Ladda Tammy Duckworth makes no bones about it.

She knows where her strength comes from.

And it’s not from photo-shopping, air-brushing, hiding or misrepresenting.

When she puts on her legs — that’s right, puts on her legs — they look good, painted professionally by an artist to match the skin tone of her arms, freckles and all.

No detail is spared — the second toe on one foot is longer than the first, just like her own used to be.

She hates those legs.

They represent loss to her, weakness even.

But when she looks at the steel-and-titanium prosthesis attached to her thigh above her right knee, “I see strength,” she says.

“I see a reminder of where I am now.”

Same with her wheelchair.

“People always want me to hide it in pictures.

I say no!

I earned this wheelchair.

It’s no different from a medal I wear on my chest.

Why would I hide it?”

If that doesn’t offer a revealing enough peek into Tammy Duckworth’s character, nothing does.

And you toss a little grit — okay, a lot — into the ready mix of intelligence and honor, the sky (formerly her home-away-from-home) is, without doubt, the limit.

Her only limit.

In other words, she has no limits.

She’s made the world her oyster by making the best lemonade imaginable, from barrels of lemons.

Her nickname should be “The First.”

She is the Senate’s first sitting member to give birth while in office (and only one of 10 women in history to do so in Congress).

And it wasn’t easy…

She is the Senate’s first member born in Thailand (to an American father and a Thai mother of Chinese descent).

And of course, she is the Senate’s first female (double) amputee.

As a wounded veteran with a Purple Heart, she has introduced or co-sponsored bills protecting veteran’s rights, and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

When then-President Trump accused the Democrats of holding the military hostage over immigration, it was Duckworth who took to the Senate floor and lambasted him in a now-historic speech, wrapping it up with, “I will not be lectured about what our military needs by a five-deferment draft dodger.”

She is equally blunt and to the point when quizzed about the accident which claimed her legs.

“It wasn’t an accident; those suckers were trying to kill me.”

Happens all the time; the use of the word accident, that is.

While she was sedated at Walter Reed Hospital fighting for her life, the doctors and nurses caring for her also kept referring to “the helicopter accident.”

But she was sure they’d been attacked.

She was the senior officer on board that day; if it was an accident, it was her fault.

It wasn’t and it wasn’t.

On November 12, 2004, then-36-year-old Captain Tammy Duckworth was flying a Black Hawk to her base in Iraq, some 50 miles north of Baghdad.

Routine to her, a grocery run as she later described it, was hardly routine at all.

Attacks on the base were so common, its residents had nicknamed it, “Mortaritaville.”

Training to become a helicopter pilot, Duckworth — the only woman in her class — was all too familiar with the inherent risks going in.

When helicopters are hit, there’s no ejecting to safety.

The fact that Black Hawks travel in pairs, and a second helicopter was quickly on scene, saved Tammy Duckworth’s life.

She and her three crew members were lucky in another sense.

The rocket-propelled grenade which exploded in a burst of flame through the plexiglass floor of the cockpit near her feet, somehow did not cause the helicopter to combust.

Clinging to consciousness, but unable to use her legs to land the $6 million piece of machinery, she passed out.

After her co-pilot landed, he took a look at Duckworth.

Seeing her blackened face, slumped-over torso and torrents of blood gushing from her lower body, the immediate thought was that she was dead.

The second Black Hawk crew evacuated the living and the wounded and then used precious moments to retrieve what they thought was Duckworth’s corpse.

She was alive.

“I am no hero,” she recalled in her self-effacing fashion.

“The guy who carried me out of there? He’s the hero.”

Nearly seventeen years after the attack, the catch in her throat when she relives the nightmare conversationally, is palpable still.

Understandably so.

Had it been Vietnam or any other American war for that matter, she would have died.

But she arrived at the combat hospital in Baghdad 20 minutes later, well within the “golden hour,” when surgeons can save a life.

A few days later she was at Walter Reed in D.C.

Doctors worked to save what they could — there was some doubt initially as to whether or not she’d be able to keep her right arm — but there was no hope for her legs.

She felt her feet burning, and experiences this ghastly sensation every day, commenting that it feels as if she is walking on hot desert sand.

Phantom pain.

Not enough to hold her back.

Not even close.

When a call was placed to Walter Reed from Illinois senator Dick Durbin, asking if there were any wounded veterans from The Prairie State who would like to attend the State of the Union Address, Duckworth volunteered.

That evening Durbin shook her hand, gave her his card and encouraged her to call if she needed anything.

So she did.

Again and again.

But she wasn’t calling for herself.

Duckworth’s calls came flooding in on behalf of other veterans who needed things, like missing pension payments.

Durbin was suitably impressed by her tenacity of purpose.

Then he thought about it more organically, which led to the facts of the case.

“When I did the math later on, I realized she’d been injured only twelve weeks prior,” he recalled.

“I couldn’t believe what a positive attitude she had.”

A few months later, when Illinois’ longtime congressman, Henry Hyde announced his retirement, Durbin asked Duckworth to consider running.

And so it began.

She lost that first race, remained principled, stuck to her guns regarding cozying up to donors — she didn’t much care for it — and kept at it.

Six years later, she ran again and won.

Four years afterward, she ran against the Republican who had won Barack Obama’s old seat in the Senate, and won that race too.

When she took the oath of office, there wasn’t a dry eye in the chamber, including Durbin’s.

Today — this week in fact — Tammy Duckworth continues to show that fierceness, that tenacity.

There’s plenty of fight left in this dog, if you will.

Late last night (03/23), the White House agreed to add a senior-level Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) liaison, after Duckworth and fellow Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) vowed to vote ‘no’ on President Biden’s “non-diversity” Cabinet nominees, until this issue was addressed.

All 15 of Biden’s Cabinet secretary slots have been filled and there are no Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders among them, the first time in more than 20 years, a president’s Cabinet has not included at least one AAPI secretary.

Duckworth said that over the past six months, she has offered the White House the names of “many well-qualified AAPIs” for Cabinet positions, but those individuals “never even got a phone call.”

“At this point…they can call me and tell me what the proposal is,” she said of the White House.

“But until then, I am a ‘no’ vote on the floor on all non-diversity nominees. You know, I will vote for racial minorities and I will vote for LGBTQ. But anybody else, I’m not voting for.”

Mission accomplished.


The woman doesn’t know the meaning of “quit.”

Or how to do it.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in March 2021.]




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Peter J. Kaplan

Peter J. Kaplan

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