MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Lately, she 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 his cabinet. But Senator Tammy 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.
She tells her remarkable story in a new memoir called "Every Day Is A Gift." And Senator Tammy Duckworth is with us now to tell us more about it. Senator, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Thank you. It's so good to be on.
MARTIN: You know, honestly, Senator, if your life were a movie, people might not believe it - I mean, just the sweep of it, you know, all the things that you've experienced. You know, I was moved by how you start, though. I mean, you don't pull any punches in this book. I just have to say it. And that starts right from the beginning, all right, where you talk about what it was like being a biracial child in Southeast Asia in the '60s.
You know, your mom is Thai Chinese. Your dad was an American soldier. Unlike others - you know, many others of that period I think people know - he married your mom. They raised you there as an intact family, but it wasn't easy. You talk about that, like many people who live across cultures, like, never feeling like you always fit in one way - one place or the other place. Do you remember thinking, like, how that shaped you?
DUCKWORTH: 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 (laughter). 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 (laughter). 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. You know, in the book, I talk about how I was so much bigger than my cousins that they would, you know, 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.
MARTIN: Well, that's one - that was one of the things that struck me, is here, you grew up being sort of a one apart or kind of feeling like an outsider because your father was white. Now you're in the - you know, you are an American citizen. And now we are hearing, particularly in recent weeks, about many Asian Americans feeling like even though they're born here, raised here - are Americans feeling like they are sort of othered or set apart? And we are having this conversation at a point in which there has been a surge in abuse directed at people of Asian descent in this country over the last year. I want to ask you, like, what's this last year been like for you?
DUCKWORTH: 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. You know, in the book, I talk about how, you know, 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.
MARTIN: So it must have been particularly painful for you to realize how many people involved in the attack on the Capitol had military backgrounds. And I wonder - and we also know - it's become clear that far-right extremists are recruiting from within the ranks. And you not only served; you're on the Senate Armed Services Committee. What are your thoughts about this? Why do you think that is? And do you have any ideas about how we should think about this and what, if anything, we should do about that?
DUCKWORTH: Well, in the book, I talk about the Army values and the warrior ethos in particular and the Soldier's Creed. And, you know, 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 Austin and secretary assistant - Deputy Secretary Hicks, you know, at the DOD about how we're going to do this. And we're going to take - 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?
MARTIN: May I ask, like, what are you feeling right now that strikes you so deeply? Is it...
DUCKWORTH: 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, you know, why January 6 for me was such a betrayal.
MARTIN: Do you have any sense of it, though? What - do you - has anything emerged since then that helps you understand this at all?
DUCKWORTH: I do. 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, you know, being targeted by these groups.
MARTIN: Before I let you go, Senator, I feel like I really should ask you about your - is it a threat? Is it a - I'm not sure. You and Senator Mazie Hirono had indicated that you would consider not voting for any more Biden appointees - or nominees - if the administration does not do better at having AAPI representation in the Cabinet. But as you see from the other side of it, the conservatives/Republicans say, see? This is the problem with the Democratic Party. They're all about identity and that this is how they get caught up in these internecine fights about that. Do you ever worry about that?
DUCKWORTH: I reject it. I reject it. That is absolutely not true. And the problem is that - 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 (laughter). I mean, you know, 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 - you know, they they voted uniformly against 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.
MARTIN: Tammy Duckworth is a United States senator from Illinois. She is a Democrat. Her new memoir, "Every Day Is A Gift," is out Tuesday.
Senator Duckworth, thank you so much for sharing your time with us. I do hope we'll talk again.
DUCKWORTH: Thank you. I'm so glad to be on.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEW WEST GUITAR GROUP'S "MISSION CREEK")
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