August 25, 2016
The Guardian: Tammy Duckworth shows her strength in Senate fight: 'These legs don’t buckle'
by Megan Carpentier
When Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth stands in front of crowds – despite the fact that doing so is painful – she does so on two titanium legs, her feet encased in ladylike flats.
When she sits in her wheelchair, you can see that one prosthetic’s socket has a camouflage print, and the other an American flag.
Duckworth could probably use her congressional health insurance to pay for the most state-of-the-art cosmetic prostheses for the two legs she lost in combat during the Iraq war. But like the men and women who preceded her, surrounded her and succeeded her in recuperating from combat-related injuries at the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington DC, she uses the frequently criticized and sometimes woefully inadequate veterans’ healthcare system.
“I’m glad that people know my military service,” Representative Tammy Duckworth told the Guardian over a paper plate of barbecued rib tips. “But, like this nation, we are more than our military. And the rest of our story is the same as the rest of my story.”
Duckworth’s late lunch came in Danville, Illinois, at the end of her third campaign stop of the day on what she called a “southern swing” through the state.
After almost four years in the House, she is running this time for a seat in the Senate against Republican Mark Kirk, and is favored to win the race – FiveThirtyEight called Illinois “one of the two most likely [Senate] seats to flip this year”. .
Many voters already know the most visible part of her story, which she also told on the final night of the Democratic national convention before Hillary Clinton accepted her nomination. While working on her PhD, Duckworth was called up from the reserves during the Iraq war and, though technically women weren’t yet allowed in combat, was piloting a helicopter that was shot down. She was severely injured and became the first female double amputee of the war.
During a stop at the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, a majority African American church in Champaign, after she shook hands before services began and swayed to the music of the gospel choir, she talked to the congregation about that day in 2004.
“We got hit by a grenade, a rocket propelled grenade, blew up in my face. I made the call, ‘We’ve been hit’, but we were flying just north of the Euphrates river, over big palm trees, far as you can see,” she explained. “I said, ‘Oh, God, I need a place to land.’ And, like a miracle, an opening opened up, in the middle of a big palm grove. It shouldn’t have been there. But it was there. It was just large enough for us to land our aircraft.
“As I lay bleeding, waiting to be rescued, the lowest person on my aircraft, the youngest, lowest ranking kid from Peoria – a Specialist, E4, my rear gunner – stood and protected us while a sergeant, the next lowest ranking person, came and carried me to safety. And I woke up 11 days later – but I woke up.”
Duckworth lost both her legs in the attack, and nearly lost her right arm except, as she explained it, for two twists of fate (or, as she prefers, gifts from God): “The only vascular surgeon in the entire Middle Eastern theatre happened to be on a three-day rotation in Baghdad ER” the day she was shot down. It took 13 hours of surgery and, quite literally, an 11th-hour blood donation from four members of her unit with the same blood type to save her arm.
Tammy Duckworth, while serving with the Illinois Army National Guard, sitting in a helicopter during her tour of duty in Iraq. Photograph: AP
“I get up every single day trying to repay a debt that I can never repay. Never. And I will work hard. Because I don’t know why I was saved. I don’t know,” she said.
But before that day in Iraq, Duckworth said that there were other “earthly angels” whose help saved her during one of the other most difficult times in her life: her family’s descent from the middle class and into poverty.
“My daddy had lost his job when I was in middle school and, by the time I was in high school, four years later, we had gone through everything and we were down to our last $10,” she told Pilgrim Missionary attendees.
For many Americans after the Great Recession, Duckworth’s is probably too familiar a story. In Champaign, where she was speaking, unemployment remains higher than the national average and they are still losing manufacturing jobs, just like they were in the early 1980s (when it first hit 9%).
Back then, Duckworth’s family ended up living in a pay-by-the-week motel room and came to rely on food stamps, which her parents struggled to make last the month. “I remember to this day at the grocery store, we would go and count out the last five brown $1 food stamps – I still remember the color,” she said, to murmurs of recognition from some of the older members of the congregation. “We’d use the food stamps we had for baloney and some white bread, praying it would last the week, until Monday next week.”
But, she said, her high school English teacher helped fill in the gaps for her and for others at her high school, where 60% of students were on some sort of public assistance. “He would keep a bunch of us kids after school long enough that he’d say, ‘Aw, kids, I’m so sorry that I kept you extra, for extra work. Here’s 10 bucks, go to Taco Bell, two for 99 cents, get something to eat before you go home’ … That public school teacher, reached into his public school teacher’s salary pocket, and he fed us.”
“And I’d bring one of my tacos home to my daddy, and I would lie to him and say ‘Oh, Daddy, I wasn’t hungry. I only ate one’ because I knew he wouldn’t eat,” she added. “And to see the look on my daddy’s face, this man who was a veteran of three wars, although he was in France for the Korean war, who had served his country for 20 years, who came from a family that served this nation in uniform going back to the revolution – I am a daughter of the American Revolution on my daddy’s side – for him to have to accept the lie of his daughter so he could eat that one taco, and so we could keep on going.”
The story of her upbringing, and of her father brought low by a late-in-life layoff, was one to which she returned at the Vermilion County Young Democrats’ rally later that day in Danville, which was organized to help promote local charities – from diaper donations to a rape crisis center, and from a food bank to a local domestic violence shelter – impacted by state budget cuts.
“I grew up a daughter of a United States Marine, a daughter of a man so proud to be an American” she told the crowd. “But then, when he was in his 50s, my dad lost his job, like so many wonderful families across this great state right now.”
“And no one would hire him because they said he was overqualified and had too much experience,” she added, waving her cane for emphasis. “But you know what those are code words for, right? ‘You’re too old.’” Heads, some of them grey, nodded from benches set up under the trees.
Later, over the rib tips, she explained why her background – both the poverty she experienced as a teenager, and then paying her way through college with grants, student loans and part-time jobs before joining the military – resonates with her would-be constituents. “That’s a different between Mark Kirk and myself,” she said. “He’s been 10 years as a chief of staff, 10 years as a congressman, six years as a senator, so, he’s a symbol for people who’ve lost touch with the state. He doesn’t travel the state, he’s not gone anywhere in Illinois, if he does, he cancels events and then does one thing and leaves.
“I think when we talk about people who need a little extra help, I talk with folks about the fact that we’re all one bad accident, one bad diagnosis away from potential bankruptcy,” she added. “The wheelchair and the prosthesis give me a soapbox to stand on. If it helps me get my message across, I’m glad, then we need to talk about what we need to do for this country.”
The economic anxiety into which the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, is said to have tapped is real in Illinois, explained Duckworth – but his solutions are wrong. “As I traveled the state, I was in Granite City, Illinois, our steelworkers were laid off two days after Christmas,” she noted. “Here in Danville, people hear of an economic recovery, but they’re not feeling it.” (The unemployment rate was 7.1% in June.) “In Bloomington, Illinois, we lost a Mitsubishi factory, after they took a decade of tax credits and tax holidays. When [the credits] ran out, they left: 2,000 jobs there. Peoria: Caterpillar is building a factory in Malaysia.”
“I understand the challenges they’re facing, because I’ve faced them myself.”
Then, a man walked up and interrupted Duckworth – the second of three former military men who asked for a minute of her time in Danville. “I just want to say from an army veteran …”
“Hooah,” Duckworth said, an expression of mutual recognition among members of the US army (which is distinct from the Marine Corps’ “Oo-rah”).
“Hooah” he replied. “Great speech.”
“Thank you, what’d you do in the army?” she asked, as she asked every military man who spoke to her over the course of her day of campaigning.
“Infantry,” he said.
“Alright, I love grunts.”
“Eleven bang bang,” he said, a self-deprecating way of referring to infantry men.
“Gotta have someone who jumps out of my helicopter,” she said.
“Good to see you, man.”
“Good to see you,” he replied, and walked off.
She returned to the point she was making. “I lived the challenges that they’re going through, and I get it on a very deeply personal level,” she continued. “I know what it’s like to have to rely on food stamps. I know what it’s like to have student loan debt, because I still have student loan debt. I know what it’s like to wait for an appointment at the VA, and I choose that.”
“I get what they’re going through because I’ve lived it, or I’m living it,” she added “And so I think that allows them to understand better what motivates me and what I’m going to do for them. If you’re out of touch, and you’re not going to small events like this as a senator and you’re not putting the miles on the car, then you don’t hear from people who are struggling, who are hurting, who have hopes and who have dreams.”
While she spoke, from the other side of the parking lot, a tracker with the conservative America Rising Pac, positioned himself to get a shot of the congresswoman eating. “The tracker is filming me eating barbecue,” she grumbled. “So you know that’s going to be on a commercial somewhere, me with, like, a piece of barbecue in my mouth.”
America Rising is not the only conservative group gunning for Duckworth: the Independent Voice for Illinois Super Pac, which gets money from a variety of conservatives in and out of the state, began airing television ads in July attacking Duckworth for her positions on refugee resettlement and the Iran nuclear deal.
And though conservatives have long gone after Democratic veterans on the basis of their foreign policy positions and questioned their patriotism, Duckworth said to bring it on.
“Do the attacks come? Yes, they do,” she said. “These legs are titanium. They don’t buckle. Go ahead, take a shot at me. There’s nothing you can do to me now that will ever be as bad as that day in Iraq. I’m tough enough for it. I am.”
This article was amended on 26 August 2016 to clarify that ‘Eleven bang bang’ is a self-deprecating term for infantry men. It is not a derogatory term.