Ladda "Tammy" Duckworth was severely wounded in Iraq in 2004 during her service as a U.S. Army National Guard pilot. Despite the loss of both legs and a shattered arm, she found the strength and perseverance to run for Congress in 2006. Her bid was unsuccessful, but close enough to make it a safe bet that a political future still lay ahead for her. Duckworth's political victory came in November 2012, when she defeated Republican candidate Joe Walsh to win Illinois's 8th Congressional District. Duckworth then ran for the Senate in 2016 and won, becoming one of the first Asian American women to serve as a senator.
Duckworth was born on March 12, 1968, in Bangkok, Thailand, to a Thai mother who was ethnically Chinese and an American father who had served as a U.S. Marine in World War II and Vietnam. She spent her childhood in Southeast Asia before moving to Hawaii with her family as a teenager. After graduating from high school, Duckworth earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Hawaii and a master's degree in international affairs from George Washington University. It was while she was in graduate school that she decided to also pursue her family's tradition of military service.
Duckworth joined the U.S. Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) in 1990. Two years later, while working on a doctorate in political science at Northern Illinois University, she became a member of the Army National Guard in Illinois. She trained as a helicopter pilot in hopes of someday seeing combat action and maintained civilian employment as a supervisor for Rotary International. Married to fellow Guardsman Bryan Bowlsbey in 1994, Duckworth's wish for a combat mission was granted when her unit was deployed to Iraq in December of 2003.
Rose to New Challenges
Duckworth had successfully flown more than 120 combat hours in Iraq by November 12, 2004. That day, however, misfortune triumphed when insurgents shot down the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter Duckworth was co-piloting. The incident cost her both legs and shattered one arm, necessitating more than 20 surgeries and months of rehabilitation, but it did nothing to dampen her spirit. "This didn't change who I am," she told Leo Shane III of Stars and Stripes. "I'm an air assault pilot. I'm not about to let some guy who got lucky with an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) decide how to live my life." Duckworth's hardship was compounded by the unexpected death of her father while she was in the hospital.
During her recovery Duckworth became an advocate for military families and for veterans' health care. She testified twice before Congress on those issues, and it was not long before the Democratic Party approached her about serving her country in another fashion---as a politician. Duckworth decided to rise to the new challenge and ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in November of 2006. She lost by only 2 percent of the vote, so it seemed likely the indomitable veteran would make another bid for office soon. Meanwhile, she also remained determined to fly again, first climbing back into a cockpit in May of 2006. Indeed, it was difficult to predict just how high and in what capacity Duckworth would soar in the future.
Duckworth served at the Department of Veterans Affairs from 2009 to 2011. She was assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs. In 2012, after a heated campaign on both sides, she defeated "Tea Party" Congressman Joe Walsh in the race to represent the 8th Congressional District of Illinois. Duckworth took office on January 3, 2013, as part of the 113th Congress.
After serving two terms in the House of Representatives, Duckworth decided to run for the U.S. Senate. She faced off against Republican senator Mark Kirk in the 2016 election. During a debate, Duckworth spoke of her military service and the tradition of service on her father's side, which dates back to the Revolutionary War. Kirk mocked Duckworth, saying "I forgot that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington," according to Vanity Fair. Kirk's comment sparked outrage for failing to recognize Duckworth's biracial heritage.
Duckworth would go on to win the race, becoming one of the first Asian American women to serve in the Senate. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii was the first to serve in 2012, and Kamala Harris joined Duckworth as the third Asian American woman in the Senate after winning her own election in 2016. Duckworth held appointments on several important Senate committees, including the Environment & Public Works Committee.
Duckworth quickly became known for her willingness to step into the fray and say what she really thought, even on the Senate floor. During a government shutdown in January of 2018, President Donald Trump accused Democrats in the Senate of putting the needs of immigrants ahead of military personnel. Duckworth made headlines when she said, according to Vogue, "I will not be lectured about what our military needs by a five-deferment draft dodger." The comment was made in reference to the deferments Trump received during the Vietnam War. Duckworth continued to be an outspoken critic of the president during the next year.
Duckworth again made headlines when she announced that she was expecting her second child with her husband. The two were already parents to a daughter named Abigail when Duckworth became the first senator to give birth while holding office. Her second daughter, Maile, was born in April of 2018. Duckworth then helped pass a resolution that would allow senators to bring children under one onto the Senate floor. Duckworth made history again when she became the first senator to cast a vote with her newborn in her arms on April 19, 2018. Of the change to the rules, Duckworth told reporters, according to CNN, "It's about time, huh?"
Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal, 2004; Purple Heart, 2005; One of Ten Influential Women of 2006, MSN.
- Officer, March 2005.
- "About Tammy," U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, https://www.duckworth.senate.gov/about-tammy/biography (January 4, 2019).
- "Asian American Women Reach a Milestone in the U.S. Senate," UHuffington Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/asian-women-senate_us_582279bfe4b0e80b02cdbeaf (January 4, 2019).
- "Duckworth, Ladda 'Tammy,'" Our Campaigns, http://www.ourcampaigns.com/CandidateDetail.html?CandidateID=105801 (March 22, 2007).
- "G.O.P. Senator Under Fire after Insulting Veteran's Racial Heritage," Vanity Fair, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/10/mark-kirk-tammy-duckworth-veteran-debate (January 4, 2019).
- "'The Pedals Were Gone, and So Were My Legs,'" Stars and Stripes, June 14, 2005, http://www.stripes.com/articleprint.asp?section=104&article=28910&archive=true (March 24, 2007).
- "Rep. Duckworth gets most buzz in new Congress," USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/story/onpolitics/2013/02/05/duckworth-castro-freshman-congress-buzz/1893097/ (February 5, 2013).
- "Senator Tammy Duckworth on the Attack that Took Her Legs--and Having a Baby at 50," Vogue, https://www.vogue.com/article/tammy-duckworth-interview-vogue-october-2018-issue (January 4, 2019).
- "Sen. Duckworth Makes History, Casts Vote with Baby on Senate Floor," CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/19/politics/tammy-duckworth-baby-senate-floor/index.html (January 4, 2019).
- "Tammy Duckworth," NNDB, http://www.nndb.com/people/962/000109635/ (March 22, 2007)
- "Ten Influential Women of 2006," MSN, January 11, 2007, http://www.calnurses.org/media-center/in-the-news/2007/january/page.jsp?itemID=29248538 (March 22, 2007).
- "Wounded Veteran Battling to Become a Congresswoman," Concord Monitor, June 5, 2006, http://www.concordmonitor.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060605/REPOSITORY/606050344/1013/48HOURS (March 22, 2007).