By now, Sen. Tammy Duckworth is used to blazing trails and breaking glass ceilings. During her 23 years in the U.S. Army, she became one of the first female helicopter pilots to fly combat missions, the first female platoon leader of her unit, and the first female double-amputee from the war in Iraq. Now a senator, she was also the first Asian-American woman to be elected to Congress from the state of Illinois. She credits much of her success to advantageous opportunities, but Duckworth's experience, particularly in the military, also goes to show why it pays not to be "one of the guys."
"Well, I wasn't trying to be the first. I was just taking advantage of opportunities that came my way," Duckworth says of her various accomplishments. The junior senator spoke with Bustle Senior Political Correspondent Erin Delmore from Duckworth's Capitol Hill office. That office is far from the front lines of Iraq, where she made much of her Army career — and many of her "firsts."
"I think in the beginning part of my career, I know for sure I tried to be one of the guys too much."
In the field, Duckworth flew Blackhawk helicopters, but as a platoon leader, she oversaw a small group of soldiers within her combat arms unit. While rising through the ranks of army officers, Duckworth says she found it difficult to fit in with the many men she was surrounded by. With time, she realized that fitting in wasn't exactly the key to success.
"I think in the beginning part of my career, I know for sure I tried to be one of the guys too much," she says, noting that she even went to strip clubs with some of her fellow soldiers at times, despite her desire not to. "I used to go out because I wanted so desperately to be one of the guys and be cool and all of this," she explains. "Every time we would go on a trip some place, there would always be two or three guys who wanted to go to the strip clubs, and we would all end up going."
Eventually, Duckworth changed her tune. She told the guys that she was going to go to dinner instead and invited anyone who was interested in doing the same to join her. It worked.
"They wouldn’t give up on me when they thought I was dead — how do I give up on myself when I’m alive?"
"I actually had more people go to dinner with me than the other, because they didn’t want to do it, but if the one female in the unit was willing to go to a strip club, what did it say for the guys?" she explains. "So I had failed them, and that was a really important lesson for me to learn about what true leadership is."
From her position as an army officer to her newfound role in Congress, Duckworth has managed to blaze a trail marked by "firsts." Not to mention, she's done much of it from a wheelchair. In 2004, Duckworth lost both of her legs after her helicopter was attacked in Iraq. Ultimately, it was the guys who saved her that have motivated her to keep going ever since.
"For me, recovering at Walter Reed and getting my life back was really an obligation I felt I had not so much to myself but to the men who saved me," she says. "They wouldn’t give up on me when they thought I was dead — how do I give up on myself when I’m alive?"
Duckworth retired from the army as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2014. She won election to the Senate last year and is currently serving a six-year term. These days, she is known around the Hill for her biting sense of humor and her passion for fighting on.
"There's always a solution," she wants women to know. "Even when you are in the depths of despair and you think the world has ended, there's always something." For Duckworth, the solution started by embracing her individuality and by refusing to be just "one of the guys."