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Tammy Duckworth Was a Survivor Long Before Her Helicopter Was Shot Down

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April 01, 2021

Tammy Duckworth Was a Survivor Long Before Her Helicopter Was Shot Down

Tammy Duckworth in physical therapy
On January 21, 2005, Tammy Duckworth participated in physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Photo Credit...Michael Chow/The Arizona Republic, via Associated Press

Published March 30, 2021


A Memoir
By Tammy Duckworth

One can’t help noticing some passing similarities between Tammy Duckworth’s new memoir and “Dreams From My Father,” the memoir Barack Obama published two years before he became a state senator.

Both books share the stories of adolescents in Hawaii destined to enter national politics by way of Illinois, each with one foreign-born parent; both authors were strivers whose fathers were absent, actually or symbolically. The autobiographies represent, however, two extremes of the genre. Obama confesses in his introduction that he offers no “feats worthy of record,” writing instead a personal meditation on race, identity and the nature of family. By contrast, Duckworth, a soldier in her soul, makes no real effort at poetry or ornate excavations of the self; and yet, she has collected enough feats worthy of record to fill at least one strong memoir, a book whose contents are far more gripping, gritty and original than its bromide of a title — “Every Day Is a Gift” — might suggest.

Duckworth, a senator whom Joe Biden reportedly considered as a running mate, is more Hercules than Hamlet; the book’s most significant failing might be that she has lived through so much that she seems unable to recognize or explore the extraordinary nature of later chapters of her life.

Tammy Duckworth at flight school
Duckworth at flight school. Photo Credit...via Tammy Duckworth

Born in Thailand, Duckworth spent much of her early childhood in Indonesia, the daughter of an American Marine who left his first marriage behind and married a Thai shopkeeper whose family was from China. Her father — a charismatic man who relished being “the big guy” and “the American hero,” as Duckworth puts it — moved his family around Asia in pursuit of lucrative jobs, including one in Cambodia. In April 1975, in her first brush with war, Duckworth crouched, alongside her family, below the windows of the airport in Phnom Penh, to avoid bullets flying overhead before boarding the last commercial flight out of the city.

After several bad breaks, Duckworth’s family landed in Honolulu close to penniless, or at least three of them did: Her mother stayed behind to live with family in Thailand until they could save enough for a fourth plane ticket. Duckworth writes that as a girl, she developed a tireless work ethic in a vain effort to please her father; but in Hawaii, at just 16, and well aware how close they were to homeless, she took over as the adult, managing the food stamps and working long hours on Waikiki Beach after school, selling roses, handing out fliers and hustling tourists on the volleyball court — functioning, for a time, as the family’s main breadwinner.

Duckworth’s first engagement with the military was, as it is for so many, a financial calculation: She enrolled in the Reserve Officers Training Corps while already a graduate student at George Washington University, on the theory that she’d save some money. Instead, she found her calling.

“By week 3, I was officially a goner,” she writes.

Here was a place where all her acquired toughness could be channeled into a higher calling than stepping in where her father had failed. In the midst of a painful tear gas exercise (the toughest test of basic training, she writes), “I decided to drop and do push-ups, to prove how hard-core I was. As soon as I did, my entire squad did the same.”

Tammy Duckworth, Senator
Tammy Duckworth is the junior senator from Illinois. Photo Credit...Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

She was drawn to flying helicopters because pilot jobs would allow her to get as close to combat as a woman possibly could in 1991, when she was making her assignment requests. More persistence and more feats — best in class, highest test scores — were required to land the training she wanted. “To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, you can’t always get what you want,” Duckworth writes. “But if you bug the crap out of the right people, you’re more likely to get it.”

The event that propelled Duckworth into the public eye is the one for which she is still best known; it also ties to her public image, the rare senator in a wheelchair. At the age of 36, while serving in the Iraq war, Duckworth nearly died when a rocket-propelled grenade tore through her helicopter, immediately vaporizing one of her legs, destroying most of the other and mangling her arm. In the process of writing the book, Duckworth reported out facts of that day she previously had not known, and she spares no detail in her dispassionate recounting of the gory clumsiness that marks true crisis. (“Vaporize” is her word.) The leavening heroics she also recounts are what make those passages bearable — just.

Having survived so many extremes of human experience, Duckworth seems to brush over details of her life that others might find remarkable, such as the two terms she spent as a member of the House of Representatives in the years following her recovery. We hear about the challenges of dealing with fertility issues and child-rearing while campaigning and serving in the Senate; but Duckworth makes remarkably little of how unusual it is for any woman to have a child, as she did, at age 50, much less one who has her particular history and her recurring chronic pain.

“When the only obstacle is effort, then there is no obstacle, because I will move heaven and earth to get what I want, even if I have to do it one pebble at a time,” Duckworth writes. The sheer details of her life are so compelling — so, yes, inspirational — that anyone less plain-spoken might risk veering into sanctimony or sap. If Duckworth’s political career ever comes to an end, she could make a killing as the world’s most matter-of-fact motivational speaker. Another Duckworth, first name Angela, wrote a best seller of a book by promising to unpack the secrets and benefits of grit; this Duckworth has embodied it.

Read this article on the NY Times

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