Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s life has been marked with momentous firsts, the most dramatic of which arrived about 120 combat hours into a tour as a battle captain with the Illinois National Guard in war-rocked Iraq.
It was November 2004. Duckworth (D-Ill.) was in the pilot seat of a Black Hawk helicopter. Along with the three other members of her flight crew, she was bouncing between Baghdad and U.S. military bases on routine supply and transport runs — “taxi service,” she would later say. Then, as the aircraft thumped 15 feet above a thicket of date palms near the Tigris River, a rocket-propelled grenade screamed up from below, tearing into the Black Hawk.
“We had started taking some small-arms fire, and I turned to my co-pilot and said we could be in for some trouble. As the words left my mouth, there was a big fireball at my knees,” Duckworth told Stars and Stripes in 2005. She attempted to stay in control of the aircraft, working the Black Hawk’s gears and pedals. “I found out later the pedals were gone, and so were my legs.”
The co-pilot safely landed the Black Hawk in a clearing. Duckworth, then 36, slipped into unconsciousness — nearly half her body’s blood supply was escaping from her wounds. Military doctors would later amputate her right leg just below her hip bone and her left leg below the knee. Her right arm was also seriously damaged.
Duckworth was the first female double amputee in the war, HuffPost reported.
But that grim distinction did nothing to slow Duckworth down as she shifted from a career in the military to stateside public service. Rather, Duckworth has achieved one milestone after the next.
“This didn’t change who I am,” she explained to Stars and Stripes a year after her injuries. “I’m not about to let some guy who got lucky with an RPG decide how to live my life.”
She would go on to be the first female amputee elected to the U.S. Congress; the first Asian American to represent Illinois in Washington; the first member of Congress born in Thailand. And this week, Duckworth announced she and her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey, were expecting their second child in April. That will make Duckworth the first U.S. senator to give birth while in office.
While Duckworth may be the Senate’s first expectant mother, she will not be the last. The upper house has a record 22 women senators serving. Internationally, ideas about mothers in public service are changing. Last week, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced she was pregnant, a development the world leader said confidently would have no impact on her abilities in office.
And Duckworth — who also emerged in recent weeks as a vocal critic of President Trump’s saber-rattling rhetoric with North Korea — says motherhood will not blunt her impact on Capitol Hill. “Parenthood isn’t just a women’s issue, it’s an economic issue and an issue that affects all parents — men and women alike,” she said in a statement. “As tough as juggling the demands of motherhood and being a Senator can be, I’m hardly alone or unique as a working parent.”
Duckworth’s father, Franklin, was captain in the U.S. Army who served in World War II. He met his future wife in Thailand, and Duckworth was born in Bangkok in 1968. The family bounced around Asia as Franklin worked with the United Nations. Duckworth completed her political science undergraduate degree at the University of Hawaii and moved on to graduate school at George Washington University. There she enlisted in the ROTC.
She gravitated to helicopter piloting because it was one of the few combat jobs open to women. As Duckworth explained to Mother Jones in 2012, she “wanted to be — pardon my language — a swinging dick, just like everyone else.”
While recovering from her war wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Duckworth was awarded a Purple Heart at her bedside. She also caught the attention of her home state senator, Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who invited the injured war veteran to be a guest at George W. Bush’s 2005 State of the Union address. At the hospital, Duckworth also struck up a friendship with retired senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who was a patient at Walter Reed at the time, following a fall. Dole, a World War II veteran who was seriously injured in combat, served as an example for her next step: political office.
“I felt just so inspired by Senator Dole’s life, and he was sitting on a hospital bed next to everyone else going through therapy, and so I think for me that was the clincher,” Duckworth told Chicago Magazine in 2012. “I saw in him a path. At the time I couldn’t use my right arm at all. I had the one arm that I could work and I’m learning to walk and trying to figure out what to do with my life.”
Dole would later dedicate his book “One Soldier’s Story” to Duckworth, among others.
Duckworth initially lost a race for a U.S. House seat for Illinois’s 6th congressional district in 2006. But pulling on the same deep wells of grit and personality that had helped her recover from her injuries, she quickly bounced back in 2012 for with a bid for Illinois’s 8th congressional seat. The matchup put the Democrat against Joe Walsh, a fiery tea party conservative who once referred to President Barack Obama as a “tyrant.”
On the campaign trail, Walsh initially paid respectful lip service to the Duckworth’s sacrifice in uniform, but then began openly trashing his opponent as the race tightened. “What else has she done? Female, wounded veteran . . . She is nothing more than a handpicked Washington bureaucrat,” Walsh said. “I’m running against a woman who, my God, that’s all she talks about,” the candidate commented later. “Our true heroes, it’s the last thing in the world they talk about.”
Duckworth stuck to the issues. “My strength is in finding ways to make the government work for the people,” she told Mother Jones, “finding waste, or money that is not being properly used … or finding opportunities that are out there and making them work for the community.”
She beat Walsh with 54 percent of the vote, then was reelected in November 2014. That same month, Duckworth gave birth to her first daughter, Abigail. The couple conceived with in vitro fertilization, Duckworth told the Chicago Sun-Times.
They planned to try again for a second child, but in 2016 Duckworth suffered a miscarriage, just as she was campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat. She would go on to beat incumbent Republican Mark Kirk with 54 percent of the vote. She became the second woman to represent Illinois in the Senate.
“I’ve had multiple IVR cycles and a miscarriage trying to conceive again, so we’re very grateful,” Duckworth told the Sun-Times this week after announcing she and her husband were expecting another girl this April, just weeks before turning 50.
“As tough as it’s been to juggle motherhood and the demands of being in the House and now the Senate, it’s made me more committed to doing this job.”
More from Morning Mix: