Congressional Thought Leader: Tammy Duckworth

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 20: Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) attends a celebration for leading women in Washington hosted by GOOGLE, ELLE, and The Center for American Progress on January 20, 2013 in Washington, United States. Credit: Getty Images for ELLE

January marks a new year, and the induction of the new 213th Congress. Some of its members are career politicians hardened by years of campaigning and politicking, some are bright-eyed freshmen yet unjaded by an unforgiving Washington machine, and at least one is an Iraq War veteran, who despite losing both lower limbs during a tour of duty, has remained dedicated to public service. 

You might be surprised to learn that newly elected U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth, the Democrat who replaced tea party favorite Joe Walsh in Chicago’s 8th congressional district, actually credits Republican stalwart Bob Dole as a source of inspiration. In the midst of the Chicago political machine, will this Iraq War veteran be the one who actually upends politics as usual in America’s increasingly polarized climate?

Despite their initial disappointment, Chicago Republicans may find themselves pleasantly surprised by Duckworth’s patriotic bent and an ancestry that includes a long line of American heroes dating back to the Revolutionary War.

Congressional Thought Leader: Tammy Duckworth

So who is Tammy Duckworth?

The first-ever Asian-American woman elected to to Congress in Illinois was born in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968, to Frank Duckworth, an American World War II veteran and long-standing NRA member, and Lamai, a Thai national of Chinese descent. 

Due to her father’s work with the United Nations and multinational corporations, Duckworth spent her youth moving across Southeast Asia. Ultimately, she became fluent in Thai and Indonesian as well as English and by the early 1980s, she and her family settled in Hawaii. 

Despite her new environs, Tammy is said to have excelled in academic studies, skipping the ninth grade and graduating with honors from McKinley High School in 1985. She went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Hawaii, a Masters in international affairs from George Washington University, and was in the midst of completing her Ph.D. in political science at Northern Illinois University when the call of duty arrived.

In terms of her family’s political leanings, Duckworth told ChicagoMag that she actually had a conservative upbringing.

My dad [whose military service spanned World War II to Vietnam] was from Virginia—lifetime member of the NRA, a marksman,” she said in the interview.

“My brother is also a lifetime member of the NRA [signed up by their father when he was a child]. My dad loved Ronald Reagan. My brother  lives in Nevada. He is a Harley Davidson motorcycle mechanic. He’s a Coast Guard vet; did eight years as a navigator on C-130s rescuing fishing boats and iceberg patrol.”

While Duckworth herself is not an NRA member, she noted that she “grew up shooting guns.” Not surprising given her family’s military background.

A long line of military service 

While her achievements in higher education could have taken her down any number of paths, Duckworth felt compelled to carry her forebears’ legacy of service and joined the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps while still a graduate student and would later serve as a commissioned officer in the United States Army Reserve. This, of course, may have come natural to Duckworth, whose paternal lineage comprises veterans from the Revolutionary War, World War II, Vietnam and those in between. 

While the desire to serve her country seems a given, an ambitious Duckworth wouldn’t settle for just any position in the armed forces, rather she wanted the opportunity to contribute in equal measure with her male counterparts. Of course, combat roles for women in the military are few and far between, but that did not stop the resourceful grad-student from gaining entry into the world she desired. Capitalizing on her seemingly innate ability to excel academically, Duckworth attended flight school and became a helicopter pilot. Later she would become the first female platoon leader of her unit. 

Leadership seemed to come naturally to Duckworth and indeed she proved capable of holding her own with her male compatriots, but that is not to say she didn’t endure her share of criticism. And preparing a batch of hot cocoa for her team prior to a helicopter training exercise one blustery winter day even earned her the moniker “mommy platoon leader” — something Duckworth has winced at in past interviews. 

Despite being, at times, what she has described as “hyper-sensitive” over the perception that her gender might in some way limit her, Duckworth erased anyone’s doubt one fateful November day in 2004 when the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was struck down by Iraqi insurgents. 

According to the account, Duckworth slipped into shock immediately following the traumatic wounds she had sustained — wounds that took both of her legs and severely damaged her right arm. The blood-loss at this initial stage often marks the difference between life and death, and it has been noted that a myriad soldiers have slipped quietly from life following a trauma of this magnitude.

Whether it was luck, a sheer resolve to live and to fight, or a combination of both, Duckworth held strong and lived through the series of operations required to save her arm and surgically remove what remained of her irreparably damaged lower limbs. She received a Purple Heart, an Air Medal and an Army Commendation Medal and was also promoted to major on Dec. 21 YEAR? at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Often, the physical pain of rehabilitation, coupled with psychological barriers resulting from grave injuries are too great to surmount. Still, none of Duckworth’s new physical limitations seemed enough to stop the headstrong veteran, who is now fitted with prosthetic limbs and learning to fly helicopters again.

Past interviews with Duckworth reveal a forward-thinker who has come to be known for her trademark optimism.

Today, the highly decorated veteran continues to serve as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard along with her husband, Maj.Bryan W. Bowlsbey, who is also a fellow Iraq War veteran. In addition, she has promised to tackle issues important to her Illinois constituents head on.

Congress 

Prior to her role in congress, Duckworth took her wartime experience, along with her academic credentials, and was appointed Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs in the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, where she served from April 24, 2009 to June 30, 2011. She also served as the Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs from Nov. 21, 2006 to Feb. 8, 2009.

In terms of running for higher office, Duckworth credits two seemingly opposite figures with helping her realize her goals. The first one, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), may seem obvious for a Chicago Democrat, but the Illinois freshman credits the longtime senator with inviting wounded warriors to attend the State of the Union address in 2005 and in helping her fellow veterans at the VA hospital resolve difficult administrative hurdles. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Duckworth cites former Republican presidential candidate — and fellow veteran — Bob Dole as a source of inspiration. During her interview with ChicagoMag, Duckworth recalled meeting Dole at the VA hospital where she was, at the time, undergoing treatment for her injuries.

“I felt just so inspired by Senator Dole’s life, and he was sitting on a hospital bed next to everyone else going through therapy, and so I think for me that was the clincher,” she said.

“I saw in him a path…I’ve been asked to consider running for Congress and I’m talking to a gentleman that I admired so deeply who had lived his entire life of service. I talked to him a lot about the bills that he passed. He co-authored the Americans with Disability Act with Teddy Kennedy. We developed a little bit of a friendship.”

Duckworth went on to explain that when she sees Dole today, he jests that if he had known she was actually going to run for office, he’d have made sure she would have done it as a Republican.

Today, as a newly elected congresswoman, Duckworth plans to focus on issues she believes are directly impacting her constituents, including jobs, the economy, and the fate of Chicago’s manufacturing industry.

What also sets Duckworth apart is her expressed desire to work with leaders on both sides of the aisle. While she has lauded Democratic Senators Durbin, Duckworth has also praised Republican Senators Olympia Snowe, Johnny Isakson and Lisa Murkowski, the former of whom she has worked with on veterans’ issues. 

Given her conservative, military background, wartime accumen and dedication to service, Duckworth may help to assuage the effects of the notoriously divisive Chicago political machine and build bridges that have been missing for quite some time.