Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s memoir, ‘Every Day is a Gift,’ charts the incredible path of a ‘poor mixed race girl’
In her new book, Duckworth writes about her father’s struggles, living in poverty, becoming a helicopter pilot, her shootdown and loss of legs, and her path to the U.S. Senate.
WASHINGTON — Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s memoir, “Every Day Is a Gift,” is the inspirational story of a “poor mixed race girl” who grew up in Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore and Hawaii, found her identity as an Army aviator and after half her body was blown up when her helicopter was attacked in Iraq, she plunges ahead, saying of her loss, “they’re just legs.”
With all that moving around — plus picking up a master’s degree at George Washington University in D.C., where she signed up for Army ROTC — an unmoored Duckworth never had a sense of home until the day she drove her yellow Dodge Charger to DeKalb, to check out a Ph.D. program at Northern Illinois University.
“From the moment I drove into Illinois that day in 1991, I felt like I belonged there. The cornfields, the prairies, the people — all of it felt calming and familiar,” she writes in her book, obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times and scheduled for release on Tuesday.
Duckworth’s captivating account takes us through her hardscrabble life, becoming a helicopter pilot, the bloody details and excruciating pain after her helicopter was shot down, and the twists of fate — of which I turn out to be an unknowing pivotal player — leading her to Congress.
While much is known about the basic biography of Duckworth, a Democrat — the Illinois Army National Guard officer lost both legs and shattered her right arm when her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq on Nov. 12, 2004 — the backstories of her relentless drive to rise above adversity are useful to know when we think we are having a bad day.
Duckworth’s story is about her personal journey and is not a political or policy tome.
Her mother, Lamai, who will be 80 in April, was raised in Thailand, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Her father, Frank, who died in 2005, is a white man from Virginia, whose family roots stretched back to before the American Revolution. She was born in Thailand and writes about dealing with discrimination there because she was a biracial kid. “My Thai cousins made it clear that they felt superior to me.”
After serving in the Marines and U.S. Army Reserve and then working as a civilian employee for the Army in Thailand, Frank Duckworth ditches his first family in the U.S. to start a new life abroad. He was still wed when her mother agreed to marry him.
When she was 3 or 4, she wrestled with abandonment fears when her father was ordered to Fort Sheridan, outside of Chicago in Lake County, for a one-year tour of duty. He decided to leave his family — by now she had a younger brother, Tom — in Thailand.
“I jumped up and ran into the kitchen,” Duckworth writes, after being told her father was leaving. “I opened the cabinet under the sink to make sure we had enough rice to survive, in case Dad didn’t come back, and was relieved to see a 40 pound bag there.”
Her family in her Hawaiian teen years was so poor that a postage stamp was an “extravagance.” Her family survived in part because of her “side hustle,” handing out flyers to tourists on Waikiki Beach.
As an adult, she recognized her truth: Her father was “a pretender” who was “ill equipped to take care of us.” He did, however, pass on the Duckworth family gene for military service, with every Duckworth serving since this nation was founded. She retired as a lieutenant colonel after 23 years in the Illinois Army National Guard.
Duckworth, 53, of suburban Hoffman Estates, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016 after two terms in the U.S. House. She owes her political career to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who first recruited her to run.
She made history on April 9, 2018, when, at age 50, she became the first sitting senator to give birth. Maile Pearl Bowlsbey is the second child for Duckworth and her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey, whom she met when she was in ROTC. She joined sister Abigail O’kalani Bowlsbey, born Nov. 18, 2014, when Duckworth was in the House.
Duckworth told me in an interview it took her about a year to write her book. “I did a lot of it sitting in bed next to Abigail. She fell asleep, and then I would sit there and work on it.”
She kicked around different ideas for a book, but after she had her daughters, Duckworth said, “I really wanted to write a love letter to them and to my country.”
Abigail is old enough to be asking her mother, Duckworth said, “why did you do that so you could lose your legs? Why did you go? . . . Couldn’t other people go?”
Duckworth said she wanted her daughters “to have something they could read and understand why I did what I did in the military and why I would go back and do it all over again.”
Her anger jumps off the page when it comes to the bum advice she got from the first fertility doctor she consulted.
That doctor, affiliated with a Catholic hospital — Duckworth withheld the name — told her “IVF wasn’t an option” for her.
Strangely for this fighter, Duckworth accepted this and concluded that at age 44 she would never have children.
Enter Chicago lawyer Judy Gold, a political activist and fundraiser who was relentless in pushing Duckworth to consult with Dr. Edmond Confino, a fertility specialist at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “For six months, she kept on me,” Duckworth writes, eventually deciding with Bryan “it can’t hurt to ask.”
She was stunned when Confino told her the first doctor did not tell her about procedures that could help her conceive because that advice “might violate the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
She felt “searing anger,” was “infuriated” and “felt dumb.” After all her dealings with doctors, it “just never occurred to me that any medical professional would withhold crucial health care information.”
Her road to politics started when Duckworth was recovering from her wounds at a military hospital in D.C.
Durbin was looking for wounded warriors from Illinois to be his guests at the 2005 State of the Union address. Duckworth threw herself into prep to be strong enough to attend.
I covered the news conference Durbin held with Duckworth and another Illinois soldier before President George W. Bush’s speech.
The questions from other reporters, Duckworth wrote, were nothing “terribly hard hitting.” And then, Duckworth writes, I asked her reaction to the antiwar protests taking place at the time, given she lost her legs fighting in that war. Her answer to my question — that she was fighting to “protect their right to protest” — caught Durbin’s interest.
“And much later, he would tell me that was the first moment he thought I could run for public office.”
Duckworth keeps a combat boot in her Senate office. It’s a metaphor for the essence of the book, that the “lowest moments can lead to the highest heights. It reminds me that every day is, indeed, a gift.”
I asked Duckworth how she identifies herself today: military aviator, senator from Illinois or mother?
Replied Duckworth, “Broken down old helicopter pilot is what I always say.”