by Jess Clackum
Rep. Tammy Duckworth was born in Thailand to an American father and Thai mother. Her father, a Marine, served in Vietnam and later with the United Nations Development Program. Duckworth's family moved often because of her father’s work, eventually settling in Hawaii, where she graduated high school and went on to earn herBachelor's degree in Political Science. She would later earn a Master’s Degree in International Affairs from George Washington University. During that time, she joined the Army ROTC, eventually choosing to fly helicopters because it was one of a few combat positions open to women. She attended flight school, transferring to the National Guard and later the Illinois National Guard.
In 2004, while studying for the PhD at Northern Illinois University, Duckworth and her National Guard unit deployed to Iraq. One of the first Army women to fly combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, she lost her legs and partial use of her right arm when the Black Hawk helicopter she piloted was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. She was promoted to Major that same year during her recuperation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It was during her recovery at Walter Reed that she was inspired by Senator Bob Dole to pursue public service.
Duckworth served as Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs from 2006 to 2009. She created tax credits for employers who hired veterans, established a 24-hour veteran crisis hotline and developed programs to improve veteran access to housing and health care.
In 2009, President Obama appointed her Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the US Department of Veterans Affairs. During that time, she led efforts to end veteran homelessness, improve accessibility to the VA and address challenges faced by Native American and women veterans. She also created the Office of Online Communications to improve accessibility to the VA, particularly among younger veterans.
In 2012, Duckworth became the first disabled woman elected to the U.S. House and one of four women veterans serving in the Congress. She has introduced legislation to assist veterans in transitioning to civilian life and employment in the private sector, extend maternal leave for military women and eliminate abuses in the VA system. She has also encouraged the V.A. to hire more veterans as doctors and nurses because of their unique understanding of the issues faced by combat veterans.
After 23 years of service, Duckworth retired a Lt. Colonel in the Illinois National Guard. She continues to fly as a civilian pilot and has competed in several marathons.
Duckworth supports equal opportunity for women in the military especially in combat. Recalling when she was one of only two women in flight school, “We fought as hard as we could to make sure people understood we were just as good (as pilots) as the guys were."