Earlier this year, Senator Tammy Duckworth was front and center in the public eye during the Congressional budget debate, challenging President Trump to “stop baiting Kim Jong Un into a war that could put 85,000 American troops, and millions of innocent civilians, in danger.” During her address on the Senate floor, Senator Duckworth reminded her colleagues of the importance of supporting members of the military, an advocacy position shaped by her personal experience as an Iraq War veteran and her ongoing battle with pain. She said she would continue to actively fight for her constituents in an increasingly visible role.
A History of Service & Personal Battle with Pain
Senator Duckworth’s journey to Congress started with her military service. The Purple Heart recipient was one of the first Army women to fly combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and she served in the Reserve Forces for 23 years before retiring from military service in 2014 at the rank of lieutenant colonel.
During her 2004 deployment to Iraq as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot for the Illinois Army National Guard, Senator Duckworth sustained critical injuries when her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). She spent the next year recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and became an advocate for her fellow soldiers, testifying before Congress about issues concerning veterans and wounded warriors. Her personal experience with life-threatening injuries and pain shape Senator Duckworth’s advocacy position and continue to influence her voice in the Senate.
“With the help of my family, friends and fellow service members at Walter Reed, I began my recovery after losing both my legs and partial use of my right arm when an RPG tore through the cockpit of my helicopter,” Senator Duckworth recalls. “My recovery wasn’t easy. The pain was overwhelming, and it was hard to learn how to manage it. Tasks like picking up a pencil—or even just sitting up without passing out—were no longer simple. I’ve made a great deal of progress, but I still live with pain every day. I have continuous phantom pain in my feet; it constantly feels like I’m walking on hot sand. It’s challenging to manage the pain, but I know I can overcome it.”
The senator says that she continues “to live by the Soldier’s Creed every day,” and her resolve to never accept defeat—part of that creed—is represented in her journey back to health and her ongoing battle with pain. Like many individuals dealing with chronic pain, Senator Duckworth says she measures success in small victories.
“It was challenging to learn how to manage the pain, including the phantom pain,” she says. “It can be exhausting. There are moments when I ask myself, why am I still going through this all these years later? Then I think about how far I’ve come since I was shot down.
“At first, it was unclear how I would lead a regular life, let alone how I would continue to serve my nation,” she continues. “But after every time I couldn’t do something, after every day when I didn’t know how I’d make it to the next, I made the choice not to give up. I showed myself that I could get through one day, one hour, even one minute at a time. Now I see that I’ve only grown stronger because of it. As the Hemingway quote goes, I’m ‘strong[er] at the broken places.’”
The senator took Hemingway’s quote to heart during and after her recovery, becoming the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. As part of that role, she worked to create a tax credit for employers who hired veterans, established a first-in-the-nation 24/7 veterans crisis hotline and developed innovative programs to improve veteran access to housing and health care. In 2009, President Obama appointed Senator Duckworth to be assistant secretary of veterans affairs, and in that position she coordinated the joint initiative with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to end veteran homelessness. She also created the Office of Online Communications to improve the VA’s accessibility, and worked to address the unique challenges that Native American and female veterans face.
Six years later, she was elected to the US Senate in 2016, after representing Illinois’s Eighth Congressional District in the US House of Representatives for two terms. As part of her Senate role, Senator Duckworth serves on several committees that she feels give her a platform to advocate for Illinois’s working families and entrepreneurs: the Environment & Public Works Committee; the Energy & Natural Resources Committee; the Commerce, Science, & Transportation Committee; and the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee. In her latest role, the senator says that she “advocates for practical, common-sense solutions needed to move our country and our state forward, like rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, keeping our water systems safe and lead-free, growing manufacturing jobs while supporting minority-owned small businesses, investing in communities that have been ignored for too long, and making college more affordable for all Americans,” in addition to her continued efforts for individuals living with disabilities.
“I better understand the challenges Americans living with a disability face because I experience similar challenges every day,” Senator Duckworth says. “This kind of firsthand experience gives me better insight into just how important it is for Americans to access the quality health care they need to stay healthy and cope with pain. It’s also a reminder about how important it is that all Americans—no matter their race, sexual orientation or physical ability—are represented in Congress so our government can best serve the American people.”
Moving Forward toward Change
In 2015, Senator Duckworth co-sponsored the No Budget, No Pay Act, which would ensure members of Congress get paid only if they pass a budget. Continuing her commitment toward advocacy in 2017, she points out several key pieces of pending or proposed legislation that could impact all citizens, including those battling chronic pain issues.
“Efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act have significant implications for Americans dealing with pain or any kind of physical disability,” the senator says. “Millions of Americans already rely on the Affordable Care Act to access the medications and treatment they need to lead healthy, independent lives. If we make it harder for them to get the care they need, the entire country will suffer.
“We cannot be a nation that says if you’re sick or ill we’re going to leave you behind,” she continues. “That’s just not who we are. I’m working every single day to not only push back against Republican efforts to strip care away from those who need it most, but to also bring folks together on commonsense improvements to our current health care system.”
Senator Duckworth is also working on US Department of Transportation acts that protect the rights of disabled air travelers. As part of the initiative, she is introducing legislation that will ensure that passengers traveling in wheelchairs do not suffer additional pain or injuries due to improper treatment from airport staff. In 2017 she introduced the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act to help improve protection for airplane passengers with disabilities, which she says makes air travel “more equitable and accessible for all Americans.” She is also a co-sponsor of the Disability Integration Act, legislation that “would ensure that Americans with disabilities are given the option to live independent lives and access care in their community rather than being forced into institutional care,” she says. Additionally, she notes that it is crucial “to do everything we can to protect the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).”
“The ADA is vitally important to the health and well-being of millions of Americans living with disabilities, many of whom are forced to cope with pain on a daily basis,” she says. “The ADA allows people with disabilities the opportunity to participate in the world around them, which helps strengthen our families, our economy and our nation as a whole. Without these protections, Americans like me wouldn’t be able to get to work, go to school, hold a job, pay taxes, go shopping or do any of the things other people take for granted.”
Role Models and Living in the USA
Over the course of her military and professional political careers, Senator Duckworth says that several individuals have influenced her life and become personal role models.
“I’ve always looked up to US Senators Phillip Hart, Bob Dole and Daniel Inouye,” she says. “All three were wounded during WWII and recovered in the same war hospital together. They also all decided to continue to serve their nation after their time in the military. As senators, they were able to reconcile their ideological differences to serve the American people. That’s what I aspire to do each and every day.”
Senator Duckworth says she is also inspired by her family, including husband Bryan, an Army cyber warrant officer; her daughter, Abigail; and her fellow veterans. Each relationship continues to shape her positions on public issues as well as serve as a coping mechanism for her chronic pain.
“Spending time with my daughter helps distract me from the pain,” she says. “My family has been a key support system in helping me cope with pain. When I’m making decisions in Congress, I like to reflect on what kind of country I want my daughter to grow up in. I want her to grow up knowing she has the opportunity to pursue any path she chooses. That’s the American Dream.”
Additionally, the senator’s military colleagues, past and present, are never far from her mind.
“I’ve always enjoyed spending time with my fellow veterans,” she says. “I get my health care at VA, so I sit in the waiting room for my appointments there just like they do. Hearing their voices on a range of issues from health care to college affordability has been highly influential in my work to serve the American people in Congress.”
Despite her ongoing pain, Senator Duckworth has added several remarkable achievements to her post-rehabilitation and recovery accomplishments. She resumed flying as a civilian pilot, fulfilled a promise she made at Walter Reed to complete several marathons, and completed her doctorate in human services at Capella University. Described by some as a rising star in the Senate, Senator Duckworth plans to continue to shine the spotlight on equality for all citizens, including women, individuals with chronic pain issues, veterans and minorities.
“I believe that every American should have the same opportunity to pursue their dreams, but it’s clear we have a long way to go to make that a reality,” she says. “Everyone—regardless of their gender identity—should have equal representation in Congress, and we must work to ensure every woman—no matter her race or religion—has the right to fair pay, the right to make decisions about her own body and the right to a safe workplace environment.”
And specific to people discouraged by pain challenges, Senator Duckworth offers advice.
“I encourage people facing seemingly insurmountable situations to be patient and celebrate small victories,” she says. “At one point when I was at Walter Reed, I didn’t know that I could survive the next hour, let alone the next day, so I set small goals for myself. I would encourage others not to be afraid to take things one day at a time and to celebrate the small victories when they can.”