Rep. Tammy Duckworth lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq, then went on to hold leadership roles in the Illinois and U.S. Veterans Affairs departments.
Yet, the Democratic Senate hopeful now finds her record on helping military veterans under attack by her opponent, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, as he tries to hold on to a seat Democrats believe is key to their efforts to regain the Senate majority.
Kirk, one of the Republican's most endangered incumbents, has accused Duckworth of failing to protect veterans in her care and putting her political ambitions ahead of her duties. He's also touted the more than two decades he served in the Navy Reserve and his own high-profile efforts to highlight problems at the VA.
This week, Kirk's campaign launched an online ad featuring a hearing on a lawsuit two Illinois VA employees filed against Duckworth, accusing her of retaliating against them when she led the agency— complaints that have twice been dismissed. Kirk also has repeated claims by two whistleblowers who say Duckworth ignored their reports of misconduct at a federal VA hospital west of Chicago.
Trying to take down Duckworth on veterans' issues is a bold move for Kirk, with even some Republicans saying they don't think voters will buy it.
The strategy also could backfire. Kirk acknowledged during his 2010 Senate bid that he had exaggerated some of his own military record. And he risks alienating voters who see Duckworth as a hero.
Duckworth was born in Thailand to a Chinese mother and an American father, who fought with the Marines in Vietnam. She joined ROTC during graduate school and later signed up with the Illinois National Guard. She was co-piloting a Black Hawk in 2004 when Iraqi insurgents hit it with a rocket-propelled grenade.
Garrett Anderson, who lost part of one arm and suffered traumatic brain injury in a roadside-bomb attack in Iraq, said Duckworth was the first service member the U.S. Army sniper spoke to when he woke up from a coma at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in 2005.
The 39-year-old University of Illinois graduate student plans to vote for Kirk this fall for a simple reason: Anderson is a Republican. But he said the ads targeting her are out of bounds and called Duckworth "a nice person" who has a strong track record of looking out for veterans.
"I've seen a few of (the ads) and I don't like them because she served her country very well, and she's a decorated war veteran," Anderson said.
Kirk's campaign says Duckworth's record is a legitimate area for criticism, and that there's no shortage of people who agree.
They point to two employees at Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital near Chicago who say they took their concerns to Duckworth and other Democrats but heard nothing, and to an Illinois Auditor General report of the state Department of Veterans' Affairs that found inadequate financial controls and programs that were supposed to be implemented but weren't during the time Duckworth was leading the office.
The two other employees, whose lawsuit is in court Thursday, say she tried to fire one employee and gave another a bad review that cost her raises after the women complained about facility leadership at an Illinois VA home, where they still work. Duckworth was appointed to lead the Illinois VA in 2006 by now-imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
"Of course Duckworth is a war hero, and that's what makes this entire court case even more tragic," said Kirk campaign manager Kevin Artl. "These VA employees only wanted to prevent veterans from being abused, but instead were ignored and punished by Duckworth while American heroes suffered,"
Deputy campaign manager Matt McGrath called it "a cynical and desperate ploy." He said Duckworth gets most of her own health care at Hines and is "deeply familiar" with issues at VA medical centers.
Among Duckworth's accomplishments, her campaign says, is launching the first 24-hour hotline for suicidal veterans and introducing legislation to improve mental health treatment that was signed by President Obama.
Jon Soltz, who leads the liberal political action committee VoteVets, which is backing Duckworth, said the group is prepared to spend significant money to attack Kirk.
"It's just a very dangerous strategy for them to continue to try to define Tammy Duckworth in this way, when if you just look at a picture of her you can see she's a war hero," Soltz said.
Anderson, who works at the University of Illinois' Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education, doesn't believe either candidate has clear offered a plan for veterans.
"They haven't given us a blueprint of what their objectives are," he said.
Associated Press reporter David Mercer contributed from Champaign, Illinois.