Woman of the Week: Tammy Duckworth

Tammy Duckworth

“We must be an inclusive nation that respects and supports all of its citizens, a nation that doesn’t give up on anyone who hasn’t given up on themselves”

Tammy Duckworth was born on March 12, 1968, in Bangkok, Thailand. Her mother, Lamai Somopornpairin, is Thai of Chinese decent; and her father, Franklin Duckworth, was a US Marine Veteran of the Second World War. After the war, Franklin went to work for the United Nations and other international companies that dealt with areas such as: refugees, housing, and development programs. Due to Mr. Duckworth’s work the family moved to Southeast Asia, which caused Duckworth to become fluent in three languages: Thai, Indonesian, and English. When Duckworth was 16 years old the family relocated and finally settled in Hawaii, although for a period of this time Duckworth’s father became unemployed and the family was reliant on public assistance programs.

              In 1985, Tammy Duckworth graduated with honors a year early from McKinley High School in Honolulu, Hawaii. It is apparent that education is something of significance to Duckworth because in 1989, she graduated from the University of Hawaii with a Bachelor of Arts in political science, and later received a Master of Arts in international affairs from Washington University.

              The Duckworth family had a rich history of military service, with Tammy’s father able to track his lineage to participants in the American Revolutionary War. With this family tradition in mind Duckworth joined the Army Reserve Officer’s Training Corp as a graduate student at George Washington University in 1990. Two years later she became a commissioned officer in the United States Army Reserve, where she chose to fly helicopters. Her reasoning for this decision was that flying a helicopter was one of the only combat jobs offered to women at that moment in time. As a member of the Army Reserve, she went to flight school and later transferred to the Army National Guard. There she entered the Illinois Army National Guard in 1996. While in Illinois, Duckworth was working towards a Ph.D. in political science at Northern Illinois University. Her research interests were specifically in the political economy and public health of Southeast Asia.

However, her research was interrupted in 2004, as she was deployed to Iraq. It was there that she lost her right leg near the hip and left leg below the knee from injuries sustained on November 12, 2004. Her UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, that she was co-piloting, was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by Iraqi insurgents. This unfortunate accident would put Tammy Duckworth in the history books, as she was the first female double amputee that came from the Iraq War. It was stated that the explosion, “almost completely destroyed her right arm, breaking it in three pieces and tearing tissue from the back side.” The doctors that operated on Duckworth had to reset the bones and stitch the cuts to save her arm. Unfortunately, the doctors could not do the same for her legs.

On December 3rd of the same year Duckworth received the Purple Heart, a military decoration awarded in the name of the President to those who have been wounded or killed while serving in the US military. Within the same month Duckworth was also promoted to the rank of Major. Despite the injury that Duckworth sustained, she was determined to continue her work for the United States Military. It was not until October of 2014 did Duckworth retire as a Lieutenant Colonel from the Illinois Army National Guard.

The story of Tammy Duckworth does not end with her retirement from the United States Military, instead, this just served as the start of a new chapter. Just before leaving the reserves, Duckworth was elected to the House of Representatives in 2012. Once again Duckworth made history, this time as the first disabled woman to be elected to the House and as the first member of Congress to be born in Thailand. In 2014 she once again won reelected to her seat in Congress, with about 56% of the vote from her district. During her time in the House of Representatives Duckworth served on the Committee on Armed Services and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

With sometime in the House of Representatives under her belt, Duckworth had her sights set on the US Senate, an announced she would be challenging an incumbent Senator for his seat in 2016. It was during a televised debate on October 27, 2016, that a critical event occurred for the Duckworth campaign. When answering a question Duckworth began to talk about her ancestors’ past service in the United States military. Then Senator Kirk responded, “I’d forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.” Kirk’s comment led to the Human Rights Campaign withdrawing its support from him and switching it to Duckworth. The Human Rights Campaign claimed that Kirk’s comments were “deeply offensive and racist”. On election night Duckworth won the seat with 54% of the vote. She now sits on four committees in the Senate: the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the Committee on Environment and Public Works, and the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

Tammy Duckworth is a woman that serves as an inspiration to the rest of the world. It would have been easy for her to retreat into solitude after the loss of her legs. Waking up every morning to be reminded that you are not whole is something that would take a toll on the average person, but not Tammy Duckworth. When a person encounters a disability within their life it often becomes their defining characteristic, and a stigma that they spend their entire life fighting off. Duckworth took that stigma and has turned it into her greatest strength. During her race for the House of Representatives Duckworth was quoted in saying, “The worst day for me in Washington on the floor of the House is never going to be as bad as me getting blown up. So bring it on.”

The harsh realities of life have met Tammy Duckworth in full force, but that has not stopped her. It serves as a lesson to the rest of the country: if it hasn’t stopped her, then why should it stop us?