Born in Thailand, a high school student in Hawaii, and blown out of the skies over Iraq, Hoffman Estates resident Tammy Duckworth on Tuesday continued an unlikely journey through life when she was chosen by the people of Illinois to represent them in the United States Senate.
Duckworth defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, a former military intelligence officer who had suffered a stroke in 2012 and spent a year in rehabilitation. Some attributed Kirk’s defeat to the continuing challenges he faced recovering from that stroke.
The contest between Duckworth, 48, and Kirk, 57, was targeted early on by the Democratic Party as one it could win and key to taking Senate control away from Republicans.
“Historically it is nearly impossible for a Republican to win a statewide race in Illinois during a presidential election year due to the strong Democratic voter turnout in Cook County and particularly Chicago,” said Jason McGrath, vice president at GBA Strategies, who does political polling in the Chicago area.
His assessment was supported by former Illinois Republican Party chairman Pat Brady and Kirk’s own campaign manager, Kevin Artl, who both remained optimistic that Kirk would prevail early on election day despite the odds.
Artl refused to blame any negative “Trump effect” — Illinoisans disdain for presidential candidate Donald Trump; Hillary Clinton carried the state Tuesday — noting that Kirk had staked out a path as a moderate who often bucked his own party, the sort of position that has often proved popular with independent voters in this state.
Artl also refused to attribute Kirk’s defeat to a key error during the final debate between the Senate candidates when, after Duckworth said her family had a proud military tradition dating back to George Washington, Kirk replied, “I had forgotten your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve with George Washington.”
Kirk later apologized, but received widespread criticism for the mistake.
Duckworth’s win was another for the history books. She previously made history by becoming the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress from Illinois in 2012, the first disabled woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first member of Congress born in Thailand.
One of those success stories that seems uniquely American, she is the daughter of a Thai mother with Chinese ancestors. Her father, a U.S. Army veteran, worked for the United Nations and international companies and was assigned to various posts in Southeast Asia.
That’s how Duckworth came to be born in Bangkok, Thailand.
After graduating from the University of Hawaii in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Duckworth traveled to the mainland U.S. and George Washington University, where she would receive a master’s degree in international affairs.
While a graduate student at George Washington, she joined the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and was commissioned an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve in 1992. She chose to fly helicopters for the Army because it was one of the few combat jobs open to women.
Pursing a doctorate degree, Duckworth enrolled as a Ph.D. student at Northern Illinois University which is when she was called up for duty in Iraq as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot for the Illinois Army National Guard. Her helicopter was hit by a shoulder launched missile, resulting in the amputation of both legs and partial only use of her right arm.
Duckworth was eventually appointed director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs by Gov. Rod Blagojevich and later an assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs by President Obama.
In her victory speech, Duckworth recalled that 12 years ago she began a day flying high and ended up lying in the Iraq desert. She survived, she said, only because of her crew mates.
Speaking of those crew mates, she vowed, “Just as I live every day trying to live up to the sacrifices my buddies made to carry me off that battlefield, I will go to work in the Senate seeking to honor the sacrifice and quiet dignity of those Illinoisans who are facing challenges of their own.”