Duckworth, decorated combat vet, returns to salute ROTC Class of 2017

Chronicle Media Staff

Sen. Tammy Duckworth poses with eight NIU ROTC cadets who will now serve as officers in the U.S. Army. (Northern Illinois University photo)sity
Second Lt. Ally Lehman, of Northern Illinois University, talks with U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth after Sen. Duckworth gave the keynote address of the 2017 NIU ROTC Commissioning Ceremony in Altgeld Hall on the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois on Friday, May 12, 2017. Second Lt. Lehman is one of 10 women nationally being commissioned to the U.S. Army Infantry. Sen. Duckworth, a retired Lieutenant Colonel and among the first Army women to fly combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, was commissioned at NIU 25 years ago.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an NIU alumna and decorated Black Hawk helicopter pilot, returned to campus last week to address an audience gathered for the appointment of eight NIU ROTC cadets as officers in the U.S. Army—including Ally Lehman, one of only 10 women selected nationally for the infantry this year.

The U.S. Army Infantry commission is one of the most hotly pursued placements each year among the thousands nationwide who complete four years of officer training through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Such combat jobs were made available to females for the first time last year, when a dozen women were chosen for the honor.

Last week marked the silver anniversary of Duckworth’s own ROTC commissioning at NIU.

“It’s an honor to be a part of NIU’s ROTC commissioning ceremony as these cadets begin their journey as the next generation of Army officers,” Sen. Duckworth said. “I’m grateful for the time I spent in NIU’s ROTC program, and I’m proud to go to work every single day in the Senate to make sure our nation’s military men and women receive the support they have earned.” Lehman came to NIU from Nineveh, Indiana, in 2013, setting her sights on leading the NIU women’s basketball team, and she starred on the court, earning all-conference and NIU’s female Athlete of the Year honors this past season.

She graduates this weekend with a degree in general studies, while receiving her commission as a second lieutenant. She is the first NIU athlete to graduate while completing ROTC training and remaining competitive in a sport.

Lehman now looks forward to undertaking the Infantry Officer Basic Leadership Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, a 17-week class that provides new officers the basic skills to lead a rifle platoon into combat.

Duckworth was first commissioned as an officer through NIU ROTC on May 9, 1992. More than a decade later, while working on her doctorate degree in political science, her studies at NIU were cut short when her Illinois Army National Guard unit was deployed to Iraq.

During a mission north of Baghdad in 2004, a rocket-propelled grenade struck the helicopter she was co-piloting. She continued to attempt to pilot the aircraft until losing consciousness from blood loss.

As a result of the attack, Duckworth lost both of her legs and partial use of one arm. She received many decorations for her actions, including the Purple Heart, the Air Medal and the Combat Action Badge.

Following her recovery, Duckworth dedicated her life to public service and emerged as a national figure, advocating on behalf of veterans and people with disabilities. She served as an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs under President Obama and was first elected in 2012 as the U.S. representative for Illinois’ 8th Congressional District.

In 2016, she was elected a U.S. senator from Illinois.

“Tammy Duckworth is at the top of my list of American heroes,” NIU President Doug Baker said. “She has served our country with valor in battle and beyond, and is an inspiration to many Americans. We’re very proud of the time she spent here at NIU—and thrilled that she has returned for today’s ROTC commissioning ceremony.”

NIU awarded Duckworth with an honorary doctoral degree in 2010.

In addition to Lehman, NIU ROTC cadets receiving their officer commissions today included:

• 2nd Lt. Austin Elzen of Freeport

• 2nd Lt. Jack Grimes of DeKalb

• 2nd Lt. Joseph Kuhlmey of Westchester

• 2nd Lt. Ryan Lindeman of DeKalb

• 2nd Lt. Curtis Orndorf of Channahon

• 2nd Lt. James Sim of Gilberts

• 2nd Lt. Jonathan Zigrossi of Peoria

“All of them are outstanding in their own ways,” Maj. James Polk, assistant professor of Military Science at NIU, said during the commissioning ceremony. “I am proud to put the trust of our nation’s defense in their hands.”

The NIU Huskie ROTC Battalion has been providing quality leadership to the U.S. Army for more than 40 years.