What Veterans In Congress Can Teach Their Colleagues, According To Sen. Tammy Duckworth

"I really think it benefits our country to have more veterans in government. At all levels."

Few people know the repercussions of war better than Iraq war veteran and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

Sen. Duckworth is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who has been serving in Congress since 2013, first as a member of the House of Representatives and then as a senator. But before she got into politics, she was a helicopter pilot in the Iraq War, a tour that ended tragically when she lost both of her legs after being shot down in combat. While she was recovering from her injuries in Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a series of unexpected introductions sparked Duckworth's decision to run for office in Illinois.  



In honor of Veteran's Day, when Americans take a moment to recognize those who have served in the armed forces, A Plus spoke with Sen. Duckworth about her service, why she decided to run for office and the wisdom she believes veterans elected to Congress have to offer their colleagues.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When you joined the military, did you think you would have a public service career afterwards? Was that always part of the plan? 

Oh, I had never wanted to go into politics. I always had a service desire, but my dream job as long as I remember — since I was eight years old — was to grow up and become an ambassador one day. I always wanted to take the foreign service exam. I was actually working for the headquarters of Rotary International, helping international Rotary clubs do service projects, when I was deployed to Iraq. So I always thought I would stay in the military and our civilian world or continue working with Rotary and then take the foreign service exam. 

Was there something that happened to prompt your change of heart?

Yes, I met two amazing senators from Illinois: Dick Durbin and Barack Obama.

I didn't expect to come back from the war maimed. I was prepared for one of two things to happen to me in the war: I was prepared to come back perfectly fine or to die. When you're a helicopter pilot, throughout your career, you lose friends. It's not a safe line of work. It never occurred to me that I would be as severely wounded as I was and still survive. I wasn't prepared for that third option because I had always assumed if anything happened with my aircraft, I would not survive it.  

I found myself in a hospital bed at Walter Reed, still wanting to serve my country, but as the months went by, I realized that dream of flying helicopters again wasn't going to be happening because of the nature of my particular injuries. 

During this time period, I happened to be the highest-ranking amputee at Walter Reed for about six months. There were a lot of issues at Walter Reed, not with the health care but with the services — the administrative support — that were really a failure in terms of supporting our wounded and their family members who were there. 

Then-president-elect Barack Obama and Duckworth at a Chicago veterans' memorial in 2008. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque .
Then-president-elect Barack Obama and Duckworth at a Chicago veterans' memorial in 2008. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque .

Pretty early on in my stay, both Sen. Durbin and Sen. Obama had come to visit and I stayed in touch with both of them. Sen. Durbin foolishly gave me his business card with his cell phone on it and through him I stayed in touch with Sen. Obama. I kept calling Sen. Durbin whenever there was a problem with another veteran, somebody who was unconscious for four months and the army didn't pay him for four months, or his wife hasn't been given a paycheck for four months because he was unconscious — stuff like that. 

While I was a patient, Sen. Obama asked me to testify in front of the Veterans' Affairs committee, and at the end of about nine or 10 months, I got a call from Sen. Durbin, who said, "You need to run for office. If you really want to advocate for veterans, we need you to run for Congress so you can talk about these issues and help write the legislation to change these laws." 

And that's how I got into politics.

Now that you're in the Senate, are there things that you feel as a veteran that you can uniquely speak to in discussion with your colleagues? What kind of special perspective do you feel like you offer?

The two things that come to mind right now are very topical. One is gun control. When we talked about bump stocks after the Las Vegas shooting, one of the things I pointed out to my colleagues that most Americans don't realize is that while the military uses fully automatic weapons, an individually assigned rifle or pistol that each individual soldier is assigned is not fully automatic. I tell my colleagues that if an individual soldier, Marine or airman is carrying a semi-automatic, if you don't need a fully automatic for the individual troops in Iraq or Kandahar or anywhere else in a combat zone, why do we need to have them on our streets? 

I can make these arguments to my colleagues in a way that can get people thinking.

The other thing is what is happening right now in North Korea. I am working together with Sen. Chris Murphy on the Senate side, but in the House of Representatives, I'm working with my fellow Iraq War veterans Ted Liu, Reuben Diego and Seth Moulton to call for a real discussion on the conditions of war with North Korea. What will it cost in terms of lives? And dollars? 

And we can ask these questions in many ways that our colleagues cannot because of our military service.

The Senate and the executive branch have a tremendous amount of influence over what the military does and doesn't do.  Has there been anything that has really surprised you?

I don't know that it's surprising as much as I have found myself a part of a branch of government that is far less personally identified as a professional branch. Military officers pride themselves on the military profession and all of the things that come with that. Military officers pride ourselves on the fact that we have the greatest democracy, that we defended the greatest democracy because the military is subordinate to civilians. 

Coming over to the legislative side, I'm struck by how often my colleagues are... willing to give up the role that they play that is supposed to be superior to the military. I worry about that. We don't have a military junta running this country precisely because the military is subordinate. Military officers understand that and take pride in that but the civilian leadership — so many of my colleagues — seem to not value that and don't understand the value of that to our democracy.

Duckworth walks to the podium at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Gregory Reed / Shutterstock.com
Duckworth walks to the podium at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Gregory Reed / Shutterstock.com

For other service members who are considering a career in politics, what kind of advice would you give them? Would you recommend it?

I am always encouraging veterans to run for office. I think that we are at a time when the percentage of veterans in government is at an all-time low. I think once they separate from the military and enter civilian life, they should think about running. And run on both sides of the aisle. 

Once you want to run as a Democrat, get a hold of me and I will do everything I can to help get you the resources you need. And if you want to run as an Independent or Republican, get a hold of me anyway and I will try to get you in touch with the appropriate people who hold those viewpoints. I say that because I've really enjoyed great relationships with my colleagues in the House and now in the Senate who are also veterans. It provides us with a place to meet, a starting point where we can take our military service and work on other issues. 

I've co-sponsored legislation with so many of my colleagues who are veterans that I really think it benefits our country to have more veterans in government. At all levels, from school board up to the White House.

Cover image via REUTERS/Joshua Roberts.

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