Rep.-elect Duckworth: ‘At least in combat they gave me body armor and bullets’

Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran and lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, will become the first woman injured in combat to serve in the House of Representatives. She said her experiences and recovery helped give her the “courage” to run for office.

“For me, it’s just the knowledge that my very worst day from now on, it’s never going to be as bad. It’s never going to be as bad as having somebody shoot an RPG at me. It’s never going to be as painful and searing as that year I spent in the hospital,” Duckworth said.

Duckworth’s stay at Walter Reed Army Medical Center also put in motion her entrance into politics. Just a few weeks after arriving at the hospital, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin (D) invited Duckworth and several other patients to attend the 2005 State of the Union address.

“He made the mistake of saying, ‘Anything, any help you need, just give me a call’ and gave me his phone number,” she joked.

At the time, Duckworth was the highest-ranking service member recovering at the now-shuttered Walter Reed, which she said was “under-resourced” and plagued by administrative “snafus” during her time there.

Patients began to look to Duckworth for advice, and she and her husband became unofficial advocates for the patients and their families, repeatedly calling Durbin for assistance.

After about nine months of phone calls, the Illinois senator “challenged” Duckworth to run for elected office herself.

“[Durbin] said, 'You know, Tammy, you obviously are doing this work anyway, even while you’re a patient yourself. You need to do something about the problems that veterans are facing and our service members and their family members are facing,' ” she recalled.

“I said ‘Yes, sir. I’m calling you. I am doing something about it. I’m calling a United States senator,’ " said Duckworth, laughing.

"He said, ‘No, no, no. You need to run for office.' ”

After an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 2006, Duckworth beat out Tea Party-backed incumbent Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) in November in a high-profile race.

When asked if she would have done anything differently during this last campaign, Duckworth laughed and said, “Slept more.”

Born in Thailand, Duckworth lived throughout Southeast Asia during her childhood, as a result of her father's work with the United Nations, before moving to Hawaii, where she graduated from the University of Hawaii.

She said her early life gave her “perspective” on the rest of the world and how to work with other people.

“Often we would show up in a country where we didn’t speak the language and you had to learn to get along and you had to learn new customs and traditions ... but the one constant throughout my childhood was wherever we were, this was in the '70s and early '80s, people wanted to be like America. We were a shining example for the world, and that’s where we should be now as well,” she said.

Durbin wasn’t the only Illinois senator to make an impression on Duckworth. She met then-Sen. Obama as a guest at the 2005 State of the Union.

Duckworth said Obama, who sat on the Senate Committee for Veterans’ Affairs, asked her to testify “quite often” before the committee on the situation at Walter Reed, as well as on better providing education, healthcare and other benefits for veterans.

President Obama later called on Duckworth the serve as assistant secretary of Veterans' Affairs in 2009.

“I did develop a great working relationship with him [Obama] and it lasted all the way through the time that I was in the hospital and then later on when he gave me the great honor as serving as part of his administration,” Duckworth said.

Despite her time in Washington, Duckworth said she’s still learning her way around Capitol Hill. Beyond the usual maze of hallways, Duckworth also has to contend with her need for elevators.

“Oh, I totally get lost all the time and for me, because I’m always looking for elevators and I’m always stuck in a freight elevator and all of the maintenance personnel and staff who have been stuck on some freight elevators with me have been superhelpful,” Duckworth said.

The incoming congresswoman recently wrapped up freshman-member orientation in Washington, D.C., where she was excited to meet some of the other veterans-cum-congressmen.

“I got to meet Paul Cook out of California and he and I really hit it off and got along ... so, I’m hoping I get to meet a lot more of the other members,” she said.

Rep.-elect Cook (R-Calif.) is a retired colonel in the Marine Corps who served for 26 years and won his race against a Tea Party-backed candidate in a Republican-vs.-Republican general-election contest.

Duckworth’s biggest complaint about her orientation on Capitol Hill was that she didn’t get to spend enough time with Republicans.

“That’s one of my disappointments in the training so far, is that we’ve had a lot of caucus events, just the Democratic caucus. We’ve had a few little things where it was bipartisan for new members, but those were general cocktail parties or training sessions, where you couldn’t hang out and talk to each other,” Duckworth said.

A Purple Heart recipient, Duckworth, said she also feels a “great sense of responsibility" as the first combat-injured female member of Congress, especially as debate continues over allowing women to serve in combat roles.

“[I] feel a great sense of responsibility to carry myself in a way that will not dishonor other service members, but also does not prejudice the decision against other women being able to serve in combat and the reason for me is that I want more women into leadership positions and we’re never going to get a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that’s a female, until women are allowed to command combat brigades ... and combat battalions and are able to head entire divisions,” said Duckworth.

Read more about the incoming congressional freshman in The Hill’s 2012 New Members Guide.