As she enters the meeting room in the visitors’ center at the U.S. Capitol in her souped-up, motorized wheelchair, newly minted Illinois congresswoman Tammy Duckworth settles in front of table for an early-morning interview.
Squeezed in between meetings and votes, the conversation ranges from women in combat to gun control to PTSD and her own haunting experiences and personal ambition.
An Asian-American who became a media star after her dramatic speech at the Democratic National Convention last summer, the upbeat Iraq vet, a double amputee, is the first disabled woman elected to the U.S. Congress. And since her swearing in during early January, she has quickly learned to navigate the extensive marbled hallways of the building and mastered the intricacies and intrigues of her own party system.
The outgoing 44-year-old, now a major in the Illinois National Guard, embodies a new generation of vets.
She made her mark when she was elected a Democratic whip by her freshman colleagues and named to the prestigious House Committee on Armed Services.
This appointment came eight years after she was blasted out of the sky over Iraq.
On Nov. 12, 2005 a rocket-propelled grenade smashed into the Black Hawk helicopter she was copiloting, severing both her legs and crushing her right arm.
Her crew thought she was dead.
Tears come as she describes her terrifying ordeal.
“They recovered a body. I never got a tourniquet. I never got first aid. They carried me out because they didn’t want to leave my body to be mutilated and have my parents see me dragged through the streets on Al Jazeera or something,” she says.
It was not until the entire crew scrambled into a Medevac that they realized that while she was bleeding profusely, her heart was still beating and she was alive.
“I shouldn’t even be here, so if I’m here I better do something good,” she says wiping her eyes while apologizing for her emotional reaction.
Each year on that November date she celebrates her “alive day" with her crew toasting her second chance at life.
"Every day is a payback for me,” she explains. “I measure each one on how effective I am. I don’t ever want to be sad about my life.”
As if to prove the point, she suddenly moves her chair revealing flirty, flashy shoes. They are pointy, zebra-striped Nike Cole Haans with silver buckles strapped onto her two shiny titanium carbon fiber legs.
“One of the good things about losing your feet is I can wear all the pointy shoes I want and it doesn’t hurt any more. I can wear shoes just for fashion now,” she chuckles, somewhat ruefully.
During her convalescence at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, she developed an interest in politics, though diplomacy had been her childhood dream.
“I always wanted to be an ambassador,” she says.
Born in Thailand of an American Marine father and a Chinese mother, the family moved frequently throughout Southeast Asia; Duckworth is fluent in Thai and Indonesian. The allure of ambassadorial majesty fueled her imagination.
She attended George Washington University, married a fellow student, Bryan W. Bolsbey, joined the ROTC and signed up for helicopter training.
“I didn’t want to be in combat,” she says. “I wanted an equal opportunity. I wanted to compete based on my abilities, and helicopter training was open to women. I did not fly combat aircraft. I flew air assault, a slightly different mission.”
Her life took another direction in 2005, when eight weeks into her recuperation Illinois Senator Dick Durbin invited her to the State of the Union Address. She went with her IV hidden under her dress uniform, toting a bag of medication. At the speech, she met then-senator Barack Obama, who later visited her at the hospital, encouraged her interest in veterans' issues, and suggested she enter politics.
He supported her unsuccessful congressional race in 2006, which laid the groundwork for her significant victory over incumbent, Joe Walsh, a Tea-Party darling last year. It was a bruising fight involving millions of dollars, gaining national attention.
“My district made a very conscious decision when it elected me over Mr. Walsh. They elected him in the previous term because they wanted change in Washington,” she says. “That did not work and now my district says we want somebody who’s going to find solutions. That’s why I’m here.”
One of her issues is gun control, starting with background checks and then dealing with high-capacity magazines and semi-automatic weapons. “I think I can be a voice because I come from a family of marksmen,” Duckworth says. “I was on the Army Reserve shooting team, I grew up shooting in the military as well. I’m here to find ways to find common ground with whomever I need to find common ground with, because we’ve got to do something.”
She endorses women in combat based on physical standards. “It’s a good thing,” she says. “Any time the military has allowed performance-based service we have really benefitted. We increased a pool of people who can do the job. Morale has not gone down. Diversity is good for our nation.”
Although she has not suffered from post-traumatic stress from her time in combat, she dealt with the issue when she served as an advocate for veterans in Illinois and briefly at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and calls it a normal response to an abnormal situation.
She has dreams, however, about her time in Iraq. “It’s a little bit of joy and a little bit of sadness because I’m flying again. I have my legs. I’m doing everything. It’s not just about my legs, it’s the men, and the crew, the life, being an air assault pilot. When I wake up I’ve lost my whole identity.”
She has retained her persistence and drive and has managed to capture a new sense of normal.
“When I have fights with my husband, it’s not about the fact that I don’t have legs, it’s about the fact that he used the bathtub and didn’t clean it up, or he left the toilet seat up. You can’t be more normal than that,” she says.
Her attitude toward her body has changed—she dismisses her prosthetics as mere tools.
“Would I rather have my human legs back? Absolutely, but I am not wasting my life. I measure every vote, everything I do, every single day.”