Sen. Tammy Duckworth on striving for “that more perfect union”

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“I love ugly aircraft, machines that look like they shouldn’t even be able to fly,” wrote Tammy Duckworth. “The more brutal the better. I love the head-banging heavy metal of it. And that’s why I’m a helicopter pilot.”

“Can you imagine? My nation trusted in me and entrusted me with the privilege of flying this amazing machine! This little Asian girl who was starving in Hawaii, they looked at me and said, ‘You got potential, kid!'”

Tammy Duckworth said serving as a U.S. Army National Guard helicopter pilot was the best job she’s ever had — bar none. And that includes her current occupation: United States senator from Illinois.

Duckworth recounts her journey from pilot’s seat to Senate seat in a new memoir, “Every Day Is a Gift,” out this week. Her story took flight 53 years ago, in Bangkok, Thailand, where her father, Frank Duckworth, was stationed during the Vietnam War. There, he met a Thai woman named Lamai Sompornpairin.

Twelve Books


“It was a wartime love story,” Duckworth said. “And my dad stayed. That’s the fortunate part of my story, is that [for] so many other Amerasian children following the Vietnam War, their fathers left. And It instilled in me a real gratefulness that I was an American from birth, that I knew that my future was assured no matter what.”

But when Frank Duckworth left the Army, he had trouble finding steady work in Asia.  So, he moved the family to Honolulu, Hawaii – not because it was an island paradise, but because it was the only spot of American soil to which they could afford to fly. “Yeah, we were broke, we were totally broke,” Duckworth laughed.  “I never worked harder in my life — not in the Army, not in the United States Senate — than when we were broke and trying to just feed ourselves and keep a roof over our heads.”

CBS News chief White House correspondent Nancy Cordes asked, “There’s this assumption out there that if only people would work harder, they would somehow get themselves out of the situation they’re in.”

“That was not our experience,” Duckworth said. “My dad couldn’t find a job. So, we did whatever we had to. We collected cans out of the garbage. We returned shopping carts for the, back then, 10 cents. To this day, don’t get in-between me and money on the ground, ’cause I will roll over you to pick up a penny! I am not ashamed, and I am not embarrassed. I understand the value of that penny.”

One dollar-a-day was enough for Tammy and her brother to buy their school’s subsidized 25-cent meals — crucial for stretching the family’s food stamps.

Duckworth recalled, “I had this teacher, Mr. Nakamura, who was always sort of befuddled — ‘Oh my God, I messed up. You four stay after and help me redo this’ — and every time we stayed after school, he would say, ‘All right. Here’s ten bucks. You guys ‘ — we had a Taco Bell next door to the school — ‘Here, go to Taco Bell. Get something to eat and you guys go home.’ As a kid, we were, like, [rolling eyes], God, you know? As an adult, [we realized] he was feeding us  He knew we were the kids that were probably not gonna get dinner that night ’cause it was the end of the month, and he could tell that we were hungry.”

Duckworth said she used her “secret weapon,” hard work, to make it to college and on to graduate school, where she enrolled in Army ROTC. That’s where she met her future husband, Brian Bowlesby, and that other love of her life.

When the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq, Duckworth volunteered to ship out.

Cordes asked, “You didn’t think it was the right war to be fighting. And yet you also wrote in the book that you really wanted to be there. Explain how both could be true?”

“Well, both have to be true if you’re a true patriot,” she replied. “And if you’re a true soldier, you keep your personal opinions to yourself. You give up a lot.”

On November 12, 2004, an insurgent’s rocket-propelled grenade detonated in the cockpit of Duckworth’s Black Hawk. The heroism of her crewmates saved her life.  But Duckworth lost both legs and nearly lost the use of her right arm. 

She was transported unconscious to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where her husband delivered the news.

“When I woke up, I was in so much pain,” Duckworth said. “My feet and my legs hurt like they were just on fire. And my husband said, ‘You’re at Walter Reed.’ ‘I know, but my feet really hurt, honey. Can I have some Tylenol?’ And then he had to go outside. He and the doctor came in and had to tell me, ‘There are no legs. There’s nothing we can do to stop the legs from hurting.'”

She spent the next 13 months in the hospital.

Still, Duckworth said, “If you told me right now today, we could snap our fingers and you would show up day one at Fort Rucker, but you’re still gonna get blown up and lose your legs, I would say, ‘Give me that deal. Give me that deal.'”

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Senator and Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth. 

CBS News


As a patient, Duckworth became an advocate for the families of wounded soldiers, which caught the eye of Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin. He encouraged her to run for the U.S. House, and then in 2016 she made a bid for the Senate.

Cordes interviewed Duckworth earlier this month at the Daughters of the American Revolution, where she is a member: Duckworths have been serving in the military since before the birth of the republic.  And yet, in her 2016 Senate race, her Republican opponent, Mark Kirk, joked about her heritage:

“I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.”

Kirk later apologized … and Duckworth won the race. 

In office, she has fought for Asian American representation in government.

Cordes asked, “What is it that people don’t understand about discrimination or hate crimes against Asian Americans in particular?”

“Number one, they don’t recognize that it exists,” Duckworth replied. Also, “The myth of the model minority, that we’re well-off and we don’t need any help, that we’re not targets, and Asian women are seen as submissive and weak.”

Duckworth puts the lie to that stereotype, as someone who has been known to use sharp language. “I think it’s 23 years in the Army!” she laughed.

“Is that why you said, ‘F**k Tucker Carlson’?”

“It is!” she said. “He went after women in the military. I spoke up for my sisters-in-arms. I would do it again.”

Duckworth has battled within Congress, too. As the first U.S. Senator to give birth while in office, she demanded the right to bring her daughter onto the Senate floor. Among her colleagues, she is considered, yes, one tough mother.

“When I first campaigned, I didn’t talk about my childhood and how I was hungry,” she said. “I was embarrassed by it. I’ve been fighting very hard to fight the cuts to the SNAP program because I understand how much of a lifeline they are.”

Cordes asked, “Do you still love America in the way that innocent, young Tammy Duckworth loved America?”

“I do,” the senator replied. “I think more so because of the problems, because, as a child, I didn’t know that we weren’t a perfect union. Having been here in the House and in the Senate, we’re not perfect. But it continues. And people can still fight. And we still strive for that more perfect union.”

Read an excerpt: “Every Day is a Gift” by Tammy Duckworth

      
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Story produced by Ed Forgotson. Editor: Ed Givnish. 

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