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Every Day is a Gift: A Memoir

It is one woman’s story of growth and achievement, comprised of innumerable personal and professional extremes, of opposing and contradictory experiences that took her to places, jobs and professions that she never ever could have imagined. Her life is like a complex Venn diagram or a mandala, with multiple overlapping layers. On the book jacket, beneath her name, she lists soldier, senator, mother. The life of a soldier propelled her on the road to becoming a senator and a mother.

She is biracial, multiethnic and multilingual. In 1989, from the University of Hawaii she graduated with a B.A. in political science. In 1992, from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, she received an M.A. in international affairs. She started a PhD program at Northern Illinois University and in 2015 completed a PhD in human services at Capella University. Her doctoral program was interrupted by war service in Iraq in 2004.

Yes, she is a war veteran and a highly decorated one, receiving a Purple Heart, and the Air Medal and Army Commendation Medal for having flown a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq in 2004. On November 12, 2004, co-piloting a Black Hawk, a rocket-propelled grenade hit her, and she sustained life-threatening injuries, which necessitated double-amputation of her legs, severe damage to tissue and bone in her right arm and fragment damage to her face. There are many miraculous details that she relates about this incident and her arduous road to recovery and healing. She does not remember the moment of impact, but one of her troops stated that throughout her evacuation from the war scene to a military hospital in Baghdad, and to The Landstuhl Regional Medical Center run by the United States Army, she never forgot her troops, and repeatedly asked, “Are you taking care of my men?"

Some other facts about Senator Tammy Duckworth and her family. Her mother is of Chinese descent but her family immigrated to Thailand during Mao’s ascent to power in China. Her mother’s first language is Teochew, the dialect spoken in Chaozhou, but is fluent in Thai. Her father is American, and as a biracial child growing up in Thailand, Duckworth suffered governmentally instituted discrimination, as well as cultural discrimination by Thai people and her mother’s family. She reminds us that in her father’s home state of Virginia, it was not until “ … June 1967, when the Supreme Court decided Loving v. Virginia, that people of different races were allowed to marry there--and even then, prejudice and racism against such relationships lingered.” She knows first-hand about prejudice.

Her family’s life veered from one of great privilege and economic security to extreme poverty and hunger.  In 1974 her father’s communication job for a United Nations Development Programme project took them to Phnom Penh, Cambodia where they lived in a house gated from the outside world, and from which they narrowly escaped the onslaught of the Khmer Rouge. Later her father was in charge of a gated community, Country Woods Estates, in Indonesia, but good luck ran out and she, her brother and father immigrated to Hawaii, leaving her mother behind because of insufficient money for her one-way ticket. Having grown up in a patriarchal family her father's word was not to be challenged. In Hawaii, he was too proud to take menial jobs, but Tammy was not. When her mother finally was able to rejoin the family in Hawaii, Tammy also understood that it was her mother who had an unerring sense for survival and had the sustained determination to do what was necessary to earn money for her family's well-being. Duckworth is candid and clear about what it is like to be the working poor:

"If you have no money, you can’t get an apartment.  If you don’t have an apartment, you can’t get a job.  You fall into a cycle that, once it starts, is nearly impossible to climb out of ... My family never worked as hard as when we were living at the poverty line. The notion that the working poor don’t need a living wage, or that they just need to work harder if they want to get ahead, is abhorrent. I can tell you from personal experience [She details that life.], that’s not how life works--even though a whole lot of politicians who’ve never lived in poverty themselves seem to think it is.”

Senator Tammy Duckworth does not spare us details about her life in all its joy and challenges: poverty, racism, sexism, meeting her soul-mate under the most unlikely circumstances, her life as a warrior, her love of flying combat helicopters, her arduous pain-filled recovery from injuries, her determination to walk, her determination to have children, who are beaming lights in her and her husband's lives.  There is humor and raw language that comes from the life of a soldier; there is appreciation for the women who created the pathways to advancement in the military, in medicine, in government, in her family. She also intends to, " ... keep going back, to work with the Iraqi people in hopes of rebuilding their country from the devastation of war. There's a piece of me there, both literally and figuratively, a tie that will bind me to that country forvever." She is a great human being, a leader to whom we can look for solutions to what may seem to be unchangeable conditions and problems.