May 21, 2017

Sen. Duckworth urges George Washington University grads to 'get involved, not discouraged'

Source: Chicago Tribune


With the Washington Monument behind her, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth on Sunday implored the graduates of George Washington University to "get involved, not discouraged" by the divisive politics in the nation's capital and the "battle for the heart and soul of our nation."

Duckworth, a Democrat from Hoffman Estates, was invited to give this year's commencement address at the private university in Washington. Duckworth was also awarded an honorary degree alongside Lt. Gen. Nadja West, the Army Surgeon General, and Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron.

A critic of President Donald Trump, Duckworth never mentioned him by name during her speech. Rather, she spoke in generalities of "leaders in Washington with a dark vision for our future."

"The thoughtful, principled leaders once common in Congress and the White House — the kind of leaders who fought over policies during the day, compromised and then shared a drink together as friends in the evenings — those kinds of leaders are today often drowned out by the loudest voice in the room, whether or not that voice has a plan or even cares to string together a coherent sentence while they're spewing hate," Duckworth said to loud cheers and applause.

Much of the speech, though, was personal: a story of perseverance told from one alumna to another. Duckworth received a master's degree at George Washington University in 1992. She told the audience she came to campus with the goal of becoming a foreign service officer and never would have thought she'd return as a helicopter pilot and a U.S. Senator decades later.

Duckworth was elected to the U.S. Senate in November, defeating Republican Mark Kirk.

"I couldn't have imagined the challenges that I would face — challenges in the military, in Congress, as a new mom," she said. "...We can't predict our successes or our failures. We can only control how we react to them."

In dramatic detail, Duckworth described the day in November 2004 when she lost her legs after her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down during the Iraq War and the heroic efforts of the crew members who saved her. She calls it her "Alive Day": "It was the day that I almost died but didn't."

She drew laughs from the crowd when she described her first interactions with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. Early in Duckworth's recovery, Durbin invited her to be his guest at President George W. Bush's State of the Union address. Durbin, she said, made the "foolish mistake" of giving her his personal cell phone number.

"Because I used that phone number," she said, "A lot."

Then she pivoted to the serious. "I wanted to make it clear to all who lead this nation — and really to anyone who would listen — what a dear price we pay when we send our troops into harm's way."

Duckworth drew on an oft-quoted speech of former President Theodore Roosevelt, who said the true citizen is not the critic who points out "where the doer of deeds could have done them better." Rather, Duckworth shared, Roosevelt praised "the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly ... who comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming."

President Richard Nixon quoted that same passage when he resigned office in 1974.

But Duckworth used Roosevelt's words in a very different way — to describe her ascent from gravely injured soldier to Illinois senator and to inspire the crowd to "get loud, get active" no matter what life brings.

"Every time I got knocked down, I got back up," she said. "I dusted myself off and I got back into the arena."

She urged, "You need to get into the arena, and then you need to stay in there and make your voices heard."

Harkening back to Roosevelt's words, she encouraged them: "Don't be a timid soul that knows neither victory nor defeat."

By:  Patricia Callahan