a ride north. In 2004, riding on a convoy was one of the most dangerous things to do in Iraq.

After making the stop, we took off again. I had just handed over the flight controls when we flew right into an ambush. I heard the tap, tap, tap on the fuselage, and I knew we were hit.

When events like that happen, your training kicks in. You just do the job that you have trained to do, because it takes everyone in your crew doing their job, to get out safely. I was in and out of consciousness. The last thing I remember thinking was that I needed to try and do an emergency engine shutdown to prevent a fire. I didn't realize that I had been severely injured. I didn't know my legs were gone. My brain and body just kept trying to fly.

I woke up 10 days later at Walter Reed Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. Going in and out of consciousness, I kept hearing the nurses and doctors saying something about a helicopter crash. I was devastated; I thought, "I didn't do my job. I didn't land the aircraft and I let my men down. I failed as a pilot, as a soldier, as an officer. I deserve to lose my legs."

It wasn't until I saw my crew chief a few days later before we were both headed into surgery that I learned we actually did land the aircraft and everyone was safe. Ever since that moment I've been at peace with my wounds, because until what would have been my last breath I was trying to do my job as a soldier. I didn't quit trying. I can live with that.

Even before I woke up in the intensive care unit, my husband sat at my bedside and said three things over and over: You were injured. You are at Walter Reed. You are safe. He knew that just hearing the name Walter Reed would convey to me that I was in the very best hands.

For me the Soldier's Creed was critical to my survival after I was injured. It states in part that "I will always place the mission first. I will never quit. I will never accept defeat. I will never leave a fallen comrade." I put that creed outside of my door because I wanted anyone entering my hospital room to know that a soldier lay in that room. I wanted people to know that I earned my wounds and was not someone to be pitied. I also put it on the wall opposite of my bed so that I could read it every day. It carried me through on many days.

Recovering from a devastating injury is not easy. I had bad days and I had good days. But the little victories were essential to my progress and recovery.

My right arm had also been badly injured as well in the attack and during one of my physical therapy sessions, I was told to squeeze a device that would measure the pressure I was able to exert with my grip; essentially it showed how much strength I had in that hand. I squeezed with every effort and muscle in my body -- but the gauge wouldn't budge. I was devastated. How would I ever get the strength I needed to fly again?

The head of the therapy department realized how upset I was. He grabbed a single thin white sheet of paper and told me to try and hold it. So I did, confused as to what he was getting at. He then said to me, "See, you do have grip strength. Today, it's one piece of paper. Tomorrow, it will be two pieces. The next day it will be three pieces, and the next day four. And pretty soon, you will be able to hold a whole stack in your hand. You do have strength there; don't let this machine tell you that you don't, because you do and we will get you back to where you need to be." More often than not, it was about baby steps.

President Barack Obama and Tammy Duckworth place a wreath at The Bronze Soldiers Memorial on November 11, 2008 in Chicago, Ill.

Throughout my recovery, I was fortunate to meet a number of fellow amputees who help to show me the way back to a normal life. I was the fifth women amputee from the Iraq conflict. Before I even woke up all four of the previous female amputees had been to Walter Reed to see my family and to see me. They showed me their weaknesses, their vulnerability and their strength. I hung onto their strength, because I knew that if they could get through it and survive, then so could I.

One of the most important messages that I learned throughout my recovery was that life was going to be normal again. It might not be the exact same as before my injury, but my husband and I still have fights like every other married couple -- we don't fight over the fact that I don't have my legs but we fight about what TV show to put on, or whose turn it is to cook dinner. It doesn't get more normal than that.

I don't know why I survived Iraq and I don't know why I made it home, but I do know that this is my second chance at life and I can do whatever I want now. I'm even doing things I never thought I would do before I lost my legs, like completing the Chicago Marathon.

I still fly. I do it because I love it and because, in a way, it is me having control of my life. It is not letting the insurgent who shot an RPG at me have control of my life. He is not going to take something away from me. I am going to live my life the way I want to live it.

It has been a long road to recovery. But life does go on. Sometimes it takes dealing with a disability -- the trauma, the relearning, the months of rehabilitation therapy -- to uncover our true abilities and how we can put them to work for us in ways we may have never imagined. It's not about what we lost. But it's about the way our eyes have been opened to new talents, and new abilities that we can now put to use in building productive and rewarding lives.

As amputees, we have adapted, we are stronger and we can make the most out of our second chances.

To watch videos of Tammy Duckworth on MSNBC cable, click here.