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Senator Tammy Duckworth on the Attack that Took Her Legs—and Having a Baby at 50
ILLINOIS SENATOR Ladda Tammy Duckworth owns a great pair of legs. They’re painstakingly painted by an artist to match the skin tone of her arm—right down to the freckles—and the second toe on one foot is longer than the first, just like her own used to be. But Duckworth can’t stand them. “When I see myself wearing those legs in a mirror, I see loss. But when I see this”—she gestures toward the steel-and-titanium prosthesis attached to her thigh above her right knee—“I see strength. I see a reminder of where I am now.” Same thing with her wheelchair. “People always want me to hide it in pictures. I say no! I earned this wheelchair. It’s no different from a medal I wear on my chest. Why would I hide it?”
She is sitting in the chair, a souped-up Segway that she received from a veterans’ group, in a small office close to the floor of the U.S. Senate. Looped over its back is a bag with her breast pump. On the table in front of her is her daily schedule prepared by staffers. It is filled with meetings having to do with issues in her home state, a few Senate votes, and then, discreetly tucked in at four-hour intervals, a series of asterisks. Time to pump milk for her baby.
There are so many firsts attached to Tammy Duckworth—she’s the Senate’s first member to give birth while in office, its first member born in Thailand (to an American father and a Thai mother of Chinese descent), and, of course, its first female amputee. It’s that last distinction that tends to overwhelm all the others. As a wounded veteran with a Purple Heart, she has introduced or cosponsored bills protecting the rights of veterans—and she’s been fearless in confronting the president over military and foreign affairs. Last January, when President Trump accused the Democrats of holding the military hostage over immigration, it was Duckworth who took to the Senate floor, declaring in a now-historic speech, “I will not be lectured about what our military needs by a five-deferment draft dodger.”
When I started to ask Duckworth a question about the accident that took her legs, she quickly corrected me. “It wasn’t an accident; those suckers were trying to kill me.” Of course! I apologized, but she told me not to worry. It happens all the time. While she was sedated at Walter Reed hospital, fighting for her life, the doctors and nurses around her also kept referring to “the helicopter accident.” But she was sure they’d been attacked. She was the senior officer onboard that day; if it was an accident, it was her fault.
It wasn’t an accident. On November 12, 2004, then-36-year-old Captain Tammy Duckworth was flying a Black Hawk to her base in Iraq, some 50 miles north of Baghdad. The mission had been routine, a grocery run, as she later described it, though nothing about that time or place was routine. Attacks on the base were so common, its residents had nicknamed it “Mortaritaville.” Training to become a helicopter pilot, Duckworth, the only woman in her class, knew the risks going in. When helicopters are hit, there’s no ejecting to safety.
She and her three crew members were lucky, in a way. The rocket-propelled grenade that pierced the Plexiglas floor of the cockpit near her feet exploded in a burst of flame, but it did not cause the helicopter to combust. Clinging to consciousness, Duckworth tried to use her legs to land but found the normally responsive $6 million piece of machinery sluggish. Then she passed out. After her copilot landed, he took one look at Duckworth’s blackened face, her slumped-over torso, the blood gushing from her lower body, and assumed she was dead. Black Hawks travel in pairs, and a second helicopter had landed nearby, so they needed to move quickly. The crew evacuated the living and the wounded and then used precious moments to retrieve what they thought was Duckworth’s corpse. And that, for her, has made all the difference.
“I am no hero,” she says. “The guy who carried me out of there? He’s the hero.” It’s been fourteen years since the attack, but even now, when she talks about it, there’s a catch in her throat that’s contagious. If it had been Vietnam or any other American war, she would have died, but within 20 minutes she’d arrived at the combat hospital in Baghdad, well within the so-called golden hour when surgeons can save a life. A few days after that, she was at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C., where a team of doctors worked to save what they could (there was some question about whether she would be able to keep her right arm). Her legs were gone, but she felt her feet burning—and she says she still feels this ghostly sensation every day, as if she is walking on hot desert sand.
Politicians who want to bolster their military bona fides often visit Walter Reed to have their pictures taken while shaking a vet’s hand. Among soldiers, it is jokingly referred to as “the amputee petting zoo.” With her high cheekbones and long, jet-black hair, Duckworth would have made an appealing poster girl, but she was wary of being used. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to visit her, she said no. She might be military, but she leaned liberal, a result of growing up a mixed-race child in Southeast Asia, where her father’s development work took them to Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. “Being Amerasian, post Vietnam War, people just assumed you were the child of a GI and a prostitute. I was so lucky my parents were married and I had an American passport. I saw kids spat upon, going through garbage, selling themselves, doing whatever they could to survive because they’d been discarded.” When the Duckworth family, including her little brother, moved to Hawaii, her father, who was then in his 50s and could trace his roots all the way back to the Revolutionary War, found it nearly impossible to get a job. To survive, the family went on food stamps, and Tammy, then in high school, took a series of low-paying jobs to keep the family afloat. At one point, she sold flowers from a plastic bucket on the side of the road, an experience that profoundly shaped her worldview. “I never worked as hard as when we were at our poorest,” she says. “So I felt if we could end up there, anyone could.”
One day, a call came to Walter Reed from Illinois senator Dick Durbin, asking if there were any wounded veterans from his state who would like to attend the State of the Union. Duckworth volunteered. That night Durbin shook her hand, gave her his card, and said she should call if she needed anything. So she did. Again and again. Not for herself but for other veterans who needed things, like missing pension payments. Durbin was impressed by her tenacity but also by the way she carried herself. “When I did the math later on, I realized she’d been injured only twelve weeks prior,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe what a positive attitude she had.” A few months later, when Illinois’s longtime congressman Henry Hyde announced he was retiring, Durbin asked her to consider running.
She said she needed to talk to her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey, an information-technology specialist in the private sector. Bowlsbey met Duckworth in the ROTC program at George Washington University, where she was studying for an M.A. in international affairs. As she has told it, he made an unflattering comment about women in the military, she took umbrage, he apologized, and they have been together ever since. If his wife wanted to run for public office, Bowlsbey would support her. “I remember thinking maybe this could be my new mission,” Duckworth says. “I always wanted to help vets, and this could just be widening that field.” When Durbin realized his hand-picked candidate would have to make her announcement with an IV in her arm, he began to wonder if he had done the right thing. Running would mean resigning from the military while she still needed surgery. It was a big risk, but she was in. “Nothing holds her back,” Durbin says.
In the Hollywood version of Duckworth’s life, she would have won that first race. She did not. Jon Carson, who ran her campaign, remains an admirer, but managing such a principled candidate didn’t make his job easy. He would have loved to have a press conference with the crew members who were shot down with her, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Nor did she play the game of cozying up to donors as well as he might have liked. “Donors like to feel like they’re getting special inside information,” he says. “Tammy didn’t do that. She said the same thing in front of the donors as she said to the press and the voters. That’s just who she is.” He attributes her narrow loss (2 percent) in part to vicious attacks, including a last-minute mailer from her opponent with a Photoshopped picture of Duckworth giving money away to immigrants, a dig at her support of Senator Ted Kennedy’s pro-immigration bill. Six years later, she ran again and won. Four years later, she ran against the Republican who had won Barack Obama’s old seat in the Senate and won that race too. When she took the oath of office, Durbin says, there wasn’t a dry eye in the chamber. Including his? “You bet.”
THE TECHNICAL TERM for a woman who gives birth at the age of 50 is “geriatric pregnancy.” “Geriatric!” Duckworth says, laughing. “Not even advanced maternal age!” In the years when most women start thinking of having children, Duckworth was busy climbing the ranks in the military, where pregnancy means a mandatory grounding. “If you’re not flying,” she says, “you’re not competing.” Once her career as a combat pilot was over, she and her husband decided to begin a family. They tried naturally, then went to a fertility doctor recommended by the VA. She was told the daily X-rays at Walter Reed might have affected her ability to get pregnant.
After eight more years, her doctor said she was simply too old. It was a bitter pill for a woman who remains strong enough to compete—as she did in 2016—in her fourth marathon on a recumbent bike. Duckworth had begun looking into adoption when a friend recommended she see a celebrated fertility doctor in Chicago. Within eighteen months, she had her first child, Abigail, now three. This spring, she had her second child, Maile. It turned out the VA-recommended doctor she had been seeing worked at a Catholic facility, which did not sanction fertilizing embryos outside the body—the technique that ultimately made it possible for Duckworth to become pregnant. “What bugs me to this day,” she says, “is that she never said, ‘You need to go to a different kind of facility.’ I was educated! I was the director of Illinois Veterans Affairs. I didn’t do my due diligence, so what about those other families?”
The arrival of Maile has made Duckworth a celebrity in the Senate. “How is that baby?” asks Senator Dianne Feinstein as Duckworth rolls into an elevator following a vote on the Senate floor. It has also opened her eyes to the challenges so many mothers face, like being forced to breastfeed in a restroom at an airport. Last spring, Duckworth introduced the Friendly Airports for Mothers Act, to compel large and medium airports applying for a grant from the Department of Transportation to include a lactation area on-site. She was also responsible for getting the Senate to pass a resolution allowing children under the age of one onto the Senate floor.
Currently, Abigail is in preschool and Maile is being taken care of by a nanny who has set up a crib in Duckworth’s office. Duckworth knows she’s lucky to have such an arrangement, but what she really would have liked was a six-month maternity leave. “I am tired,” she admits when I ask. “I am overwhelmed. Who isn’t? The average American mom is tired. So many of us are numb from the trauma of having a president who acts the way he does.” But when you’re in a position to make a difference, it’s hard to stay home watching, say, immigrants being separated from their children, especially if you are the child of an immigrant. So she’s gearing up for fresh battles over immigration, over Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court (she’ll vote no). “So it doesn’t matter if I am tired,” she tells me. “I am going to show up every day and fight. If that means I have to crawl to get a vote, I am going to do it.”
In the meantime, there’s dinner to think about. It’s one of the ironies people tend to overlook about politicians. They have a staff of dozens helping to implement their policy visions, but at the end of the day, they still have to go home and make dinner. (Her husband could do it, but then, she says, they’d be eating tacos every night.) I watch Duckworth and two of her millennial staffers engage in a passionate discussion of . . . couscous. Does she prefer Israeli or regular? “Whatever tastes good, cooks in five minutes, and costs $3 for two boxes,” she answers. Pragmatic, economical, and hopeful. What more could you want in a politician?
". . . those who claim to know the Mind of God, who will tell you what God thinks and how He will judge and condemn others—those people are the greatest of all blasphemers." Aloysius Xingu Leng Pendergast
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