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Sen. Tammy Duckworth Doesn't Pull Punches In Memoir 'Every Day Is A Gift'

<em>Every Day Is a Gift: A Memoir</em> by Sen. Tammy Duckworth
Every Day Is a Gift: A Memoir by Sen. Tammy Duckworth

Lately, Sen. Tammy Duckworth has made headlines for her clap-backs against a right-wing TV host who ridiculed women's military service and also for holding the Biden administration's feet to the fire on the lack of Asian American representation in the Cabinet.

But Duckworth is so much more than a headline machine. She survived a complicated childhood overseas to become a decorated veteran who lost both legs in combat. Then she refocused on serving and breaking barriers in another way, eventually becoming not just a U.S. senator from Illinois, but the first sitting senator to give birth while in office.

If her life were a movie, people might not believe it.

She tells her remarkable story in a new memoir called Every Day Is A Gift. Duckworth doesn't pull any punches in the book, starting right from the beginning when she writes about what it was like being a biracial child in Southeast Asia in the 1960s.

Duckworth's mom is Thai-Chinese and her dad was an American soldier. They married and raised her as an intact family, but it wasn't easy, as she recounts.

She discussed her book in an interview with NPR.

Interview Highlights

On living a cross-cultural life

I think it definitely shaped me. You know, in the book, I talked about my cousins calling me names and talking about how my dad smelled like cheese. If you're ever in Southeast Asia, you know, especially the older generation, they all think that all foreigners smell like cheese, and it makes them want to gag. And they would tease me. You know, you come up with whatever it is that is the vulnerability, right, in each other when you're kids, and you poke that vulnerability. And so they poked me about my dad all the time.

And, you know, I was always just trying to fit in. And I never did. I couldn't physically fit in. In the book, I talk about how I was so much bigger than my cousins that they would complain that I was vibrating the house walking around in it because there are these traditional wooden houses.

But if you look at what's happening today, you're hearing that same conversation about Asian Americans always feeling like an other even in their own country here in the United States. And for me, it really started early on. And, you know, I hope people get a sense of that.

On what the last year has been like for her

This last year has been tough because I've been hearing from so many people in the AAPI community about how they feel hunted, how they feel spit upon and how they feel devalued even as Americans. And, you know, it's funny because in the book, I talk about how I start out from feeling discriminated against.

And, in fact, I think it's why I fell in love with the Army the way I did. In the book, I talk about how I fell in love with the Army like no one ever fell in love with the Army before. And that sounds really weird, but I did because it was a pure meritocracy. It didn't matter. It didn't matter that I was a little Asian girl, you know? It just only mattered if — whether or not I could shoot straight. And I hope the bonds, that I do a good job, I think I do, of describing the bonds between soldiers in the book and why I loved being in the Army so much.

On the number of people involved in the attack on the Capitol that had military backgrounds and on far-right extremists recruiting from within the ranks

In the book, I talk about the Army values and the warrior ethos in particular and the Soldier's Creed. And I describe how I put the Soldier's Creed on the door to my hospital room because I didn't want people coming in there to feel pity for me, laying there with no legs and then my arm — probably going to lose my arm. And I put it above my bed, on the opposite wall from my bed, and I laid there and read that over and over again, the Soldier's Creed, to give myself strength. And I wanted people coming into the room to not feel sorry for me, to not feel pity, to know that a warrior laid in that bed.

And so, I'm sorry, that night was really hard, January 6, because I saw people carrying the same stars and stripes that I wore on my uniform to attack my Capitol. And it was such a betrayal, you know? It was such a betrayal that you would attack our nation's Captiol carrying our nation's flag, and then to find out that servicemen and women — and some actively serving and some veterans — were doing it.

So I — that's why I have asked the military, asked DOD, to do a DOD-wide review as to how this could happen. And I've talked multiple times with Secretary [Lloyd] Austin and Deputy Secretary [Kathleen] Hicks at the DOD about how we're going to do this. And ... we're going to make sure this doesn't happen again, and we're going to figure out how our men and women are being recruited. Why are they choosing the ethos of white supremacy over the ethos of a warrior?

On what she feels about it at this moment, on what strikes her about it

Betrayal. Betrayal. If you read the book and the portions about the military and the warrior ethos and the recovery at Walter Reed, where every soldier there — every soldier, Marine, airman there, if you ask them — you know, laying there with no legs or having been burned or whatever it is — and you ask them, 'What do you want to do?' Every single one of them says the same thing: 'I want to go back to my unit, sir. I want to serve.' And I think, hopefully, people will get an idea of why January 6 for me was such a betrayal.

On whether anything has emerged that helps her undertand what happened on Jan. 6

I think a lot of people were really taken in by Donald Trump, you know? I think a lot of them believe these conspiracy theories — I mean, really believe them. And for the military folks, we're going to figure out why. We're going to figure out why they traded one oath for another. And we won't let it happen again. It's not just about punishing the people who were there, but it's about safeguarding those who would defend this nation from being targeted by these groups.

On whether she worries about the counter argument that Democrats are too focused on identity

I reject it. I reject it. That is absolutely not true. And the problem isn't that we're all about diversity. I mean, you look at the folks on the other side of the aisle. There are just as many white men named John in the United States Senate as there are people of color. I mean, this is — and I will say that there's not enough diversity within the Republican Party. How can they represent the entire country and not have more diversity? Because they don't. They don't represent — they they voted uniformly against [the] American Rescue Plan. And frankly, I'm very proud of the Democratic Party. I'm proud that when I said, hey, we've got a problem, the administration listened and reacted. That's a good thing. And democracy is hard. And I'm glad that I belong to a party where every voice is listened to.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.