Tammy Duckworth — Senator, Soldier, Advocate, Mother

Grit and determination have been driving forces throughout Senator Tammy Duckworth’s life. As a young child, Sen. Duckworth experienced the bombs and shelling of war while living in Cambodia during the Vietnam conflict. Her father, a WWII and Vietnam Veteran, was working there as an aid worker for the United Nations. Sen. Duckworth and her family escaped the Khmer Rouge on the last commercial flight out of Cambodia.

Sen. Duckworth faced discrimination growing up in Bangkok, Thailand as the daughter of a Thai/Chinese mother and an American (Caucasian) father. As a teen, her family fell on hard times in Southeast Asia and moved to Hawaii, where she needed to work to help support her family.

Later, to help put herself through the University of Hawaii, she worked at what is known today as The ARC, teaching life skills to adults. During graduate school, Sen. Duckworth joined the ROTC as a way to help with tuition costs and fell in love with the U.S. Army. She loved everything about it, the comradery, the mission and sense of purpose.

At a time when there were very few opportunities for women to serve in combat, Duckworth was determined to be a platoon leader and get as close to combat as possible after she became a commissioned officer in 1992.

Her plan? Join the Army Reserve Air Defense and become a Blackhawk helicopter pilot. With one Blackhawk spot available for reservists in her flight class of 80 soldiers, she persisted in course work, an extra-3-hours of flight simulator practice each night and going the extra distance to be top of her class to make that feat a reality. She did it!

She returned to Illinois to pursue a PhD in political science and transition to the Illinois Army National Guard. Sen Duckworth was deployed on multiple missions around the world, including aid support in Africa. When 9/11 happened, Sen. Duckworth was on high alert and prepared to fight. In 2003, at the time she was transitioning as a new unit leader, her former unit was called up to Iraq.  Having prepared years for this moment and angry about being left behind, she volunteered for deployment in Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom, as an assistant operations officer.

It was in Iraq, while returning from a transport mission, a rocket propelled grenade ripped through the Blackhawk helicopter she was piloting, vaporizing her right leg and crushing her left. Miraculously, her co-pilot was able to land the damaged helicopter–She had just minutes earlier turned over the controls. – Her blood-soaked, injured crew was able to retrieve her body, not knowing that she was still alive.

Duckworth helicopter pilot
U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) standing near the cockpit of her helicopter during her military service.

Sen. Duckworth woke up engulfed by intense pain in the ICU of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after several days of being connected to life supporting machines. She endured multiple skin grafts and surgeries reassembling what was left of her body. For more than a year, she dominated her recovery and physical therapy, or as she says, “owned her suck”.

Her path to recovery and experience inside the veterans’ health care system made her an excellent candidate for Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, where she worked to normalize mental health support for returning troops and to improve access to health care and housing for veterans. Later, as an Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Sen. Duckworth worked to end homelessness and to improve services for women veterans and Native American and younger veterans.

Sen. Duckworth continued her path of service in the U.S. House of Representatives, and then the Senate, where she is today, relentlessly fighting for veterans, women, healthcare, people with disabilities and all Americans.

As a woman of many firsts, Sen. Duckworth is the first U.S. Senator to give birth in office as well as the first woman to bring an infant on the floor, while pushing to change the Senate rules. At that time, she skipped maternity leave to be able to vote on important legislation.

ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper spoke with Sen. Duckworth via Zoom during a busy day of voting and committees, continuing her commitment to service. They began speaking of Sen. Tom Harkin’s retirement and his passing her the “baton” in the marathon of the fight for disability rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Chet Cooper: Are you the go to ADA advocate?

Senator Duckworth speaking at the FDR Memorial on the 31st anniversary of the ADA

Senator Tammy Duckworth: It’s just sort of fallen to me to champion ADA issues, being a wheelchair user. And when Senator Harkin was retiring and I was in the House and running for the Senate, he called me over and he said, “Tammy, I’m handing the reins over to you.” (laughs)

Cooper: (laughs)

Senator Duckworth: “I’m handing the torch to you. You need to be the torchbearer and you need to really represent the entire disability community because you, frankly, wouldn’t be here had the disability community not been there before you became disabled.” And he was absolutely right. The ADA was passed at a time when I was still serving in the army.–Actually, I wasn’t in the army yet, but at a time when I never would have thought that I would need the ADA. So, I found myself being the go-to person on a lot of the ADA issues as they come up in Congress.

Cooper: I talked to him about that. I asked him if he would ask you. I don’t know if you know, but Senator Harkin wrote for a column in ABILITY Magazine for over 14 years.

Senator Duckworth: Oh, really? No, I did not know.

Cooper: I had asked him if he would ask you, and he said, “I’m going to see what she says, yeah.”  So you said yes, apparently.

Senator Duckworth: (laughs) I said yes. I was honored. To be able to be handed the mantle from Tom Harkin was quite the honor. I don’t know that I can fill his shoes, but I try every day to make sure I do my best to represent the community, and also to fight for basic common—This is what I did in the army. I fought for freedoms, for people’s rights. This is a basic human right if you want to access the life that you want to access and live the life you want to live and not be confronted by barriers at every turn.

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Cooper: It makes me feel like I want to ask now if you did any work along with the advocacy work that Jon Stewart was doing for the veterans and burn pits.

Senator Duckworth: I have been working on burn pit issues for a very long time. It started from my own experience being exposed to the burn pit in Iraq, knowing what the environment with the air was like. We used to fly into Baghdad. We were stationed in Balad, and we would fly into Baghdad, into the green zone. And if you were on the ground looking up, the sky always looked a little overcast. It didn’t look, you know, ominous. But flying through a 50-foot, 100-foot layer of brown skies, it used to burn the air crews’ lungs when you’d go through there. It was like, “Oh, man, my eyes are watering, my lungs are burning, we’re coming through this.” And we used to think, “Boy, those poor suckers who are stationed here! They’re breathing this and they don’t even know!” Because you look up and you don’t realize that that’s what it is.

Senator Duckworth: I had always thought there must be some respiratory illnesses. I started working on Agent Orange issues within the VA, and it was under President Obama and Secretary Shinseki that we finally granted benefits to veterans based on presumptive benefits. So, if you develop systemic heart disease, if you develop leukemia B and you were in Vietnam, we’re going to presume that it’s because of your Vietnam service. We no longer force veterans to prove that their illness was caused by Agent Orange. We just presume. That started me working on burn pit, after we were successful with the Agent Orange campaign. It’s pretty much been continuous ever since, and I’m really glad we got the PACT Act passed. There’s more work to do, but it’s a great, great, great, great first start.

Cooper: The publicity of Jon Stewart really helped push that along. Sometimes you need outside celebrity status and really vocal, smart people pushing issues.

Senator Duckworth: Look at how long it took to get benefits for 9/11 first responders. That was where Stewart first got involved, right?

Cooper: Right. I don’t know if you noticed, but in our last issue of the magazine we interviewed Transportation Pete. That’s what we’re calling him now. (laughs)

Senator Duckworth: (laughs)

Cooper: You were working with him in some degree. Can you talk about that, what you were doing with him, accessibility issues, etc.?

Senator Duckworth: Yes. I wrote a piece of legislation called the ASAP Act, the All Stations Accessibility Program (ASAP) Act of 2021, the purpose of which is to make all of our transit stations accessible. I wrote this piece of legislation and introduced it in the Senate coming out of my experience with the CTA, the Chicago Transit Authority. I was invited by the CTA when I was a Congresswoman on the 25th anniversary of the ADA. We’re at the 32nd anniversary, so seven years ago they invited me to a ribbon-cutting at a CTA station, and they were really proud–really, really, really proud that they were announcing that they were going to begin this program to make 100% of the Chicago Transit Authority stations, whether it was bus or rail, fully accessible. I said, “This is great! When is this going to be done?” He said, “It’s a 25-year plan.” And I looked at him, Dorval Carter, who’s the president of the Chicago CTA, and I said, “So you mean a half-century after the passage of the ADA?” (laughs)

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Cooper: (laughs)

Senator Duckworth: “That’s when we can count on this?” And he went, “Well, when you put it that was, it sounds terrible!” I’m like, “Yeah, it is terrible! When you say it’s great that you’re doing this, why are we here, 25 years later, and they’re still not accessible?” I still to this day don’t use the El (elevated train) in Chicago because not all stations are accessible, and you never know if one will be or not. He said, “Well, it’s because we have a limited amount of money, and ADA accessibility has always been a priority for us. It’s always been in the top three. But we only have enough money for the top two. And when I have to choose between safety and buying a new train car or safety equipment for the train car, versus building a ramp, I’ll choose buy new safety equipment for the train car.” And I said, “What will fix that?” He said, “We need money that is sectioned off, that cannot be used for anything else other than accessibility, and that would allow us to do this faster.”

Senator Duckworth: So then, I wrote the bill at the federal level. And when we were trying to work—when President Biden was sworn and Mayor Peter–sorry, Pete Buttigieg–

Cooper: (laughs)

Senator Duckworth: —was appointed, ––I had known him from previously––I said, “Listen, we’ve got to do this. We have to do this. Let me tell you what I’m trying to do.” I invited him out. And he toured one of the CTA stations with us, and I explained what we were trying to do,. I said, “We can make this happen in 10 years if we fund this. In the bipartisan infrastructure deal, we ended up losing half the money, but we’ve got the first five years funded. We need your support.” He supported it. It was grea because he elevated—Like you said that we need to get somebody famous, right? ––He elevated it to be a priority, and I was able to make it stay, even though I lost half the money in the bipartisan infrastructure bill instead of it getting dropped. But it came out of Dorval Carter, head of the Chicago CTA. I just took it to the federal level.

Cooper: I’m glad you asked the question. When is the rest of the network going to be accessible? If he hadn’t said that, it wouldn’t have dawned on you, like, “This makes no sense.”

Senator Duckworth: This will be nationwide. We put aside federal dollars that first off, for the legacy systems. But all transit systems can apply to get those dollars to help them make all their stations accessible. And not just for wheelchairs, but it’s got to be vision, hearing, cognitive disabilities as well. When you have to buy a ticket and it’s all touch screen, that doesn’t help somebody who has a visual impairment. Cognitive is, if you don’t make your app, the cellphone apps, something that is friendly for those with cognitive impairment, then it’s not accessible. This covers the full range of disabilities.

Cooper: I’m glad you mentioned that. Too many people think in one aspect when it comes to accessibility. It’s so much broader than most people understand or realize.

Is anything happening in DC? Could you say something about the political nature, What do you see happening in the Senate, seeing the transition since you’ve been there, at least it seems that there’s been a big transition.

Senator Duckworth: It’s certainly more partisan. After January 6th, it’s been difficult, especially compared to my time in the House, where I had a lot of bipartisan work. I will tell you, though, that I’ve been able to be very bipartisan since I’ve been here in the Senate. My first piece of legislation I passed at the 64-day mark, which is more than any Senator had done it since the ’70s. And I did it with Todd Young of Indiana, my next-door neighbor. It was very bureaucratic, cutting through red tape. It had to do with municipal building projects. We got that done and President Trump signed it into law. I passed legislation to support veterans in becoming entrepreneurs. That was bipartisan, and President Trump signed that into law. That will also reduce costs for taxpayers.

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Since January 6th, though, it has become even more partisan here. You really have to work to find people to work with, and sometimes you find folks to work with you that you never expected to. I just passed the Public Safety Officer Support Act, and my partner in that was Senator Cornyn, Republican leadership from Texas. I don’t have a lot in common with him, but it came out of January 6th, where we have—Officer Smith was one of the officers, and we have him on record on body camera footage being beaten and receiving concussive events at least three different times, two of which he passed out, and it’s on camera. He went back to work two weeks later, got time off, was told, “You’re fine,” went back to work two weeks later, and within days ended up dying by suicide. That’s when I found out through his widow that for our first responders, like the police forces, the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program is not allowed to consider post-traumatic stress as being a result of their job.

Senator Duckworth: So, because he died by suicide, even though the coroner said this was because he had a concussive event and had post-traumatic stress, he had damage to the part of his brain that controls emotion, and that his death by suicide was as a result of what happened on January 6th, his wife still lost all her benefits. And she found out she lost all of her widow’s benefits standing in line at CVS to get prescription medication. I said, “That is absolutely wrong.”

I talked to John Cornyn, and he joined me in it. So, we passed it in a bipartisan way. A pro-law enforcement, pro-first responders, drawing on my work from the VA. When I went to John, I said, “Here’s what I know about post-traumatic stress from my work at the VA. Will you work with me to help our first responders, our public safety officers? This is crazy, that they can’t claim PTSD as being a result of their job duties.” And he supported me. We had a couple of folks who tried to shut it down on the Republican side, but because Cornyn is Republican leadership we were able to work our way through it and get to a yes. I had to stare down one of my Republican colleagues and threaten to make him defend his position against public safety officers on the floor of the Senate, and he backed off. I won’t tell you who it is. (laughs)

Cooper: (laughs)

Senator Duckworth: But he didn’t want to be on record doing that on the floor, so we got it passed. We can get things done. (Sen.) Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) helped me work on water infrastructure. I wrote the drinking water and wastewater portion of the bipartisan infrastructure deal, and that included significant dollars to get lead out of the drinking water supply grant programs. She is on the same committee. I went to talk to her and said, “What do you think about this?” And she said, “You forgot all the people who are on well water. This grant program you’ve written allows municipalities to get reimbursement and get some dollars to fix these programs, but what about people who are on well water? Don’t they deserve to not have lead?” So, I said, “Absolutely! Let’s write that in.” So, we specifically wrote in the well water piece. And we got 89 votes on the floor of the Senate because of it.

Later on, I come to find out that I actually have people in Chicago who are still on well water. So, it wasn’t just people on well water across Illinois, which I knew about, but I even had people in urban areas who are still on well water. And that was bipartisan. She made the bill better. She listened to me. Even though we rarely vote the same way on a lot of things, we got 89 votes on the bill. I’m really proud of it.

Cooper: That’s incredible. It shows that there’s hope. (laughs)

Senator Duckworth: There’s hope, there’s hope, yes. Maybe fewer cameras watching us, and people don’t have to play up for the cameras. (laughs)

Cooper: Yeah!

Senator Duckworth: We’d get more done, you know? Fewer people are needing to do this.


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