January 27, 2018

Tammy Duckworth: The mother making history in the US Senate

Source: BBC


Tammy Duckworth is used to being a trailblazer.

A double amputee, she was the first disabled woman elected to the US Congress.

Born in Bangkok to a Thai mother and American father, she was also among the first Asian-American women in Congress.

And now, as confirmed in a gleeful tweet this week, she will be the first woman to have a baby while serving in the US Senate.

It was "about damn time", the 49-year-old said. "I can't believe it took until 2018."

On the day Donald Trump defied the odds to defeat Hillary Clinton in November 2016, Tammy Duckworth made her own journey - soundly defeating the Republican incumbent to become the junior senator for Illinois, the position held by Barack Obama when he won the presidency.

Her election came four days shy of the anniversary of the event that shaped her later life.

"I'm here because of the miracles that occurred 12 years ago this Saturday - above and in a dusty field in Iraq," she said in her victory speech.

Among the people she thanked were her former military comrades: the men who saved her life after the helicopter she was co-piloting over Iraq was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

You may find some of the following details distressing

Duckworth was a captain with the Illinois National Guard when she was called up to serve in Iraq. It was a war she disagreed with, but she fully accepted the responsibility to go there and fight.

She did not have to go to Iraq. She was no longer in charge of her former unit when they were called to serve, but she asked to go with them.

"You don't want anyone to face danger and you not face the same danger," she told an episode of The Axe Files podcast in December 2016. "You have to face the same risk."

After a day of routine missions in November 2004, she and her crew were asked to pick up some soldiers from Taji, about 20 miles north of Baghdad.

When they got there, the soldiers had already left. The crew decided to return to their base in Balad, about 30 miles further north, and Duckworth handed control of the Black Hawk helicopter to her co-pilot Dan Milberg.

During the journey, as they flew low over palm trees to avoid detection, she heard the "tap, tap, tap" of gunfire against the helicopter.

She leaned forward to get the GPS co-ordinates to report where the helicopter had been shot.

"Right then, bam, the fireball happened in my lap with an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] going off," she told The Axe Files.

"It took off most of the back of my right arm because I had that forward. It blew off my right leg, it basically evaporated.

"My left leg was kicked up into an instrument. The force of that sheared it almost off, it was hanging on a little bit."

Duckworth drifted in and out of consciousness. Every time she became conscious again, she would try to operate the pedals to control the helicopter, but struggled to understand why she couldn't. She did not realise she no longer had feet.

Dan Milberg landed the helicopter and carried Duckworth out. Her crew had assumed she was dead, but by nevertheless moving her quickly from the helicopter to get aid, they saved her life.

Duckworth woke up about 11 days later, in pain and angry. She had lost both legs and most of the use of her right arm.

In later years, she adapted a playful attitude to her amputation - wearing a T-shirt saying "Dude, where's my leg?" and addressing the Democratic National Convention with one prosthetic leg painted in camouflage, the other in the American flag.

In hospital though, one of her first thoughts was revenge against her attacker. "I wanted to hunt him down," she told The Axe Files.

In the end she underwent countless operations and spent 13 months in hospital, much of it at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington DC.

The hospital, packed with soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, became what she called "an amputee petting zoo" for politicians seeking photo opportunities.

It was perhaps inevitable that Duckworth had ended up joining the military, even if she had initially resisted, having hoped to join the diplomatic service instead.

Generations of her family had served in the military, going as far back as the American Revolution. Her father Frank fought in World War Two and the Vietnam War.

A fierce patriot, Frank Duckworth was a Marine and served as a signal officer in Vietnam. But he found himself confronted and spat at when he returned to the US in between tours as the movement against the Vietnam War gathered strength.

He preferred to stay in south-east Asia in between tours, and met Lamai Sompornpairin, who had grown up sewing hats in a Thai factory and was then working in her parents' grocery shop.

The couple, with baby Tammy in tow, stayed in the region after the war while Frank worked for the UN Development Programme and different corporations. Tammy spoke nothing but Thai until she was eight years old.

Some of Duckworth's earliest memories involve the Khmer Rouge seizing control in Cambodia
Her experiences with conflict began at a young age, as the Marxist Khmer Rouge regime took power in Cambodia.

She has said some of her earliest childhood memories are of being in Phnom Penh, watching bombs going off. She said her parents told her to think of them as fireworks, so she would not be scared.

The latter period of her time in Asia, living in Indonesia and Singapore, gave her pride in being American, and in seeing how people abroad viewed her country.

Yet the Duckworths later fell on hard times as Frank Duckworth lost his job. Despite his reluctance to return to a country he felt had rejected him, he had no choice but to go back to the US.

At several points, Tammy Duckworth's story echoes that of President Obama, the man who called her "a tough lady, but with a big heart" as she ran for his old Senate seat.

Both have acknowledged how their mixed-race origins helped form their identities. Both grew up in Indonesia at around the same time, and both left Asia to live in Hawaii.

While Duckworth said the move to a multicultural state like Hawaii was the perfect way for her to assimilate into US life, it was a hard transition for her father.

The family depended on food stamps to survive. In 2013, she reflected on her teenage years while speaking in Congress against possible cuts to food stamps. "They were there for me, so I could worry about school and not about my empty stomach."

Often, Duckworth and her brother Thomas could eat only if their father had found enough coins left in telephone kiosks. When she found work after school, she was the only member of her family to have a job.

Her father, who died in 2005, went on to find work at a chicken factory, and Duckworth was able through grants and loans to make her way to three universities.

In the end, it was her classmates who convinced her that she could achieve her eventual aim of being an ambassador by joining the military first.

"What I didn't expect was to fall in love with the camaraderie and sense of purpose that the military instills in you," Duckworth wrote in Politico in 2015.

"The thing is, when we were exhausted and miserable, my fellow cadets and I were exhausted and miserable together."

Among the other cadets was her future husband, Bryan Bowlsbey. It wasn't immediately obvious the two were destined for marriage.

"He made a comment that I felt was derogatory about the role of women in the Army," she told the C-Span news network in 2005, "but he came over and apologised very nicely and then helped me clean my M16."

It would be far from the last time Duckworth would face a derogatory comment, but it would be the only time she would marry the man who made it.

Duckworth's political career took off as her rehabilitation from her injuries was continuing.

It was an invitation by Illinois Democrat senator Dick Durbin to attend the 2005 State of the Union address that first ignited her interest.

Duckworth had already become an unofficial adviser to younger veterans within Walter Reed hospital, leading Mr Durbin to suggest she should consider running for office.

She ran as a candidate for Congress in Illinois in 2006, barely two years after the attack in Iraq.

But she lost the race to Republican Peter Roskam by only 5,000 votes. "I sat in a bathtub and cried for three days," she said.

Over the following years, she continued her duties with the National Guard and as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, where she launched a hotline for suicidal veterans and helped improve access to healthcare payments and work for veterans.

In 2008, newly elected President Obama appointed her as an assistant secretary to the federal Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Then in 2012, she ran for Congress again in another Illinois district - this time against an opponent who openly disparaged her military record.

Joe Walsh was hardly the most popular candidate when he ran against Duckworth in Illinois' eighth district.

When the Republican incumbent was sued by his ex-wife over missed child support payments, and when he shouted at a constituent, his chances became even slimmer.

Then when he attacked the service carried out by Duckworth, by this point a recipient of the Purple Heart medal for those injured in service, his fate was perhaps sealed.

"I'm running against a woman who, my God, that's all she talks about," he said at a town hall meeting. "Our true heroes, it's the last thing in the world they talk about."

Duckworth ended up winning 54.7% of the vote, compared with Walsh's 45.3%.

She held on the seat two years later. A month later, at the age of 46 and after several unsuccessful courses of IVF treatment, she gave birth to her first child, Abigail.

Duckworth often reflects back on the day her helicopter was struck, and acknowledges how her time in the military has helped shape the politician she is today.

"That day, and so many others when I served, illustrated the two most important lessons the military taught me," she wrote in Politico magazine. "Never leave anyone behind - not on the battlefield and not in our country. And never put a service member in harm's way without understanding the cost."

But as Duckworth's first race for the Senate was entering its final stretch in October 2016, the Chicago Tribune pointed out that her much-vaunted record on helping veterans had been mixed.

After a decade in public service, the newspaper said, "several" of her initiatives to help Illinois veterans "fell flat", her post in the federal veterans' affairs body "mostly focused on public relations" and her two terms in Congress were "marked by only a few legislative successes".

Duckworth has defended her record, but even one of her headline pieces of policy - a bill she sponsored requiring airports to provide spaces for breastfeeding mothers - has yet to become law.

As a senator, her record will now face even more scrutiny. She reached the Senate after another bruising election campaign in 2016, one that saw her opponent Mark Kirk belittle her family's military history.

She started her time as a senator optimistically, expressing hope that she and fellow Democrats could work with President Trump.

"I am going to start off assuming that he loves this country as much as I love this country," she told The Axe Files podcast just before taking office. "If you start off from that point, I think you can learn to work with anyone."

It has not worked out that way.

Instead, Duckworth has positioned herself as one of the most persistent and vocal critics of the president, on issues relating to the military and immigration in particular.

Last weekend, as Trump attacked Democrats for not helping pass a funding bill that he said was "holding our military hostage", Duckworth attacked him from the Senate floor - noting how he had repeatedly avoided service in Vietnam because of a reported bone spur in his foot.

"I will not be lectured about what our military needs by a five-deferment draft dodger," she said.

"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 has been especially critical of Trump over North Korea, warning last month that he and the defence community were gearing up for war.

Amid her criticism of the president, the rumblings of a Tammy Duckworth run for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 presidential race have already started.

While she has not acknowledged any interest in running - at least not yet - Duckworth is surely aware that one significant political 'first' has still not been achieved: the first female president.

By:  Staff