Tammy Duckworth, 53, is a Democratic U.S. senator for Illinois and previously served in the U.S. House of Representatives. She is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, an Iraq War veteran and a Purple Heart recipient. Her memoir, “Every Day Is a Gift,” was released this spring.
Q: In your book, you share experiences with poverty as a teen; near-death injuries, including losing both legs when your helicopter was shot down in Iraq; struggles with IVF and a miscarriage during your Senate campaign. What do you view as your greatest trial?
A: For me, the most difficult time was when I woke up at Walter Reed and thought that I was responsible for a helicopter crash. The doctors were talking about a crash and didn’t realize that I was waking up. That was the lowest point in my life, where I thought: I deserve to lose these legs. I injured my men. I didn’t do my job as a pilot, as an officer. That was the darkest.
My husband told me, “No, no, no. You didn’t crash the aircraft; you guys landed it.” I sort of believed him — he showed me the picture of the aircraft sitting there — but I didn’t believe him. But I was going into surgery every other day then, and heading in on my gurney, I looked up on the board where they had all the patients who were going to go into surgery that morning, and they had Sgt. Chris Fierce’s name on there. I said to the nurse, “Oh my God, that’s my sergeant. That’s my crew chief.” And so she very kindly put us next to each other on our two gurneys waiting to go into surgery. I just started weeping. I was like, “Chris, I’m so sorry I crashed the aircraft. You almost lost your leg. It’s my fault.” And he just looked at me like I was insane. He said, “What are you talking about? You and Dan did everything you could to land the aircraft.” I said, “Are you sure?” He goes, “Tammy, I was sitting right behind you. I could see you move your hand to try to shut down the engine.” And once I knew that, I was fine. And I’ve been fine ever since.
Q: You describe the incredible scene with your buddies, who were also quite injured, trying to carry your body out just to return it home, not even thinking that you had a chance of living — slipping in blood, trying to defend the position. What is it like to have that kind of gift from other people?
A: I was asked a couple days ago, “Isn’t that a heavy burden to bear?” And my answer was, “No. It’s a gift.” It’s my North Star. When I’m in the Senate, or doing whatever I’m doing, it’s with the knowledge of what those men did to save me. And so every day has been living up to that. And I would never betray them by dishonoring their sacrifice, by not living the soldier’s creed, basically, (of always placing the mission first). And it’s funny because, I mean, members of my crew voted for Donald Trump, you know? We’ve had conversations. But we love each other; we literally would die for each other. To me, that is the gift. Because if we could do that, surely I can find a way to work with somebody on the other side of the aisle in the Senate, right? (Laughs.)
Q: So then how does that translate to your work today in a governing body, trying to achieve things when you’re coming at it from different angles, from very different positions?
A: Well, I think I gravitate to the other veterans. I do a lot with Todd Young from Indiana. He’s a Marine. I’m a soldier. And in the House, I worked a lot with Paul Cook, for example, who is a Vietnam veteran. Because if you love this country as much as I love this country, and you’re willing to die for this country, like I was willing to die for this country, we can find a way to work with each other. But I will tell you that it’s not always that easy. I don’t think Donald Trump, for example, loved this country. And that made it hard to work with him.
Q: More people are familiar with your military service than with the fact that you grew up experiencing the kind of poverty and near-homelessness that you did. How did that shape the way you view the world and the perspective you bring to your current work?
A: One of the key things it did was made it clear that this ideal of American rugged individualism, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, is not the reality out there. That there are people working as hard as they possibly can, and they’re still not even keeping their heads above water. They’re sinking further and further under. And that is something I try to bring to the Senate in my conversations. I explain that I worked harder as a 15-year-old trying to work a full-time job, literally scrounging through garbage for money, and hustling on the side, than I have ever worked in my entire life. And so did my parents.
So let me tell you, it wasn’t a lack of hard work. Sometimes you just need a helping hand. And when I got that helping hand along the way, it made the difference in my life. If my yearbook teacher had not bought me dinners, if I did not have the school lunch and school breakfast program, I would have dropped out of high school. I would still be a wonderful person, but I would probably be working two minimum-wage jobs and never have finished high school or gotten a college degree. And I certainly would not have been qualified to serve in the military or become a U.S. senator. And because those things were there, that kept me in school so I could get my high school diploma. And that made a difference, not just for me, but for my country.
Q: Do you think your colleagues are more able to hear that because you say it as a fellow senator?
A: I think they hear it a little bit more. Some of them have never had those conversations. But that’s not the only conversation I have. I add onto it. I talk about the fact that the (Department of Defense), in the last several years, has put out studies (saying) they can only recruit from 29 percent of the population because 71 percent of the population of (17-) to 24-year-olds in this country can’t pass the basic requirements, some of which include not being able to pass the math and English tests. Like, they either don’t have a GED or a high school diploma, or, even if they do, they can’t pass the basic exam, which is written at the eighth-grade level. I say, what’s the point of spending $100 million on an F-35 fighter jet if we can’t recruit people to fix it or fly it? So even if you don’t care about the humanitarian side, let me tell you: Those food stamps kept me in school so I could graduate high school, so I could go enlist in the military. Don’t you want that?
Public schools and food stamps and all of that made a difference in my life. And I think that that makes this country stronger. That’s why I support these programs. Not because I’m any particular label. You know, people talk about how I was the first senator to give birth in the Senate, but I had my second baby at the age of 50. We need some female 40-year-olds that are still raising babies in the Senate to talk about these issues. And so we just need to get more diversity. Look, when I was elected to the Senate, there were more white men named John than there were persons of color.
Q: That is a metric I had not heard.
A: That’s not reflective of the United States of America. And, as wonderful as my colleagues are, you just overlook things when you don’t have that experience. Until I became a mom, I never understood the issue of pumping (milk) every three hours until I had to do it sitting on a toilet stall. Which is why I pushed for breastfeeding lactation rooms in airports, because I was being told: Well, you can use a toilet stall, or you can go plug your breast pump in next to those guys that are charging their phones over there. So that diversity is really, really important. And I’m slowly making the Senate more accessible.
Q: You talk about moving toward that more perfect union. Why do you think there’s been an increase in anti-Asian violence?
A: I see it as something that has been worsened due to the rhetoric of the Trump administration, the racist rhetoric with the coronavirus. But it’s an exacerbation; I don’t think it’s anything new. Asian Americans are always seen as “the other.” Nobody looks at a Black American and asks them, “Well, where did you come from?” Right? There’s no assumption that they’re not American enough. There is with Asian Americans, and there has always been. You know, we had Chinese Americans who earned their citizenship serving with the Union Army in the Civil War. Those same men had their citizenship stripped away with the Chinese Exclusion Act. So there is this otherness to Asians that has always been there, that we must deal with. It’s why we put them in internment camps. Because there is a perception that they’re not truly American. Especially East Asians. And so I don’t see that as anything new. That’s why allies are so important. You know, I’m tired of AAPI, the Latinx community and the Black community being forced to fight over the one slice of diversity pie. There’s enough pie for everyone. We need to work together.
Q: Do you have advice to live by?
A: Assume the person you’re dealing with is coming from an honorable place. They’re just coming at the problem from a different perspective than you. It’s a version of: Assume they love this country as much as you do.
Q: And then assume that you can get to some shared position?
A: Yeah. Some position that you both hate. (Laughs.) But that’s compromise, right? It’s a system where you both have a little something you like and a little something that you hate, and maybe that’s the best we can hope for.