Tammy Duckworth: ‘We're in a Fight for What America Is Going to Be’

In a wide-ranging discussion provided through the Tisch College of Civic Life, the Democratic U.S. senator didn’t hold back on topics from parenting to politics

As an Iraq War veteran, Purple Heart recipient, and former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois understands conflict and battle. After the November elections in which Republicans picked up key victories in states such as Virginia, the Democratic senator says, “we're in a fight for what America is going to be, which is a much more diverse society. And that is the fundamental difference between the two parties.”

Duckworth, who was among the first group of Army women to fly combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom and lost both her legs when her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, spoke during the seventh Alan D. Solomont Lecture on Citizenship & Public Service through the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.

She said the Democratic Party needs to show the American people that Democratic policies like the Build Back Better framework will help everyone across the political spectrum with policies like free universal preschool and paid family leave.

In 2018, after she became the first U.S. Senator to give birth was serving in office, Duckworth worked to change the rules to allow senators to bring their infant children onto the Senate floor, sending a message that all workplaces should be family friendly. She has since passed several pieces of legislation making traveling easier for new moms and people with disabilities.

Watch the replay here of Duckworth’s discussion with Dayna Cunningham, dean of Tisch College. Below are key takeaways from the conversation, which was co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science and JumboVote, and supported by the Solomont Speaker Series at Tisch College.

America is worth the sacrifice.

Her book, Every Day Is a Gift: A Memoir, was published earlier this year. She didn’t intend to write a book, she said. But in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic began, she and her then-6-year-old daughter were at a preschool Halloween party. There were all sorts of events, including a three-legged race, which Duckworth could not easily participate in with her prosthetic leg.

“Every night, I read her story, and we have this sort of sacred time where we can ask each other questions, and we promise to answer them. She said to me, ‘How come someone else's mommy couldn't have gone to war? Why did it have to be you who lost your legs, because I really wanted to run in that race with you,’” Duckworth recalled, saying it was like a dagger to the heart.

Duckworth said she knew that as a mom, she would have to deal with this topic someday, and she had always spoken with her daughter openly about having been wounded in combat. She started jotting down paragraphs in the notes app on her phone, trying to answer her daughter’s questions, and continued the practice for months. Her chief of staff saw her writing and suggested she turn it into a book. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Duckworth said it felt like the right time to put it together. She called the book “a letter to my daughters about why America is worth the sacrifice.”

“Every day is a day that I'm alive when I shouldn't be alive, and I need to do better and honor the men who saved my life. That means trying to understand other perspectives, even if they seem very different or even abhorrent. I can work with anyone as long as I think they love this country as much as I do,” she said.

The Army is worth the sacrifice.

Duckworth didn’t plan on joining the Army. Her father spent his life in the U.S. military and her family has served back to the American Revolution, she said. She knew she needed to serve her country, but she thought she’d join the Peace Corps or Foreign Service, work at an embassy, or someday be an ambassador.

But friends in the military encouraged her to go to basic training, saying “if you want to represent America in our embassies, you need to learn something about the military.” And so, off she went to basic training and fell in love with the Army.

“I fell in love with the meritocracy of it, the fact that it didn't matter that I was a poor Asian girl. It only mattered that I was willing to step up and do my part along with everyone else,” she said. “Other than my two girls, it's the most rewarding experience I've ever had in my life, and I’d do it all over again.”

Duckworth, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016 after two terms in the House of Representatives, sits on the Senate Committee on Armed Services.

The fight for racial equality is worth the sacrifice.

Duckworth grew up post-Vietnam War as a biracial child in Thailand. “I was not treated very well,” she said. “The only biracial children that existed in Southeast Asia at the time were children of American servicemen and native women. That was not a positive background to have.”

She acknowledged the privilege she enjoys today as a U.S. senator but pointed out that racism continues to affect her family. During the pandemic, there was a flaring of anti-Asian hate and violence, and her mother would get harassed at the grocery store by clerks and shoppers alike.

“I did the only thing I could, which was speak out and push hard with anti-hate legislation,” she said. “The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act is anti-hate against everyone, but against Asian Americans, in particular. I'm really proud that we pushed the Biden administration to have a true accounting of these instances of hate crimes.”

And speaking of Biden, Duckworth was happy to see him appoint a diverse presidential cabinet, but she was disappointed when he did not name any Asian Americans to a cabinet-level post.

“Diversity is not just one slice of the pie, with different groups fighting over the one diversity piece. We should all get a slice of pie,” she said.

A career in public service is worth the sacrifice.

Duckworth did not mince words when asked what advice she would give to college students interested in a public service career.

“Do it,” she said. “Run for office or help someone run for office. It doesn’t have to be a federal office. Even as a student, you can make a difference.”

Decisions about policy that affect everyone are not just made in the Capitol in Washington D.C. Many of those battles begin in places like the Board of Trustees at local libraries and school boards—which, she pointed out, are where decisions about banning books are made.

“Local municipalities and trustees decide on what kind of training your police force is going to undergo, for example,” she said. “Cultural competency training is a tool police officers need in order to do their jobs just as much as body armor, bullets, and SWAT trucks.”

She encouraged future public servants not to give into intimidation, calling it an old tool that those in power use to prevent people from participating. “You must show up. If you just give over the stage to those who are most aggressive, you will never break through.”

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.

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