On Nov. 12, 2004, shortly after her troop in the US National Guard had been deployed to Iraq, lieutenant colonel Tammy Duckworth was co-piloting a Black Hawk over Baghdad when she heard a hail of small-arms fire. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded directly beneath the cockpit where she was sitting. She immediately lost both of her legs.
She awoke in pain—and anger—11 days later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. Duckworth would later describe this place as the “amputee petting zoo,” due to the Bush administration officials who filed in for photo ops. But Dick Durbin, the Democratic senator from Illinois, didn’t just visit Duckworth—he invited her to president Bush’s 2005 State of the Union address. The double-amputee attended in uniform with an IV underneath.
“I couldn’t believe how energetic this woman was,” Durbin told Mother Jones. But for Duckworth, the experience was dissonant: “It was very emotional to go into that gallery and look down and see this democracy that I had just sacrificed for,” she says. “I was missionless. I was a helicopter pilot with no legs, and I was trying to find a way to serve my country.”
For the next few years, Duckworth served as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, launching a hotline for suicidal veterans and improving veterans’ access to healthcare funds and employment opportunities. Then, when Barack Obama took office, she was appointed as assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans, where she created an office of online communications and staffed it with respected military bloggers.
Then in 2011, she ran for Congress a second time, and won. She held her seat as US representative for Illinois’s 8th congressional district until 2017 when, on the same day Donald Trump was elected president, she became the first female amputee, the first person of Thai descent, and the first Asian-American Illinois representative elected to the Senate. And now she’ll be the first US senator to give birth while serving in office—which she thinks is “ridiculous.”
In an interview with Quartz, Duckworth explains the universal importance of paid family leave and why the best leaders stand up to authority.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
We should make national service and giving back to society a standard practice across the country. Americans come together to help those in need when disasters and emergencies strike, but it would be great if more Americans looked for ways to serve their community and country in and out of uniform on a day-to-day basis.
As Americans, we have so many privileges and things for which we should be thankful, and I think it’s important to give something back.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
Not letting failure destroy me or define me. When I haven’t been able to achieve a goal of mine, I always get back up, dust myself off, and try again.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
A policy that would help every woman—and every man and child, really every American—is universal paid family leave.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I wish I had known to trust my gut instinct more and not put so much faith in the advice of people who were my seniors.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
When I was wounded in Iraq, I realized my military career was at an end. But I found a different way to serve my country.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
I always start with the assumption that the other person loves this country as much as I do, and that they’re trying to do the right thing by the United States, too.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I ever received was the Army teaching me what it means to be a real leader. And that, sometimes, being a leader means standing up to authority. It’s an interesting thing to have learned from the military, which is such a hierarchical organization. But one of the fundamental tenets that they teach you as a young officer is that you have to stand up for what’s right, even if those above you are giving you orders that you know to be wrong.
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
To support universal family leave!
The mountain I’m willing to die on is…. that helicopter pilots are way cooler than airplane pilots.
I wish people would stop telling me… that it’s wrong to put ketchup on my hot dogs.
Everyone should own… a toolkit.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.