CHICAGO, Dec. 16 - During 13 months of rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, Maj. L. Tammy Duckworth says, she did a lot of reading about American schoolchildren "losing our competitive advantage" with China. Encountering questions about her top-of-the-line prostheses while walking around a shopping mall, she says, made her ponder inequities in America's health care system.
And there was plenty of time to critique the Bush administration's prosecution of the war in Iraq, where she lost both legs and partial use of her right arm when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the Black Hawk helicopter she was flying over the Tigris River.
So Ms. Duckworth, who was discharged from Walter Reed on Wednesday and from active duty the day before, decided to run for Congress, joining a growing group of a dozen Iraq veterans running next year - most, like her, as Democrats.
"I had my legs blown off in Iraq, and because I had my legs blown off in Iraq people are listening to me," said Ms. Duckworth, 37, who plans to announce her candidacy officially on Sunday, at a rally and in an appearance on the ABC News program "This Week." "I'm not going to get my legs back, and that's fine, but if that gives me a platform to talk about the things that are important to me, like education and jobs, that's great."
Ms. Duckworth is seeking her party's nomination in a March 21 primary for the seat being vacated after 32 years by Representative Henry J. Hyde, a powerful Republican, in a swath of suburban Chicago that has lately become more Democratic. The district would be a prize for the Democrats in their effort to retake control of the House.
Political analysts and the national Democratic leaders who recruited her say Ms. Duckworth and the other veterans could help Democrats gain traction on crucial issues of national security, where Republicans often have the edge. Paul L. Hackett, who commanded a Marine unit in Iraq, made a surprisingly strong showing in a special Congressional election this summer in Ohio, earning 48 percent of the vote in a heavily Republican district. That outcome propelled Mr. Hackett into a race for the Democratic nomination to challenge Senator Mike DeWine next year and inspired several fellow veterans to undertake their own campaigns.
What the Democratic leaders are looking for is "somebody who can deliver a message on Iraq but the messenger won't be instantly discredited as a typically liberal Democrat - that's the theory of the formula," explained Amy Walter, who follows House races for The Cook Political Report, the quintessential Washington handicapper. The veterans, Ms. Walter added, "have an instant level of credibility to talk about that."
Indeed, Ms. Duckworth, who received the Air Medal as well as a Purple Heart, already has the talking points down: "My role in the Army gives me the courage to make the tough decisions," is one of her lines. And: "Those of us who've served on the ground have a unique perspective on the war and on what it means to serve in combat."
In a telephone interview Friday as part of a carefully orchestrated rollout of her campaign, Ms. Duckworth said that she had opposed the invasion of Iraq from the start, even as she volunteered for deployment, but that she did not favor the quick withdrawal that some Democrats seek.
"I think we broke it and we need to fix it," she said. "We have a commitment and an obligation to make sure that we help Iraqi security forces be able to maintain their own security. We need to come up with an aggressive plan based on benchmarks for when we're going to leave."
Ms. Duckworth's opponent in the primary, Christine Cegelis, a software engineer who won 44 percent of the vote against Representative Hyde in 2004, tried to put a positive spin on a campaign by so high-profile a contender, saying she hoped it would "give our race the visibility that would not have been afforded to me." State Senator Peter J. Roskam, the conservative Republican whom one of the women will face next November, declined to be interviewed but issued a statement admiring Ms. Duckworth's "service and sacrifice to our great country."
Ms. Duckworth lives with her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey, an Army officer, in Hoffman Estates. Their home is three miles outside the district she hopes to represent, but Congressional candidates are required only to live within the state.
She was one of very few women flying combat missions in Iraq, until her Black Hawk was felled on Nov. 12, 2004. In between more than two dozen operations (she says she lost count) while at Walter Reed, she testified before Congress about military health care benefits and was a guest of Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, at this year's State of the Union address. She can now walk up to a mile unaided with her prostheses, but generally uses a cane and spends some of each day in a wheelchair; she still lacks full use of her right arm.
"Amputees fall down a lot - it's just the nature of being an amputee - so you'll probably see that," she said. "I'm learning to tuck and roll really well."