"My family has served this nation in uniform, going back to the Revolution. I'm a daughter of the American Revolution," then-Representative Tammy Duckworth explained in an October 2016 debate for the open Illinois Senate seat. "I've bled for this nation, but I still want to be there in the Senate when the drums of war sound. Because people are quick to sound the drums of war, and I want to be there to say, 'This is what it costs, this is what you're asking us to do.' Families like mine are the ones that bleed first."
Though now-Senator Duckworth served as an Army helicopter pilot in the Iraq War—and lost both of her legs after an RPG hit the helicopter she was flying—the incumbent GOP senator, Mark Kirk, dismissed her military experience and focused on her heritage instead. Duckworth was born in Bangkok; her mother is Thai–Chinese, and her father was an American—and a Marine veteran—who did refugee work in Southeast Asia with the United Nations.
"I'd forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington," Kirk said.
Duckworth did not respond in the moment, but after the debate she tweeted a picture with her parents. She captioned it: "My mom is an immigrant and my dad and his family have served this nation in uniform since the Revolution #ILSEN."
Kirk's inaccurate response did not help him keep his seat: On November 8, Tammy Duckworth beat him to become the junior senator for Illinois. In an election where many people were expecting to see the first female president, Duckworth's victory was something of a solace. Along with Senator Kamala Harris of California, she became the second Asian-American woman—after Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who was elected in 2012—and the first disabled woman to be elected to Congress.
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Since taking office in January, Duckworth has already come out with firm stances against Trump administration policies that are uniquely personal. After Trump tweeted, on July 26, that he was banning transgender people from serving in the military, Duckworth was, as a veteran herself, particularly disturbed.
"First, there is the moral reason of what our nation values, and the value of a human being as an individual, which is not based on your sexual or gender identity," Duckworth told me over the phone. "Even if you take moral argument out of it, and just look at the nuts and bolts of how the military can do its job to defend us, his ban fails. [It fails] on both sides. Banning transgender servicemen and women would weaken our military. We already have thousands of people serving in our military who are trans, so we would be either be throwing out people or forcing them to live a lie… which endangers our military. It makes our servicemen and -women more susceptible to being taken advantage of and abused."
Instead of promoting a discriminative military ban, Duckworth says the government needs to shore up veteran healthcare services and mental health counseling. Though Duckworth said that the care provided by VA hospitals and clinics is among the best in the country, long wait times and inadequate staffing cause grave problems.
"People are quick to sound the drums of war, and I want to be there to say, 'This is what it costs, this is what you're asking us to do.'"
"We have veterans who are literally dying waiting to have an appointment at a VA, and that's not acceptable," Duckworth said. "We have veterans who have to drive three hours to get to a VA facility for a chest X-ray, and that's not acceptable."
Though healthcare for veterans is a cause that's especially important for Duckworth, she has also become a prominent voice in the broader battle for American healthcare as Republican leadership attempts to find a way to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
"I just want to expand access to healthcare and make it cheaper for as many Americans as possible, and that's my bottom line," she said. "If there were a plan to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something that would increase coverage and make it cheaper, I'd sign on. If they were to come forward and say we would just increase the reimbursement, or if we would allow people to buy into Medicare, or if we would make more Americans eligible for the tax credit, I'd sign right onto that," she said. "Anything that will allow more healthcare for less cost, I'm your gal."
Despite Republication Senators Murkowski, McCain, and Collins voting no on July's "skinny" ACA repeal amendment, Duckworth said she still isn't necessarily optimistic about a bipartisan solution to healthcare. "I have heard from House members—and certainly people like Susan Collins—that they think bipartisanship is the way to go, but unfortunately these are not the people making the decisions within the Republican party," she said. The conservative push to defund Planned Parenthood has also struck a personal chord with Duckworth, who said she used Planned Parenthood as her primary healthcare provider during college. When she wasn't making enough money at her work-study job to support herself, Duckworth took on a second job as a waitress, which required a physical. She didn't have the money to go to a private practice, so she turned to Planned Parenthood.
"That's how Planned Parenthood is used in reality—it's not the messaging that comes out of the Republican party, which is [that it's] a place that only provides abortions," Duckworth said. "They're an affordable primary-care provider for a large population of people who otherwise wouldn't have options."
Celebrated for her strong stances in favor of progressive causes—as well as her "dark humor"—Duckworth is poised to become an even bigger figure in the Democratic opposition to the Trump administration.
"I was proud to be sworn in this year to represent the great state of Illinois in the United States Senate," Duckworth told me. "I firmly believe that we cannot give in to those in Washington who have suggested a darker path forward. The calls for bigger walls and closed doors run counter to our society's shared values of inclusion, equality, and opportunity that made our country the envy of the world."