Tammy Duckworth, the Democratic U.S. senator representing Illinois, has emerged as one of President Trump’s most pointed critics, repeatedly pushing back at his attempts to portray her party as unpatriotic.
An Army veteran who lost both her legs while serving in Iraq, Duckworth has needled Trump about his draft deferments during the Vietnam War, giving him the nickname “Cadet Bone Spurs” for the foot diagnosis that allowed him to stay out of the military.
“I will not be lectured about what our military needs by a five-deferment draft dodger,” she said on the Senate floor in January after Trump blamed Democrats for a government shutdown and accused them of holding the military hostage.
So when Duckworth, 49, heard this week about Trump’s proposal to put on a grand military parade, she did not hesitate to voice her opinion.
“It’s a waste of resources,” she said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Washington. “Why would we spend hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to put on a parade like this when we have troops who are in harm’s way right now? Who don’t have everything that they need to execute their mission?”
Many troops below the rank of sergeant have families that qualify for food stamps, Duckworth said.
“I’d rather you take that money and send troops more bullets or send it to their families,” she said.
Earlier this week, she rebuked Trump when he called Democrats treasonous for not clapping during his State of the Union address
“We don’t live in a dictatorship or a monarchy,” she tweeted. “I swore an oath — in the military and in the Senate — to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, not to mindlessly cater to the whims of Cadet Bone Spurs and clap when he demands I clap.”
In fact, Duckworth said, some Democrats did clap.
“I was one of biggest clappers when he talked about paid family leave,” she said. “There were lots of points that I clapped for him.”
Duckworth — who wears two prosthetic legs, one calf adorned with a camouflage print and the other an American flag — may be best known as the first female double amputee veteran of the Iraq war. Yet she is also the Senate’s first representative of Thai descent and the first Asian American to represent Illinois in Washington.
Soon, another milestone is expected: Duckworth recently announced that she and her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey, an officer in the Army National Guard, were expecting their second child in April. That would make her the first U.S. senator to give birth while serving in office.
“It’s ridiculous that it’s the 21st century and it’s such a big deal,” Duckworth said. “It should have happened a lot sooner than this. I think it speaks to the fact they we need more women in leadership all across our nation, whether it’s in boardrooms or in the Senate chambers and at the very highest ranks of our military.”
Born in Bangkok, Ladda Tammy Duckworth grew up in a military household. Her father, Franklin Duckworth, was an American who served in the U.S. Army in World War II and Vietnam and then stayed in Southeast Asia to work with refugees for the United Nations, eventually meeting her mother, Lamai Sompornpairin, a Thai native of Chinese ethnicity.
After the family moved to Hawaii when she was a teenager, Duckworth’s father struggled to find work. The family survived on food stamps. Duckworth secured enough grants and loans to enroll in college and earn a master’s degree in international affairs at George Washington University. She then joined the Illinois Army National Guard while in graduate school for political science at Northern Illinois University.
In 2004, eight months after her unit was deployed to Iraq, Iraqi insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Black Hawk helicopter she was flying. It exploded near her feet, vaporizing her right leg and leaving her left leg shredded against the instrument panel.
“That day, I lost both of my legs, but I was a given a second chance at life,” she wrote in a 2015 essay for Politico. “It’s a feeling that has helped to drive me in my second chance at service — no one should be left behind, and every American deserves another chance.”
As she recuperated from multiple surgeries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland, Duckworth struck up relationships with a string of veterans who had gone on to political office, including former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Inspired, Duckworth went on to serve as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, where she helped create a tax credit for employers who hired veterans and introduced a national crisis hot line for veterans
In 2009, she became assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs, working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fight veteran homelessness and hiring a team of military bloggers to interact with veterans and improve the department’s accessibility.
Political observers say Duckworth, who flew helicopters in Iraq even though she thought the war was a mistake, is particularly well positioned to counter Republican attacks on the patriotism of Democrats.
“She has a kind of instant credibility in terms of speaking for veterans,” said Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “No one is questioning her patriotism, her expertise, her knowledge and her concern when she speaks out on those kinds of issues. That makes her a natural spokesman for the Democratic Party.”
When Duckworth ran for political office, her opponents struggled to find effective ways to attack her.
During her Senate campaign, her Republican opponent, then-Sen. Mark Kirk, tried to use her Thai heritage to counter her emphasis on her family’s U.S. military history, which stretches back to the American Revolution.
“I forgot your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington,” he said in a 2016 election debate.
The attack drew widespread criticism. Kirk swiftly apologized. But Duckworth ended up winning with 54.9% of the vote.
Four years earlier, another opponent, then-Rep. Joe Walsh, a tea party Republican, complained that Duckworth talked too much about her war record.
“Now I’m running against a woman who, my God, that’s all she talks about,” he said at a 2012 town meeting. “Our true heroes, the men and women who served us — it’s the last thing they talk about. That’s why we’re so indebted and in awe of what they’ve done.”
Duckworth beat Walsh with 54.7% of the vote to be reelected in 2014.
“She stared down the enemy in a war zone,” said Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley, a political mentor of Duckworth’s who represents the 5th District of Illinois. “It doesn’t surprise me that she stepped up when President Trump said things she disagreed with.”
Quigley said Duckworth is much more than Trump critic in chief.
“The Tammy I know is just hardworking and thoughtful and concerned about her district,” he said. “When I work with her, it’s mostly focused on Illinois and on practical issues.”
Before she was sworn in as a senator, Duckworth expressed hope that she could work with Trump.
“I am going to start off assuming that he loves this country as much as I love this country,” she told the Axe Files podcast. “If you start off from that point, I think you can learn to work with anyone.”
Does she still feel that way?
“I still hope every day that he will present real plans for things like infrastructure investment, that he will come up with real tangible plans for our military and the use of military force,” she said Wednesday. “But when he says things that are contrary to the oath that he took in front of the nation to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, I’m going to call him out on that. That’s my job.”
Jarvie is a special correspondent.