Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat who is making her second run for Congress, lost both her legs when her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade in 2004. Duckworth first ran for Congress in 2006, but lost to Republican Peter Roskam. Now, the EMILY’s List candidate looks poised to win her primary in the Illinois 8th, and the seat in November. A 48-year-old Iraq War veteran, Duckworth has based much of her platform on veterans’ advocacy—a cause that was sparked by her first-hand experience recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
I talked to Duckworth about a range of issues, but it was Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s comment about women in combat that sparked the greatest reaction. Duckworth, the daughter of a veteran, joined ROTC over 20 years ago, as a graduate student, and chose to fly helicopters because it was one of the few combat positions open to women at the time. She went on to become one of the first women to fly combat missions in Iraq, and if she wins in November, she will be the first woman in the House of Representatives to have combat experience. Based on her own experiences of combat and recovery, Duckworth has stressed the importance of taking care of America’s armed forces in all possible senses, from making sure that military spending on the ground is as efficient and effective as possible to ensuring that veterans come home to jobs and adequate mental health care. Awarded the Purple Heart for her service, Duckworth says that Santorum’s stance on women in the military is “completely out of touch.”
Chloe Angyal: If you win this race, you’ll be the first woman in Congress to have combat experience. What’s unique about your perspective as a woman who’s also been in combat?
Tammy Duckworth: I think that I have a very unique voice. I think that I can talk to how things are in combat, and I can identify issues that perhaps people would normally not talk about. For example, I think there was not enough discussion about whether or not we should invade Iraq, and I think that I can question any future decisions. Now, if you listen to the Republican presidential primaries, you’re hearing the drumbeats that we should invade Iran. Like anyone who’s served in combat—and there are fewer and fewer of us in Washington—I’ll be able to stand up with my peers to say, “Hey, we’ve got some questions, and you’re not going to question my patriotism.”
I think [my military experience] gives me a legitimacy as a woman that sometimes other women candidates don’t get. I think Hillary really had to earn her stripes: she served on the Armed Services Committee, but she really had to earn her stripes and get the respect and be recognized as being very knowledgeable on defense. I think that, as a woman, and especially as a combat veteran, I start from a place that many other female candidates don’t get to have, which is a position of strength, and I’m listened to far sooner than others.
CA: It’s interesting that even if a male candidate doesn’t have combat experience, he’s likely to be automatically granted that legitimacy simply by virtue of being a man.
TD: I think that has been the case traditionally. And I think that has been one of the challenges for female candidates: They’re told they shouldn’t use the word “fight,” and they’re seen as being aggressive when they’re not; they’re just being firm, and it’s viewed as a negative thing. But I can stand there and be firm and be seen as being firm and having the experience under my belt.
CA: The Pentagon recently reported that there’s been a 64 percent increase in the number of reported incidents of sexual violence in the military. A woman deployed in the US military is now more likely to be raped by a fellow American soldier than to be killed by the enemy. What do you think is the best way to respond to this crisis?
TD: Well, first of all, sexual assault is not acceptable in any arena, whether it’s in the military or the civilian world. I applaud the Pentagon for spreading the word, and as more women hear that others are having this experience, they are more likely to speak up instead of remaining silent and suffering. So I think that’s great. I think it’s great that women are reporting it more, whereas maybe 20 years ago they would not have been able to report it.
We need to care for these women, and on the Department of Defense side, we need to prevent military sexual trauma. So I think the more dialogue about it, the more we realize that it’s happening, the less stigma individual female and male service members have speaking up about their experiences. Because it’s not just happening to women; it’s happening to men as well.
CA: What would you say to a young woman who wants to serve her country in the Armed Forces but is aware of the statistical likelihood of being sexually assaulted while she’s serving?
TD: I think that the military is an incredible opportunity for anyone. It is a part of the American experience where a woman gets equal pay for equal work. I made exactly a hundred pennies to the dollar of my male counterparts—I didn’t make 80 cents on the dollar; I made exactly the same amount of money. I made equal rank. I was given tremendous opportunities. I became the first female commander of a Black Hawk unit in the Illinois National Guard. I was one of the first women to fly combat missions for the Army in Iraq. Those opportunities are there, and it makes military service one of the most rewarding because you get to serve your country.
But I would tell both men and women recruits that [sexual harassment and assault] is not acceptable behavior, and if it happens, you must use your chain of command to report it, and if your chain of command is dysfunctional, then you find someone else you can talk to, because there’s always someone you can report it to. And I did have instances where someone would come to me from outside of my unit and say, “Hey, I’m having this problem,” not always a sexual harassment issue, but they would come to me. So I would say that the opportunities are there for you to make your way, but you also have to be firm and trust in your own voice, and if sexual harassment happens, it is not acceptable, it is never acceptable, and you need to stand up to it.
CA: Rick Santorum made some controversial comments recently about women in the military. He said that women should be restricted from certain front-line combat positions because men will feel the biological urge to protect them, thereby threatening unit cohesion and endangering the mission. What’s your response?
TD: He’s wrong. He’s absolutely, 100 percent wrong. I think he’s playing to the basest, most inflammatory argument because he’s playing a political game. He’s trying to appeal to prejudice and basing it on false statements. If anything, women have shown in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that they are not only fully capable; they have excelled. They have saved many men’s lives. And it did not damage unit cohesion. And if Rick Santorum doesn’t believe that, then he can volunteer, enlist, put on a uniform, and put his butt on the line and try it himself. He’s playing politics. He is saying something inflammatory because he thinks he’s going to get a certain population to give him money, and it’s a shame because America’s daughters are just as capable of doing their jobs as America’s sons, whether that’s at home as doctors and attorneys or in combat as convoy commanders. This is the 21st century. Get over yourself.
CA: But like you said, people tend to get uncomfortable when women are combative.
TD: I have to tell you, the men I served with were not uncomfortable or nervous about me being aggressive. For most of my military career, 99 percent of my mentors were men, because there were not often women of higher rank than me in the units I was in. And my male mentors did everything they could to help me make my way in my career just as they did for other soldiers. So Rick Santorum is in the minority, and he’s completely out of touch. The men that I served with would go through anything to take care of their buddies, whether they were men or women. It has nothing to do with your gender and it has everything to do with camaraderie, the mission, and serving your country.
CA: Presumably a woman would feel the same emotional urge to protect whoever was in her unit regardless of their gender.
TD: Absolutely. Talk to Lee Ann Hester. She’s a National Guard Sergeant who was awarded the Silver Star, who led her squad, which had been ambushed. They repelled enemy attack; she led her squad, and they followed her, and they were able to repel the enemy. She’s just one of many examples.
CA: There’s been a push lately to get businesses to hire veterans. What would you do in the Illinois 8th district to make it easier for veterans to find work?
TD: I’ve been working for the last six years to put veterans back to work. We started way back in 2007 when we became the first state in the nation to provide a tax credit to employers who hired veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, or Desert Storm. It’s not very much; it was a $600 tax credit in the first year that you hire one of those vets, but we put hundreds of veterans back to work with that program. It rewards employers for hiring these vets, and that program has been expanded now. The tax credit is now at $1,200, and the Governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, whom I first worked with back in 2007 to get that tax credit put into place, is proposing to increase it even more.
We also need to work with businesses so that they understand the value of military men and women. These are people who, every day, guarantee the quality of their work with their lives. When I went out to my helicopter and my mechanic gave me the keys to my helicopter, he said, “Yes ma’am, I checked every oil level, I twisted every safety wire, that aircraft is ready to go.” He guaranteed the quality of his work as a mechanic with his life because he climbed into the back of that helicopter, where he had no access to the flight controls, and flew into combat with me. And I knew every time I took a helicopter up that it was in the best shape it could possibly be in, because he put his butt in that aircraft with me. And I don’t think that other than firefighters and police officers, there’s another profession where that’s done on a routine, daily basis. So I’d like to take my experience working at Veteran’s Affairs to get more veterans back to work, but also other people who are out of work as well.