By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
SANTA MONICA — Illinois congressional candidate and Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth addressed an enthusiastic audience at Santa Monica College on Sept. 27, discussing her experiences and promoting greater inclusion of vets in higher education and the workforce.
One thing she did not talk about was her campaign. “This is purely a veterans’ trip. We need to keep politics out of this,” she explained.
Currently a lieutenant colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard, Duckworth was piloting a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq in 2004 when it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. She lost both legs and her right arm was severely damaged.
She has served as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and as assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2006, she ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic nominee in the 6th Congressional District.
Duckworth is now running in the 8th Congressional District against the Republican incumbent, Rep. Joe Walsh. She addressed the Democratic National Convention last month, stating that President Obama “will never ignore our troops.”
Dr. Chui L. Tsang, SMC president and superintendent, said that Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose) urged him to meet Duckworth when she visited Los Angeles a few years ago. “After I heard her story, my jaw just dropped. So since that time, the college has been working on getting Tammy here,” Tsang said, adding that she “may have been severely injured, but she is not disabled. Although she has lost both of her legs, she still stands tall.”
Duckworth, who was born in Thailand, said of her father, “His ancestors have worn the uniform of this great nation during every conflict going back to the revolution. So I’m a daughter of the American Revolution. But he grew up very poor during the Depression and at 15 some years lied about his age and joined the Marine Corps, landed on the beaches in Okinawa … He was immediately wounded and was out of the war.”
Her parents met while her father was serving in the military. When she was little, her father worked for a U.N. refugee program in Southeast Asia. “I grew up …watching my dad render humanitarian aid on the Thai-Cambodian border to Vietnamese refugees. In fact, I was in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh, until about two weeks before the Khmer Rouge took over … My image of America as a child growing up was this amazing nation that was out doing such good works around the world, opening hospitals, building schools and being a leader of the free world, and I carry that in my heart to this day.”
Duckworth experienced poverty when her father lost his job at age 55. The family of four lived in a one-room apartment in Hawaii and depended on food stamps, she recalled. “I was on school lunch and school breakfast programs, and sometimes those 25-cent breakfasts and lunches were the only meals I ate for the day.” One of her teachers at McKinley High School would sometimes buy her dinner.
She got her first job, “harassing tourists … handing out flyers on Waikiki Beach to get people to take dinner cruises” and working for minimum wage. But things picked up after that. “I was able to pursue my own American dream with Pell Grants, student work-study, student loans. I was able to go to college, and I was later on able to earn my commission into the military as a graduate student.
“I chose to fly helicopters because it was the only combat job open to women in the early ’90s when I joined the Army, and I just thought it was unfair that men had to face combat and females did not … So I volunteered for flight training and it turned out that I was very well suited to be a helicopter pilot.”
She stressed that “my story … could not have happened in any other nation … Someone could go from walking to school hoping to find 25 cents on the ground … to commanding an assault helicopter company.”
To vets re-entering civilian life, Duckworth said, “The experiences of your past military service … may have hurt you, and you may carry pain with you, but they make you better … The thing about being in the military is that everyone is a leader … You should always be able to pick up the rifle of the person in front of you who has fallen and carry on with the mission. Our men and women in uniform do this every single day. They learn how to take charge, they learn how to plan and execute, they learn how to look forward and troubleshoot.”
She added, “They have, at one point in their lives, guaranteed the quality of their work with their lives. Other than our brothers and sisters in the firefighting and police forces, no one else does that. When my crew chief handed me the keys to the helicopter … she climbed into that seat behind me, where she had no access to the flight controls, and guaranteed the quality of the maintenance that she had performed on that aircraft with her own life.”
To honor those who risked their lives to serve their country, Duckworth urged everyone to “give something back” by volunteering. “We have VA hospitals all across this nation … Go help push a World War II veteran in his wheelchair to his next appointment, and gain the benefit of talking to him about his service.” She also suggested organizations such as the Peace Corps and Habitat for Humanity.
Citing her own war experience, she said, “We may disagree on politics … but we need to set aside the divisiveness and work together. I’m reminded of my battle buddies. I didn’t make it home on my own. There’s no earthly reason why I’m alive, standing in front of you today, other than my buddies were not willing to leave me … Instead of running for safety … they came back and carried me out. For me, that is a symbol of America because we don’t leave people behind in this country. We do take care of each other.”
Duckworth also discussed problems with veterans’ services, noting that when she first started at the state veterans’ affairs office, Illinois was 49th out of the 50 states in terms of benefits and programs for vets. “After the three years that I spent there, working across all levels of government and public-private partnerships, we were able to elevate Illinois to the top two in the nation.”
Funding veterans’ programs in California is even more of a challenge because it is “one of the few states that is in worse budgetary trouble than Illinois,” but what worked there might work here, she said.
At the federal level, she continued, claims for benefits are slowed down by efforts to catch the small percentage of cheaters. “We’re punishing the 95 percent who wait months and years and have to constantly fight for every percentage of disability … If you are more than 30 percent disabled, you get to go to VA for your health care … It puts veterans into this very demeaning process. This is no way to treat our nation’s heroes.”
Duckworth praised VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a Vietnam veteran, who “has really changed the VA system significantly … I’ve seen VA go through a remarkable transformation. Secretary Shinseki is probably the most transformative leader that the VA has had in a very long time.”
She added that Obama has ordered the VA to use a new computer program to do the claims adjusters’ work much more quickly. “I think you see that commitment with this administration … but it’s a large battleship that we’re trying to turn.”
Duckworth received a plaque from SMC Student Veterans’ Association President Christian O’Donnell and was given a standing ovation. After taking questions from the audience, she took some time to meet students individually before leaving for her next engagement.