She may have been the most vulnerable member of Congress when the Capitol was stormed – the senator who had lost both legs in combat in Iraq – but what Tammy Duckworth felt on Jan. 6 wasn’t fear. It was rage.
“They were carrying the American flag to attack the U.S. Capitol,” the junior Democratic senator from Illinois told USA TODAY. “How dare they? You know, those are the colors I wore” on her Army National Guard uniform. Even as she turned her wheelchair around in an underground walkway and rushed to barricade herself in her office, she said she wasn’t afraid. “I knew I could take care of myself,” she said.
She has been doing that her entire life.
In her memoir, “Every Day Is a Gift,” being published by Twelve Books on Tuesday, Duckworth describes an astonishing life journey. At age 3 or 4 in Bangkok, she ran to check that the family had a store of rice the instant she heard her American father was returning to the USA without her and her Thai Chinese mother. As a teenager in Hawaii, she scavenged pennies and sold roses on the roadside to raise money to buy food for her family.
As a helicopter pilot deployed in the Iraq War, she suffered injuries so grievous when her Black Hawk was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade that her crewmates assumed she was dead. They heaved her mangled body into a second helicopter, so she couldn’t be dragged through the streets as a trophy by Iraqi insurgents.
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Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s discusses childhood poverty, losing her legs in combat, and becoming a U.S. Senator in her new memoir “Every Day is a Gift.”
Staff video, USA TODAY
Both her legs had been blown off, her right arm shredded, her body riddled with shrapnel. “There are some things I remember clearly – everything to do with getting the aircraft on the ground,” she said. “Then I passed out and I don’t remember any of that,” the details of her rescue or evacuation or the emergency medical treatment that saved her life against the odds.
That was on Nov. 12, 2004. She was 36.
Now 53, she realized only when she was writing the book how valuable her childhood struggles would prove to be for this new challenge. “The bad stuff” that had happened to her when she was young, the poverty and the discrimination, had been “a kind of inoculation” for the trials she would face as an adult. “A vaccine of sorts, preparing me for this much bigger loss I had to go through,” she concluded.
Those hardships fostered her determination and her resilience, her blunt sense of humor about the vagaries of life, and her antennae for peril.
On Jan. 6, she was heading to the Senate chamber to speak in the debate over accepting the Electoral College returns that would put Joe Biden in the White House. Police officers on duty in the tunnels that connect the Capitol complex alerted her that pro-Trump protesters had breached the building, but they didn’t realize how dire the situation would become. They told her she probably had time to get to the Senate floor.
She decided to turn back. There was only one entrance and exit to the Senate floor that could accommodate her wheelchair, and the senators who were already there would in short order be dashing down stairs to safety. If the worst had happened, if the mob had caught up with her, Duckworth declared, she could and would have defended herself.
By doing what?
“Anything I needed to do,” she replied flatly. “If I’ve got to crawl on my butt, I would do it. Whatever I need to do, I will. I will take care of myself, and I’ll make sure that those I’m responsible for are cared for.”
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Barricaded in her office with two aides – one of them a former Iraqi translator – she watched the assault on the Capitol unfold on TV, her temperature rising. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a friend, left a message on her cellphone that the Capitol Police were on their way to move her to a safer location. “She would be more prepared to defend herself than most of us,” Klobuchar told USA TODAY, “but she was clearly at risk.”
When the officers pounded on Duckworth’s door, they shouted that Klobuchar had sent them, something the insurrectionists wouldn’t have known, so Duckworth would be reassured it was safe to open the door.
A borrowed uniform hid her IV line
She had never expected to be a senator, or a public official of any sort. But weeks after her helicopter crash, she had a serendipitous encounter with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
He had asked officials at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center if there were any wounded warriors from Illinois interested and healthy enough to be his guest at the 2005 State of the Union address. Duckworth was interested, but it wasn’t clear whether she would be healthy enough to attend the speech by then-President George W. Bush. She had only begun a series of painful surgeries and rehabilitation at the hospital in suburban Maryland.
First, she had to work on being able to sit upright for the requisite amount of time, still a struggle. She borrowed a dress uniform that hid her IV line and a name tag from another soldier named Duckworth. “In she rolled,” fearless and indomitable, Durbin recalled in an interview. Her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey, then a captain in the Illinois National Guard, was by her side.
In the Capitol that night, she fielded a question from a Chicago reporter about antiwar demonstrators outside (“I thought that was what I was fighting for, to protect their right to protest”), pronounced herself “awestruck” at being introduced to other senators, then passed out from exhaustion on the bus ride back to the hospital.
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Durbin saw a potential political career for Duckworth before she did. The next year, he called to urge her to consider seeking an open House seat in Illinois. She ran and lost. She was appointed director of the Illinois Veterans Administration, then an assistant secretary in the federal VA. In 2012, she ran again for the House and won. In 2016, she claimed the Senate seat once held by Barack Obama.
Last year, she made Biden’s short list as a potential vice president.
The Democratic presidential candidate had promised to choose a woman as his running mate, and Duckworth was on the long list, then the short one. He ultimately chose then-Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. “A disappointment,” Duckworth acknowledged. “I went all the way to the end. I had a 50-50 chance of being picked.”
One concern was the potential for controversy over the fact she was born in Thailand. Most legal scholars say that as the child of an American parent, Duckworth would have met the constitutional requirement to be a “natural born citizen.” The birthplace issue had arisen with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was born in Panama, and several other presidential contenders.
She knew opponents would have seized on questions over her birthplace, creating a distraction for the Biden campaign. That said, she doesn’t rule out a presidential bid of her own down the road, one in which she could address that issue head on.
“Maybe if it’s good for the country,” she said of a potential run for the White House. She sees a mission. “I think about growing up in Southeast Asia post-Vietnam; everybody wanted to be us,” she said. “We had these ideals; we had these values, and you could achieve the American dream. I would want to try to get us back to them. We’re not there now.”
‘This no-legged Asian girl’
When she arrived at the USA TODAY Washington Bureau for an interview, Duckworth was expertly maneuvering herself from the back seat of her van into her wheelchair curbside when she suddenly realized that she had put her shoes on the wrong prosthetic feet. Their pointed toes were comically askew, pointing in opposite directions.
She had been hurrying to get out of the house that morning, a process complicated by the demands of her 6-year-old that her mother stay home. Abigail is the older of her two daughters. When Maile, now 3, was born, Duckworth became the first sitting senator to give birth, prompting a surprisingly heated debate with some of the Senate’s older members over updating the rules to allow an infant-in-arms in the chamber.
Of course, Duckworth has no feeling in her prosthetic feet, but she does feel constant phantom pain, the sensation that the balls of the feet she no longer has are on fire, as though she was tiptoeing through hot sand. When she’s tired, the pain becomes much worse, “like somebody is just shooting molten lava through my veins and electrocuting me on the legs.”
She still has the sensation that she can wiggle her toes. That feeling is one she doesn’t mind. “It’s comforting,” she said with a smile. “It’s as if they’re sort of still there.”
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She is matter-of-fact about the loss of her legs, more likely to note the humor than the pathos involved. In this case, she good-naturedly yanked off her shoes and jammed them onto the right feet. When she first met with rural voters in southern Illinois, she noted that some were surprised to see “this no-legged Asian girl” who wanted to represent them in the Senate.
She is plain-spoken in her politics, too. Though she praised Biden for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, she complained in the interview about the scarcity of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in top jobs in his administration. “They look at Kamala and say, ‘Well, she’s Asian,’” Duckworth said. (Harris’ mother immigrated from India.) “I don’t think that’s enough.”
Last week, she and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, briefly threatened to vote against any of Biden’s nonminority nominees in protest, backing off after the White House agreed to appoint a senior-level liaison for the AAPI community.
Despite her ties to Biden, it was a sign that she is not one to back away from a fight, even with a friend.
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Duckworth expressed alarm about the number of active-duty military and veterans arrested in connection with the assault on the Capitol.
Alarm, but not surprise. “It does not surprise me that they would be huge MAGA supporters,” she said, referring to Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” When she has visited military operations centers and veterans’ hospitals in recent years, the main TV sets have been routinely tuned to Fox News, she said, delivering a message she sees as toxic. “A lot of these folks are consuming not news; they’re consuming propaganda.”
She encouraged Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to consider reviving the Pentagon Channel for military audiences instead. Also called the DoD News Channel, it broadcast straightforward news and information until it ceased operation in 2015. She urged Austin to use the Uniform Code of Military Justice to bring charges against members of the military and retirees who joined the mob that broke into the Capitol.
They violated their oath to defend the Constitution, she said. For her, nothing could be more important. She called her military service “a privilege.”
Any regrets about what it cost her?
“If you told me right now, ‘Tammy, snap my fingers, you go back to Day One of flight school, go through all of that, go through everything; you get to live through those first 12 years, but you will get shot down in Iraq and you will lose your legs,’” she said without a moment’s hesitation. “I’d be, like, ‘Sign me up! Sign me up!’”