The Fine Print
Rep. Tammy Duckworth is no stranger to realities of the Iraq war. She lives with the consequences every day, as a veteran who lost both legs when the National Guard helicopter she was piloting was shot down in Iraq.
And as President Obama prepares to send up to 300 Special Forces troops to advise the Iraqi military in its effort to combat the militant Islamist group ISIS, the Illinois Democrat said she is “disheartened.”
“I'm pretty appalled that the Iraqi military just abandoned their post after all of the time that American forces invested in training them…in both training but also arming them and equipping them,” Duckworth told “The Fine Print.”
“This is also a tragedy for the American people with all of the resources we put into that nation, as well as all the men and women who served in uniform there,” she added.
While proud of her military service, Duckworth said she didn’t agree with the United States decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003 and doesn’t support the prospect of recommitting military resources today – whether it is in the form of boots on the ground or even more limited air strikes.
“The long logistical tail that goes along with an air strike is really significant,” Duckworth explained. “What is your down aviator procedure in case one of those pilots gets shot down? I know a little something about what it's like to get shot down in Iraq, and you want to have those contingency plans.”
Duckworth, who was elected to Congress in 2012, serves on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. She previously served as assistant secretary to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. She knew of the long waiting lists for veterans seeking medical care, but said she did not know about the manipulated wait times that led to the recent resignation of former Secretary Eric Shinseki.
When she first learned that some VA hospitals were lying about long wait times for veterans seeking medical attention, Duckworth said she was “furious.”
“I'm not just someone who relies on VA for my health services, I also understand the VA has the resources it needs,” Duckworth said. “VA gets whatever money they need for their medical budget to take care of the health of veterans a year in advance. It's the only department in the United States government that does that. They have the resources. And so instead of saying, ‘Hey, veterans have waited longer than 14 days, they need help,’ they hid the problem, and that's absolutely unacceptable.”
Duckworth also acknowledged that, because the VA is a large bureaucratic organization, there will always be some level of inevitable abuse within the system. Still, she said that is not a justification for inadequate care for the nation’s veterans.
“When you have a system that large, you're going to have cheaters,” she said. “But the bottom line is, if you have 5 percent cheaters, you cannot punish the 95 percent and make them wait a long time, because you're going after the cheaters. You have to take care of the legitimate veterans first and then we'll do the audits and we'll go after the cheaters as we need to.”
As President Obama weighs who to appoint as a permanent replacement for Shinseki, Duckworth said the VA needs a strong leader with experience running a major hospital network to fix the problem. Asked if she would consider taking on the role, if asked, Duckworth indicated that she’s not the best fit for the job.
“I'm always a sucker for the country needs you to serve pick-up line,” Duckworth said with a laugh. “But I think in the best interest of veterans, what they need right now is someone who has a run a major network of not just hospitals, but different clinics.”
For more of the interview with Duckworth, and to hear about the time she publicly scolded an abuser of the VA system during a Congressional hearing, check out this episode of “The Fine Print.”
ABC News’ Alexandra Dukakis, John Parkinson, Tom Thornton, Dick Norling, and Tom Staton contributed to this episode.