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May 22, 2014

War, Politics and Disability: Tammy Duckworth’s VA Scandal Interview Photo

How much can a picture cost?

The question is particularly relevant when the subject is Tammy Duckworth and the photo was made in her Congressional office as part of an interview with the Washington Post about the spiraling VA scandal. Not only is Duckworth’s biography widely known, but her substantial Iraq War injuries have contributed to making her a powerful symbol and advocate of this President and the administration.

It’s also what makes the photo so confounding. The Washington Post reporter led off the interview with what seemed like an obvious observation, suggesting she must be conflicted (between her support for the Administration and Veterans Affairs Secretary Shinseki, and her deep allegiance to and persistent advocacy for everyday veterans). Surprisingly (or not surprisingly, if above all, she’s being a politician), she said she wasn’t. If you read the interview, however, she’s on both sides of the issue. Yes, she said she was pissed off, but at who exactly? In spite of the administration’s difficulties in addressing or responding effective to the problem, she was overwhelmingly supportive of Obama and Shinseki, under whose watch fake records were maintained to show that veterans were being treated in a timely manner when, in fact, vets have been waiting interminably long to be seen, and many have actually died as a result. At the same time, Duckworth was unequivocal in her defense of vets, their right to timely service and her credibility with them.

And the net? Rather than demanding more accountability, the former Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and former Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs in the Department of Veterans Affairs ended up in that zone of saying how hard things are. In a classic version of blame the government, Duckworth reserved most of her ammunition for how generally unmanageable and ungovernable the VA is. …Which leads us back to the photo.

As she understands in a way than most of us never will, those symbols behind Duckworth — the displays of military challenge coins and the pilot’s seat and helmet (either from or signifying) the Black Hawk helicopter in which she lost her legs — mean something. They mean a tremendous amount. As does the sight of her prosthetics and missing limbs. What’s disturbing, however, is when those objects become the framing elements for political equivocation. Please, a US Congressperson, and a person of her notoriety, using the fact that she gets prompt medical attention at the VA as evidence that the problem is limited? To the extent Duckworth — against this background and with all her credibility and visibility on veterans issues — feels the need to run interference for those who bear the responsibility, doing so undermines the emotional and moral value of the objects behind her and relegates them to historical artifacts.

(photo: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post. caption: Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) talks about the problems plaguing the Veterans Affairs Department in her office in the Cannon Building on Capitol Hill.)

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