Ep. 106 - Tammy Duckworth

Update: 2016-12-19


Tammy Duckworth, the U.S. Senator-elect from Illinois, talks with David Axelrod about her childhood in Southeast Asia, the harrowing day in Iraq when the helicopter she was co-piloting came under attack, her concerns with Donald Trump’s reliance on the military to fill Cabinet posts, and what she hopes to accomplish in the U.S. Senate.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at today the the the the and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod the the uh of all the people that I've met in public life if you have as remarkable a story is Tammy Duckworth the newly elected senator from Illinois raised overseas she's dealt with issues of poverty in her life she enlisted in the military was gravely injured in Iraq and fought her way back to become a champion for veterans and a distinguished public servant I sat down with Tammy in Chicago the other day to talk about that journey and where America is today the the the Tammy Duckworth welcome first I should congratulate you on your election as senator from Illinois seat held by none other than Barack Obama at one point and congratulations on that you were as you are survivor and you survived another storm I did think for having me on acts could be a let me let me before we talk about contemporary stuff I don't know that many people know your whole story and is an amazing story so let's start from the beginning and your folks and that and you're your early years that I cope and Southeast Asia my dad was some multiple warm and he comes from a long line of military service and he ended his Army career in nineteen seventy to seventy three I think with his second tour of duty in Vietnam so his first tour of duty was fairly early and he had had switched to reserve status panic nineteen sixty seven sixty eight and after his so there was a quite the action the right did he see action in Vietnam to DC oh he never talked about it ah he really would never talk about his military service tool to me and I or my brother he only talked a little bit about it later on in life to my husband is also a career military man who's also a career military man so I found a lot about what my dad in the service including his time at the end of World War Two from my husband much later he never talk to me about it but I think that was I think he he's the last vestiges of that were to generation he just may just don't talk they just do it and he was one of these kids who lied about his age and then ran away from home on the summer's runaway trend away from he grew up dirt poor in I literally join the Marines because it gave him clothes and shoes and food and so he ended up literally I think probably the last week or two for two but he was wounded and he got the Purple Heart as far as you know we now and so he just didn't talk about it he just did it and I after his service ended in Vietnam he ended up staying in Southeast Asia where he worked various projects but his military career as a signal officer so during the Korean War he served in France for example and he was re wiring France putting up telephone lines for the Army and he did the same thing in Southeast Asia so posed what made him decide to stay there after his first tour of duty came back to the US and got spit on and caught a baby killer and for someone who served his entire life in the military income came from a family that served just about every generation going back to the civil to the on the Revolutionary War has had a member of my family in uniform he felt deeply betrayed he had been married before his for his children his first marriage were in college they caught him a baby killer and so he left and he swore he'd never come back to the states he was painting yeah he was incredibly patriotic incredibly patriotic incredibly love this country but he just wasn't it was such a deep hurt for him because I grew up I was a teenager during that period all of that I the contempt with which returning service people were held by those who oppose the war the e we didn't see that this time I mean and your comrades came back from from erratic and others from Afghanistan now you know you go to a ballgame and veterans are introducing the entire stadium stands and applauds it's if it's fundamentally different it's fundamentally different and I make it a point anytime I need a Vietnam vet to thank him for it because that's they're the ones who taught this country to love her warriors even if you don't love the war and was a Vietnam vet who did that and so my dad went to work in that nation's refugee programs and development programs in Asia and is that how immature he met my mom during his service so met her in like sixty five sixty six had me in sixty eight of gym shoes shoes ties his tie a shoe styles he was going back and forth between Vietnam and Thailand and Laos even though officially we're not in Laos so he was doing a lot of that and calm and fell in love with her in and came back him Got married man was she doing at the time she was working and my her parents I guess they had a little general store of some sort that her her family owned and he just hung around and scared away all of the local local sewer so there he was only one leftists this American and she ended up marrying happens sell enough for me I always joke with Vietnam vets that I'm the product of American GIS going on R and R So you and you and you grew up in Asia as well I did to so I crapped all over Southeast Asia Amen my dad because you are for the UN Development program's and refugee programs at various times it meant that I was in Cambodia in two weeks for the Khmer Rouge took over he brought us everywhere left in the last commercial flight out my earliest so my earliest childhood memories are sitting on a rooftop in non pedophile building watching bombs going off across the river I was the due process that while my parents try to make it exciting and not so scary and so we watch that racers from the bombs and fire fights and ice if there were fireworks and my dad taught us to not be scared of it but our home mine was guarded by armed soldiers and I remember going with my mom to the market and certainly being shoved onto the floor board not knowing why and it turned out that on the market had been bombed and they were mass casualties everywhere she wants to see but I watched Tom Penn devolved from this beautiful colonial city into chess or wreckage and know some of my earliest memories as a child and I live in Indonesia for over seven years eight years Singapore Thailand back and forth my dad by this point was working for multinational corporations and it took him losing his job and us going through my folks life savings I mean he literally refused to come back to the states until we had no money left whatsoever and that's when we finally came back to the States and was he was he unhappy about that that you had to come back I think sell I think so I think but what he got back from that nation to change so much from when he bent back here and in the sixties by the time we came back it was the late eighties and was such a fundamentally different country and that he settled right in and he settled right into the veteran community calm and really I think felt accepted he helped found the American Legion Post in Centerville Virginia where where where he and my mom ended up living for awhile so I think he reconciled a little what for you of what was it like to come here after spending so much of your childhood there it was surreal it was surreal because here was an American citizen a grownup American I went to American schools the Singapore American School International School Bangkok Jakarta International School All American style schools but yet never lived in the state so while I was home and I felt made if I also fell in many ways they can immigrate there so much new that I didn't know about how to use coin operated pay phones and food and all sorts of stuff say was really interesting A It was both belonging not belong at the same time and what did you um I'm interested you know I talk to the president about him because he spends as you know part of a child in Indonesian what do you think it did for you as you look back in terms of you how you look at the country that you lived overseas and saw other countries and their challenges to make u did to heighten your sense of pages to give you a different view of the United States and perhaps you would have if you are grown up here I think it definitely Ted and I think because my dad for the refugee programs in the United Nations programs of my patriotism I mean it it gave me a level patriotism that I don't think it's core up with here today now I was so proud to be an American David to follow my debt into refugee camps and and see American Peace Corps volunteers bringing in aid an American flag my dad bringing aid to two refugees as Vietnamese boat people fleeing the country and the Cambodians are fleeing communism allow oceans and and they're all trying to get to the U S An and I It really inform who I am today because America just lost a war and I saw power and no country that was not military base I saw of power that we had that was based on ideals and our values and who we are as a people and that was really um shown by the work that our Peace Corps volunteers are doing and how diplomats and U S A I T in all of that and people want to be like this and even as I was growing up in the eighties overseas people wanted to do business with Americans they wanted to send their kids to American schools and it just makes you so proud and I'm so proud of my country and then I came back home and I wanted to serve and I thought it was an ace serve either in the Peace Corps or the Foreign Service and so it's really interesting to see definitions of American patriotism today and to be very much on was a militant one I guess um well a native and native this year I was in that regard what were you well received when you when you came here or did you see signs of of hostility toward you as someone who is viewed is you know you identified as American you are you you you know others may have thought of us as an immigrant because you probably when you are overseas we speak English in the home I spoke Thai to Iowa's eight and the home and then I started going to American schools and I spoke English so I spoke with this accent but my dad did a really intelligent thing Bo from in terms of not fully doing it and also because we were desperately poor me had no money was he moved as to why he was That is why firsts and he just felt that that was the best place to take his kid says American kids who can be the best assimilation for us eyes as being Asian Americans and so i din few outside because everybody in hallways is a multicultural society and its its dominant by Asians and and and so I never felt that mom but we also ended up there because all the money in the world we have left only bought us three one way plane tickets to away from Thailand and then when I really felt different was when I started going to graduate school and I were George Washington and I came out to Illinois next for the first time in my life I was minority and they never been a minority group in Asia asian half asian babe in a minority I was admiration awe but listen to different I spoke the language and everything so you mention that the UK is the struggle of those is serious those are serious issue and you've spoken about this so this is not groundbreaking to say but you you survive with food stamps and some of the supports that were of the government extended Hello how did your how did your dad process that par he was deeply ashamed he was deeply ashamed that he needed to be on food stamps is deeply ashamed that he had to get help from charities get reductions of our Great Depression he went to college on the GI Bill but he had made something of himself into an up back where he was or even many ways he thought worse because he dragged his kids and his family into it with them was it was devastating to me it just struck to the heart of who he was a person I think this is something that is mist which is we speak about jobs as an economic issue but we should define ourselves by what we do have and so there you know there's issue of dignity and self worth and this is how you measure oneself and if you can find work it's it's corrupting to the soul it's damaging to the soul yes it is but they never gave up my parents so what have they had you had they worked their way out of that I slowly I while we were on food stamps in and we were hungry I worked after school and in high school I was only one who had a job my mom took in sewing she did alterations for high end boutique and a shit done it's ironic because she started life as a child laborer sewing hats in and in a factory in Asia in Thailand and she ended up you know that's how we end up surviving was with her sewing my dad got a job for tips only as a doorman for a department store and he would wander around trying to find calm in a way there's a grocery store kind of like an oldie here wear it to use a shopping cart you have to put iodine into their shopping cart when you return it to get the time out he would wander around trying to find a shopping cart to return to the nearby grocery store I could find ten of them could find a dollar in one day out of the pay phones the ten cents a dime or whatever that he knew his two kids would eat the next acres School Lunch and scooper for twenty five cents each meal for the two of us so fifty cents apiece and he knew his kids would at least get a meal the next day and two males and so he was so painful to think about what he must of been healing yet he skipped my OCD need so that we would eat and there's a level of desperation you don't understand until you see a proud man who served his country for as long as my dad did um except ally from his daughter for me from his kid and knowing that we both knew it was a lie and that is I would save my milk and my apple or something from my school lunch and bring it home and say Oh Daddy I wasn't hungry or the kid next we din really wan eat his and you want to hear sex from which to drink milk and sometimes that melted that Apple was all my dad ate that day he would accept it and he would accept that lie and then we both knew full well that I've been skipping meals for him he was skipping meals for me and then did he find ultimately find better work he did so what he did was he uses veterans preference and got a job at the Department of U S Department of Agriculture where he stood on a chicken plant assembly line at pre processing plant and it and inspect it and inspect it at the USDA inspections as the chickens went flying by on a conveyor belt that so they ended up in back in Virginia icy icy and so talk about your decision to to to join the reserves up waste out of left field a bit really I thought I was going to go be an ambassador I wanted to join the Foreign Service so I ended up at George Washington and the International Affairs program because I knew they had the highest grade you um pass rate for this foreign service exam in nineteen ninety I was going to school there and I was in my classes in the Berlin Wall was coming down watching Kate's Czechoslovakia was fleeing for the border on those trains when the Chess School at the training that the borders open man and I look around in my classes and I realize that the people that I knew and got along with the most are either veterans who served or were people who were in the current National Guard or reserves officers currently and they encourage me to try ROTC they said look the one Jennifer answers you don't have to get a commission but you should know what America's military power does what is neat o What's the Warsaw pact what's going to happen to the Warsaw Pack and you need to understand the difference between a division in a platoon that you know and I and so I said okay and i had just been laid off from a job site the summer free and I went off to Basic Training I fell in love with you are or what is your you fell over the way the with the Army this predates fall in love with your husband yes the What is your dad say when you told them that you are you going to do this you can make it concise and Deanna make it and he never said a word more and tell my commissioning and he showed up with gold plated second lieutenant bars for me and you never said anything again until I was in Iraq and then I found out that he had been sending my pictures in my hse my letters home to the local newspaper but he never talk to me about it he just asked me to thinking to make it so he said would you say that I think so handsome and do my best that he does you feel challenged by him know I felt that I could never and I was never good enough I felt that I could never make him proud of me and he never said he was proud of me and tell after I lost my legs and just a couple weeks before he passed away we were in the hospital together at Walter Reed he had a heart attack I'm just not long before I been wounded and then he came to visit me and the next day after he showed up he had a heart attack and so he was checked into the cardiac ward was a treat I was an amputee ward and I came down and showed him my new prosthetic for one of my legs and he said You know I am proud of you saw any time he ever said that in order that mean to you everything I had to go from The Sacred To The profane but I got to take a small break here so we're right back with Senator elect Tammy Duckworth rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender it's important to work with someone you can trust leisure best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision skip the bank of the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty years jumped a little bit ahead in the story but um you talk about how you advanced in your career in the reserves and your decision to go to erect this really was your decision it was my decision well mostly like seventy percent my decision I so I got my commission and I chose to apply to fly helicopters and I got to do that and I switch from the Army reserves to the National Guard and was an Army reserves for while flying out of all Naval Air Station Glen View for about five years and when all of that shutdown and then you shut down my Army Reserve unit decommissioned and so I switch I moved over to the Illinois National Guard and I was just a graduate student working my PhD student that dream that someday manager in a foreign service and go work in our embassies in and in an ROTC and I got a job and Rotary International in Evanston know helping wrote errands around the Southeast Asia actually my meimei territory was Asia and stew in the reserves us to flying my thing in the National Guard ship traveling to Asia from I was right was my wise and I win the war happened and I fit oh you know and I had just been in command of my National Guard unit in midway I was in command on nine eleven I personally was in on my liver was in Scotland on vacation and I came back within forty eight hour sound but I was the commander I had been planned for two years and I got extended by another year and I just left command when my unit got mobilizing isn't on that note and so I left America to go to Iraq yeah we had got mobile ice we can mobilize and I may of two thousand and three and we well I was in command and then we stood back down over the summer and then I left command at the end of October and in November we got the note that the unit was going and I had been moved out of the unit and I called my boss and I said Sir you have to take me There's No Way That You Can't Take Me Out to anything please take me a lot of the unit and more but you've got to taking why did you do that those are my guys I train them for three years as their commander I knew from the minute nine eleven happened that we were something was going to happen I never dreamt that was Iraq Afghanistan and I didn't want to be the one officer standing at the airport saying goodbye to my guys I didn't believe in the war in Iraq I didn't think was are even then even then even then I never said it outloud in my unit I had those private conversations at Rotary when I talk to my colleagues there I felt that we invaded a sovereign needlessly and we should have been pursuing the war in Afghanistan destroying our enemies who dare to attack us there I felt that Iraq was a van a personal vendetta of the Bush family um but you know my my country had elected president the Supreme Court has said he was president he said this what he wanted us to do as commander in chief and the United States Congress voted on it and set this is what it wants to do I believe so purely in the primacy of the civilian over the military that I said OK I'm going to go I want to pursue your journey should eschew this at just one on behalf of you has been primed to clarify that you were talking about fall in love with the army first yes but tell me what you loved about the military discipline and a pure meritocracy for the organization from the first day that I should have it didn't matter if I was male or female it didn't matter that I was Asian in overseas aid in any of that mattered it just mattered if I could do the job after I was willing to do the job and if I was willing to stand up for my buddies next to me n when you are miserable you were miserable together and when things went well you were part of the unit and Andy this overwhelming patriotism of serving my nation that I am putting on her uniform and I'm swearing to defend her with my life and so you go I go and most EU your coordinating flying missions so had to come to be that you were flying them as well so was the assistant operations officer we needed every pilot who could fly to be flying at first I started flying once a week on missions and I I begged and pleaded and my boss said OK to fight twice to be weak and sometimes three times a week and so I feel what you want to fly because I love flying I love being part of the best part being part of the crew is is the most part this cohesive unit it's it's you want to be with you guys and you're you don't want anyone to face danger and you not face the same danger here so you have to take the same dress it's why I will tell you that I wore my recollections of working for the president was we made trip to Afghanistan and we landed and we we landed we flew into Kabul and the It was at night and there were four Gunners had in all corners of the chopper who are happy with night vision glasses to to repel any attacks that came did you take on foot before the flight on which you were shot down had you taken hostile fire um I personally once before and I think it was an RPG is well we had one go off and not too far from us but that was my from my personal first time when we actually were hit I was going up north to its Rubio towards Kirkuk and her bail when we took the last one and I was fairly early on I was probably the first four months I was there this is within my lap I mean we're getting ready to come home when I was at November we do to come home in the spring so we were you know the first but the first time that you are by the RPG the not the one that took you down what was your what was the scent that like when you realize that was there was a close call it wasn't that close to us I mean you could see it right there I didn't hear it in him to not have the cell we flew pass and boom there's a thing or should that was a RPG hit our peak we are PG going off Elm and the flowing you know in lots of times when there were some black pumps that happened to that which is just basically that the fire arms fire that happened here but for the most part our missions were pretty routine and quiet down our unit had taken had seen any flying into a bouquet of how we often got reports of guys taking small arms fire at them mainly because of the way it's situated in order to come in you get to come low and slow and Yuri are sitting ducks for the song Fire now is the infamous prison yet I flew to Abu Ghraib myself a couple times we didn't take any none that we noticed but there was definitely heighten mission whenever we get that talk about the mission of that in which your head it was during the second battle for Fallujah and in fact Matt Da Matta said was that the commander then and wait for the Marines that belief at that thing at that same time period and I was his reputation and moon you want to go in and you want to find and destroy the enemy and kill them he's your guy so mad dog was just kind of affectionate now we learn that he earned that I learned you know since me and Congress does he's testified before he retired man multiple times and for the arm Services Committee that I thought that I'm on I also learn to appreciate his scholarly aspect he's quite the scholar as well on the way I could see that in this testimony I appreciated it I disagree with him on a lot of things when it comes to he doesn't think women should serve in combat and on at the key
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Ep. 106 - Tammy Duckworth

The Axe Files with David Axelrod