Posted 09/17/2015 01:00PM

An Eagle Goes to Congress
Junia Baker



Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth speaking at The Democratic National Convention, September 6, 2012. Photo by Charlie Neibergall of the Associated Press.


Ms. Tammy Duckworth was elected to Congress in 2012, representing Illinois' 8th Congressional District. She promises, "Getting our economy back on track will be personal for me." If she pursues her goal with as much determination as she has faced and conquered the many challenges in her past, Ms. Duckworth will keep that promise.

Ms. Duckworth's story is incredible. She was born in Thailand and grew up in Southeast Asia with her brother Tom, her American father, and her Thai mother. Their expatriate life ended in 1985, when her father lost his job and they returned to the United States. There, she said, "We were able to rebuild our lives and achieve the American dream." Her mother took on sewing, Ms. Duckworth worked after school, and gradually, the family recovered. Ms. Duckworth's experiences influenced her beliefs throughout the years and were reflected in her campaign promise: "I will work to guarantee that every family has the opportunity to work for and achieve the American dream, just like my family did."

While studying for a master's degree in international affairs, she joined the National Guard and trained as a Black Hawk pilot. Military service is a long-standing tradition in her family, which has served in the Revolution, World War II, and in the Vietnam War. In 2004, while she was working on a doctorate in political science at Northern Illinois University, Ms. Duckworth was deployed to Iraq, where she served as commander of a 15-ship Blackhawk company and flew over 200 combat hours.

In November of that year, her helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. Ms. Duckworth lost both her legs and her right arm was severely damaged. During her long recovery, she says that the courage and friendship of other rehabilitating soldiers inspired her. She now views every day as a second chance, "an opportunity to live a life that is worthy of their (veterans') efforts. Knowing this time in my life is bonus time makes me more fearless. I am free to stand up for what I believe in and speak out for what I know is right for America."

Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 3, 2013, prior to the official opening of the 113th Congress. Photo by Cliff Owen of the Associated Press.


She became an advocate for her fellow soldiers and veterans' rights, and went on to serve as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, where she implemented many programs to address post traumatic stress and improve brain injury screening, as well as reduce homelessness among veterans. In 2009, she was appointed assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs by President Barack Obama and continued her advocacy for veterans' rights, especially for increased accessibility and accountability within the US Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2012, Ms. Duckworth ran for and won a seat in the US House of Representatives, representing the State of Illinois.

Ms. Duckworth had grit and leadership skills even before confronted with those life-changing experiences. She was an SAS Eagle in 1984 who played JV basketball and was on the varsity track team. Track coach Jim Baker remembers her well. "She was this pretty little girl with pigtails who came up to me and said she wanted to be a thrower. I was skeptical. Maybe discus and javelin, but shot putt? I told her to go for it, and she did. She practiced and practiced, after school and on weekends with her dad. She was determined to make the team, and she did, winning two individual medals at IASAS and helping her team win the championship. I think one reason I remember her so well, besides the fact that she made the team, is that she was one of a group of girls who laid the foundation of excellence in girls' track, which has won 17 championships over the years."

SAS history teacher Mike Imperi adds, "When I read about Tammy's heroic achievements, war injuries, and subsequent run for Congress, I was not at all surprised. She was always relentless in all of her pursuits and steadfastly determined to succeed at a high level. I also remember an infectious smile and a wonderful sense of humor."

Classmate Marina Cheng ('85) also remembers Ms. Duckworth well. "She was one of my closest friends in high school at SAS until she had to move away, as often families living overseas do," Marina said. "When we met, we really liked each other from the start. She was a clean-cut Asian girl who was very American, kind of like how I saw myself. Both of our mothers were Thai. She was fluent in Thai as well as English and had a Western air of confidence which she must have picked up from her father, who was formerly in the US military. She liked sports too. I thought she was very beautiful, being of mixed Thai-Caucasian descent with long wavy brown hair."

"Her mother was really strict and Tammy was not allowed out of the house in shorts above her knees," Marina adds. "That's difficult for Singapore's tropical weather, sports, and being a teenager—so she would change at my house into a pair of shorts she hid in her purse. "



One of Marina's favorite memories with Ms. Duckworth is traveling with her to Bangkok for IASAS. "We went dancing together in the Bangkok nightlife, and talked about how to meet this cute, shy guy who was on another IASAS team," she said. "I lost touch with her for many years until five or six years ago, when I saw her name again in some news and had to see if it was the Tammy I knew. I Googled her and found her campaign website for Illinois. After a random email, she replied and we found each other again! We met up in DC for some Thai food, and it was then I understood the extent of her war injuries. It broke my heart, and it still does as it would for anyone you care for a lot. But I can also see how she has become so much stronger by what she has had to overcome. She has incredible strength to pursue her missions, and I truly admire her for that."

Ms. Duckworth (@repduckworth on Twitter) is a true 21st-century woman with deep roots in Asia and the Pacific rim. Her heritage is Thai-American. She's a combat veteran and remains a major in the National Guard. She is engaged and involved in improving the lives of US veterans and citizens. And she's an Eagle.


* This article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Journeys. Since then, Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth has become the 2016 Democratic candidate to represent Illinois in the US Senate; Jim Baker, a SAS teacher and track coach quoted in this article has retired; and Mike Imperi, also quoted in this article, is now the head of Vail Mountain School, a private school in Las Vegas, Nevada. 

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