Democrat Tammy Duckworth made it to Congress on her second try, defeating freshman Republican Rep. Joe Walsh six years after losing to now-6th District Rep. Peter Roskam, also a Republican. A double-amputee veteran of the Iraq war, Duckworth was given prominent speaking slots at the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and again in 2012 to tell her unusual life story.
The daughter of a Vietnam War veteran father and a Thai mother, Duckworth spent much of her early life abroad, moving with her father’s jobs at the United Nations and, later, at international companies. Born in Bangkok, she lived with her family in Singapore and Indonesia before settling in Hawaii when she was 16. “Thank God for the food stamps, public education, and Pell Grants that helped me finish high school and college,” she said in her 2012 convention speech.
Duckworth studied marine biology at the University of Hawaii. After graduation, she came to Washington to pursue a master’s degree at George Washington University and to work at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. Her interest in Southeast Asian history, culture, and politics led her to doctoral work at Northern Illinois University, the same school where Burmese opposition activist Aung San Suu Kyi sent her sons to study.
In 1990, Duckworth joined the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at George Washington. Two years later, she became a commissioned officer, and during her training, met her future husband, Bryan Bowlsbey. Although she later said she opposed President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, she felt it was her duty to complete her military service.
Duckworth became one of the first Army women to fly combat missions in Iraq. She was copiloting a Black Hawk helicopter when a rocket-propelled grenade struck the lower half of her body; she lost both legs and suffered serious damage to her right arm. “They should have left me behind,” she recalled. While recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, she met then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who eventually called her to testify in front of his Senate committee.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, asked Duckworth to run for the House in 2006. After narrowly losing to Roskam—she says now she wasn’t fully recovered from her injuries at the time—she spent five years in state and federal government before giving elected office another try.
In 2011, she left her post as the assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs in the Veterans Affairs Department to run again for Congress. During redistricting, the 8th Congressional District in Illinois was redrawn to lean Democratic. With a primary endorsement from Durbin, Duckworth coasted to a victory over lawyer Raja Krishnamoorthi, winning 66 percent to 34 percent in the March 2012 primary.
Walsh, her general-election opponent, came to the House in 2010 on the national tea party wave and earned a reputation for outspokenness but also for gaffes. He made headlines for failing to make child-support payments to his ex-wife and for a tirade at a constituent meeting. In July, Walsh criticized Duckworth for using her military service as a political tool. “She is a hero, and that demands our respect, but it doesn’t demand our vote,” he told CNN, although he later softened his comments. The same month, National Journal ranked Walsh as the most vulnerable GOP incumbent; Democrats enlisted rock singer Joe Walsh to denounce his political namesake.