Congressional Pathfinders: Tammy Duckworth
Ladda Tammy Duckworth is a trailblazer in many ways. She is the first Thai-American and the first disabled woman elected to the United States Congress as well as the first double amputee and the first woman to give birth while serving in the U.S. Senate. Before she became the poster child for the triumph of the human spirit, she was an immigrant searching for a better life. Her story is quintessentially American, filled with obstacles, opportunities, setbacks, and advances. I discuss her life and times in my forthcoming book, Congressional Pathfinders: First Members of Congress and How They Shaped American History.
She was born in Bangkok, Thailand, on March 12, 1968. Her father, Franklin Duckworth, was a US army veteran, and her mother, Lamai Sompornpairin, was a Thai of Chinese ancestry. Franklin Duckworth retired from the army in 1972. Afterward, he worked with the United Nations on development programs in Southeast Asia and eventually served in the private sector as well. As a result of his employment, the family moved around Asia frequently. Young Tammy became fluent in the Thai, Indonesian, and English languages.
The family settled in Hawaii, where Duckworth completed high school. From there, she enrolled in the University of Hawaii, graduating with a political science degree in 1989. Afterward, she pursued a degree in international affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. While she was a GW student, Duckworth joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). In 1992, she earned her degree and was commissioned as a reserve officer. During her training, she became a proficient helicopter pilot. The army remained an overwhelmingly male-dominated institution; not surprisingly, she was the only woman in her class. A year later, she married Bryan Bowlsbey, whom she had met in the ROTC program.
Duckworth honed her skills by enrolling in a doctoral program at Northern Illinois University. She also transferred to the Illinois Army National Guard. Much later, in 2015, she earned her doctorate from Capella University, an online higher education program.
In 2004, as she studied at Northern Illinois, her National Guard unit was deployed to Iraq. She stepped away from her life as a student and headed overseas. Later that year, on November 12, 2004, Duckworth, who was 36 years old at the time, slipped behind the controls of a Black Hawk helicopter for what initially appeared to be a routine flight--a “grocery run,” she called it. Of course, nothing about her service in Iraq was routine. American soldiers constantly dodged fire from hostile forces. In fact, the military base where she was stationed was a frequent target of snipers. Displaying gallows humor, soldiers jokingly referred to the place as “Mortaritaville,” a wry reference to Jimmy Buffet’s song of mellow joy, “Margaritaville.”
As she was flying to her base 50 miles from Baghdad with three crew members that November day, a rocket-propelled grenade crashed through the Plexiglas floor of her helicopter cockpit, bursting into flame. It was every pilot’s worst nightmare, trying to navigate aircraft with a fire inside the cockpit. She was lucky that the helicopter did not explode, hurtling the $6 million piece of machinery to the ground. Badly wounded, she struggled to control the helicopter before she passed out. Her co-pilot safely landed the craft.
Because Black Hawks travel in pairs, a second helicopter landed nearby. Personnel quickly moved wounded soldiers out of the now-disabled craft and onto the second helicopter for a medical evacuation. Duckworth’s co-pilot saw her blackened face, her bloodied torso, and her unresponsiveness and assumed she was dead. Her fellow soldiers retrieved what they thought was her corpse, eventually discovering that she was alive but unconscious. With this recognition, they knew that time was of the essence. She must be transported to a medical facility as soon as possible. Surgeons refer to the “golden hour,” a short window of opportunity to save the life of a wounded soldier. Her colleagues’ quick action saved her life. Within 20 minutes, she was in an army hospital in Baghdad. A few days after that, she was undergoing treatment at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Her injuries were extensive, and life-threatening. She had lost both legs--her right leg near the hip and her left leg just below the knee--and some question existed as to whether she would lose her right arm. Doctors saved the arm, but she lost partial use of it. Although she survived the grievous wounds, Tammy Duckworth’s life would never be the same.
She was awarded the Purple Heart for her injuries and won a promotion to the rank of major. She earned an Air Medal and Army Commendation Medal as well. In 2014, she retired from the Illinois Army National Guard as a lieutenant colonel.
In light of her injuries, her path to elective office was circuitous. When Illinois Senator Dick Durbin called the hospital to ask whether any wounded veterans from his state wanted to attend the State of the Union address, Duckworth volunteered. Durbin met her that night. Shaking her hand, he offered her a business card and told her to call him if he could ever help her in any way. Although such a statement might be considered a pro forma expression not to be taken seriously, Duckworth accepted the offer. She called Durbin’s office repeatedly to relay requests from veterans, often asking the senator to look into missing pension payments and problems at the hospital.
Far from being irritated by her contacts, Durbin marveled at her positive outlook and unapologetic tenacity. “When I did the math later on,” he mused, thinking about her attendance at the State of the Union address on February 2, 2005, “I realized she’s been injured only twelve weeks prior. I couldn’t believe what a positive attitude she had.” He encouraged her to consider running for Congress when an opportunity arose.
The opportunity arose unexpectedly. In 2006, after Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde announced his retirement from the Illinois sixth congressional district seat he had held since 1975, Duckworth’s chance to win elective office suddenly seemed possible. Durbin urged her to enter the race. She enthusiastically threw herself into the campaign.
Duckworth won the Democratic primary, but she lost the general election to Republican State Senator Peter Roskam, 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent. The final days of the election were especially vicious, as both sides traded barbs accusing the other of malfeasance. A series of nasty, misleading attacks on Duckworth’s liberal immigration policies also hurt her chances with voters. It was a brutal, but effective introduction to the world of bare-knuckle politics.
Down but not out, Duckworth searched for another means to enter public service. A few weeks after her election loss, she accepted an appointment from Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to serve as director of the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs. It was a crucial position, and she threw herself into the job with gusto. She served for slightly more than two years, until February 2009. During her tenure, she initiated a program to assist victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and brain injuries.
On February 3, 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Duckworth to serve as assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs for the US Department of Veteran Affairs. On April 22 of that year, the Senate confirmed her appointment. She had moved into the big leagues; she was a federal political appointee.
Even as she worked as an unelected public servant, Duckworth remained interested in politics. She stayed in her position at Veteran Affairs for slightly more than two years, always keeping her eye on the possibility of running for Congress a second time. In June 2011, she spied an opportunity. That month, she resigned to launch her campaign to represent Illinois’ eighth congressional district in Congress. She defeated Deputy Treasurer Raja Krishnamoorthi in the Democratic primary election before going on to face Republican Congressman Joe Walsh in the general election.
As with her first congressional contest in 2006, the fall campaign turned vicious. In July 2012, Walsh questioned whether Duckworth was politicizing her military service. In one especially controversial comment, the congressman allegedly expressed his frustration over facing a wounded veteran by saying, "my God, that's all she talks about. Our true heroes, the men and women who served us, it's the last thing in the world they talk about.” Walsh later insisted that the brouhaha surrounding his remarks amounted to “a political ploy.” He insisted that he was not questioning Duckworth’s service. “Of course Tammy Duckworth is a hero,” he said. “I have called her a hero hundreds of times.”
Walsh never recovered from his stumbles. On November 6, 2012, his Democratic challenger defeated the incumbent comfortably, by a margin of 54.7 percent to 45.3 percent. With her victory, Tammy Duckworth became the first disabled woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Owing to her unique status as a disabled female veteran elected to Congress, Duckworth enjoyed a level of media attention and scrutiny usually denied to junior House members. She used her time in the spotlight to good effect. When she won an award as a disability champion from the United Spinal Association, she delivered an impassioned speech, telling the audience that they must always persevere. “My message to the disability community is to continue making your voices heard. Never take the progress we’ve made for granted. It’s so important for everyone to get involved, to reach out to their members of Congress and let them know your priorities and how laws such as the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] have improved your lives.”
After she handily won reelection to the House with 56 percent of the vote in 2014, Duckworth realized that she might succeed in a statewide race. On March 30, 2015, she announced that she would challenge the incumbent United States senator, Mark Kirk, for his seat in the 2016 election. She easily won the Democratic primary, setting up a bruising general election campaign.
During a debate on October 27, 2016, Duckworth mentioned the price she had paid to defend the United States. “My family has served this nation in uniform, going back to the Revolution. I’m a daughter of the American Revolution. I’ve bled for this nation,” she said.
When the moderator asked Senator Kirk to respond, he seemed to mock his opponent’s ethnicity and military service. “I'd forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington,” he said. Kirk had been losing momentum as election day approached, and perhaps he had lost patience with Duckworth’s willingness to point out her sacrifices as a political tool. Whatever the reason, he immediately regretted his comment. Numerous sources immediately condemned the remark, including Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) lobbying organization, withdrew its endorsement of Kirk and threw its support to Duckworth. Although Kirk apologized the following day, his candidacy was doomed. He lost the election with 39.8 percent of the vote to 54.9 percent for Duckworth.
She was sworn into the United States Senate in January 2017, just as a new political era was dawning. Donald J. Trump, a self-proclaimed billionaire businessman with no previous political experience, scored a major upset over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential contest. Determined to reshape federal politics, Trump ascended into the White House just as Duckworth moved from the House of Representatives to the Senate. She was part of a freshman class of four Democratic women, including Catherine Cortez Masto (Nevada), Kamala Harris (California), and Maggie Hassan (New Hampshire), who pledged to resist the new administration’s efforts to undermine the rights of women, gays, and people of color.
She proved to be every bit as assertive in the Senate as she had been in the House. A fierce critic of the norm-busting Republican president, Duckworth wasted no time in blasting the administration for what she saw as its horrid policies. After Trump shut down the federal government in 2017-2018 following a funding dispute with Democrats, the president claimed that his opponents were more interested in protecting “unlawful immigrants” than in financing the military. The charge infuriated Senator Duckworth.
“I spent my entire adult life looking out for the well-being, the training, the equipping of the troops for whom I was responsible,” she said. “Sadly, this is something that the current occupant of the Oval Office does not seem to care to do--and I will not be lectured about what our military needs by a five-deferment draft dodger. And I have a message for Cadet Bone Spurs: If you cared about our military, you'd stop baiting Kim Jong Un into a war that could put 85,000 American troops, and millions of innocent civilians, in danger.”
Duckworth was a loyal Democrat on most domestic and foreign policies. She supported a woman’s right to abortion, continuation of the Affordable Care Act, and comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. When the Trump administration cut funding for federal environmental initiatives, she joined with twelve senators to send a letter to senators sitting on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development asking that the US Department of Energy’s funding for carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) be maximized. Although she owned guns and did not consider herself hostile to the Second Amendment, Duckworth supported sensible gun-control measures, citing her concern over street violence in Chicago as her prime motivation. In 2019, she cosponsored the South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions, a bipartisan bill aimed at disrupting China’s expansion of jurisdiction in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
As for her personal life, Duckworth's marriage remained strong. During the years that most couples have children, she had been completing her education and advancing through the ranks of the military. When she and her husband began planning a family, doctors told her that she could not have children. She refused to accept the diagnosis and sought out a well-known fertility specialist. In 2015, her daughter Abigail was born. In 2018, her second child, Maile, was born. At age 50, Tammy Duckworth was a new mother. The term for such an event is “geriatric pregnancy.” She laughed at the designation. “Geriatric,” she exclaimed. “Not even advanced maternal age!”
As of this writing, Tammy Duckworth remains a United States senator and a fierce critic of President Trump. She admits that it is difficult to fight an odorous administration every day. “I am tired. I am overwhelmed. Who isn’t? The average American mom is tired. So many of us are numb from the trauma of having a president who acts the way he [Trump] does.” As indefatigable as ever, the senator has resolved to carry on despite adversity. It is her life’s motto. “So it doesn’t matter if I’m tired,” she says, alluding to a host of administration policies that she finds reprehensible. “I am going to show up every day and fight. If that means I have to crawl to get a vote, I am going to do it.”