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Sen. Duckworth writes of resiliency, healing in her book that’s a ‘love letter’ to America

Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, made headlines recently when she threatened to block President Joe Biden's cabinet nominations until Asian Americans had more representation in the administration. She joins Judy Woodruff now to speak about the administration's response, racism against Asian Americans, and the stories behind her new book, "Every Day Is a Gift."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, made headlines recently when she threatened to block President Biden's nominations until Asian Americans had more representation in the administration.

    We spoke a short while ago about the threats facing Asian Americans, as well as her new book, Every Day Is a Gift.

    Senator Duckworth, thank you very much for being with us. We're going to get to the book in just a moment.

    But I want to start with the news of the day, this ambitious infrastructure plan that President Biden is rolling out. Do you believe it is the right thing to do at the right time? And what do you think Congress is going to do with it?

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth:

    Well, I very much think it is the right thing to do at the right time.

    I have been speaking for years how America's infrastructure has been rated as a D-minus grade by this Americans Association of Civil Engineers.

    Now, when you do an infrastructure bill, you're sending money down to the very local level. When you fix the Main Street, you're also sending money into that diner that's on Main Street, because those workers are going to go grab lunch there.

    So, this is both an infrastructure plan to make us economically competitive on a global scale, but, also, it's an economic stimulus package, really, because it's going to get jobs down to every small town in the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we have seen that video that's been circulating, Senator, of the elderly Asian American woman in New York City who was knocked down and kicked in the face.

    The man — people just stood by while it happened. How serious a problem is anti-Asian American — are these attitudes right now in our country?

  • Tammy Duckworth:

    It's very serious.

    In fact, it's been 150 percent increase of reported hate crimes against Asian Americans in our nation's biggest cities. I mean, those are just the ones that are reported. They're actually notoriously underreported, hate crimes against AAPIs. They're often classified as vandalism, as a mugging, as theft, and not classified as hate crimes.

    And, in fact, Asian women are the victims in two-thirds of those cases. And so Asian women, and especially the elderly, are especially vulnerable to hate crimes against AAPI. So, it's a real issue. And we need to address it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator, let's talk about your book. It's "Every Day Is A Gift," a memoir.

    You were born in Thailand to a Thai mother and an American soldier father. You had a pretty difficult childhood, I think it's fair to say. You moved a lot. There were times you had advantage, but, other times, you were went to bed hungry.

    By the time you experienced the shoot-down in Iraq as a helicopter pilot, where you lost both of your legs, this was not the first time you had faced terrible adversity in your life. Is that what shaped you, your childhood?

  • Tammy Duckworth:

    You know, I guess it is.

    In the process of writing this book, I sort of came to realize that maybe those things that I faced when I was younger made me better able and more resilient to overcome the effects of being shot down and being wounded.

    I didn't think of it at the time, right? You're a kid. You're just living your life. I thought I had a pretty adventurous childhood. I followed my dad, who retired from the Army in 1972 and went to work for the United Nations refugee programs and development programs. So, we were in Cambodia, where my dad was actually putting up telephone lines until the Khmer Rouge took over.

    And, yes, I went through adversity in my teens, when my family fell on really hard times. And in the book, I write about being in Hawaii, where people think of it as a paradise, but I was hustling to try to put together $1 a day, so that my brother and I could eat the next day.

    And I think all of those things helped to make me more resilient later on in life. But, at the time, I was just living my life, trying to survive. I wasn't — there's no grand plan in the process for me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to quote from a line, so many memorable lines in the book.

    You said: "I love ugly aircraft, machines that look like they shouldn't even be able to fly. The more brutal, the better. I love the headbanging heavy metal of it, and that's why I'm a helicopter pilot."

    There's really nothing fragile about you, Senator. Or is there?

  • Tammy Duckworth:

    Well, you know, that's just who I am. My husband flies also. And he loves — like, he flies gliders, an aircraft with no engine. And, to me, that makes absolutely no sense. To me, an aircraft without an engine is an emergency.

    But he loves to soar in the air and fly around and catch thermals. And three hours later, he lands in the same place he took off from. And, to me, that sounds like the most boring thing you could possibly do.

    I love being part of an air crew. I love flying in a formation flight. I love ugly aircraft. I love helicopters. And maybe somebody read the book will fall in love with helicopters the way I did as well. Let's hope so.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And despite all the things that you have lived through, Senator, you do write also — you said: "I realized from a young age what a privilege it was to be an American. No matter how grievous the wound, healing is always possible. The lowest moment can lead to greatest heights."

    Where did that positive attitude come from?

  • Tammy Duckworth:

    I wrote the book because my daughter really started asking me whether it was worth it, what I went through it.

    And, really, we were having a conversation about how I couldn't teach her to ride a bike because I couldn't run alongside her. And she's 6. So, she is looking at me, and she knows mommy is different now. She never realized that before.

    And she — "You know, mommy, why did you lose your legs? Why did you go to war? Couldn't someone else have done that? Was it worth it?"

    And so I wrote the book as a love letter to my country, but also to explain to my daughter that America really is worth it. With everything that I have been through, this democracy is worth fighting for, and it's worth striving for that more perfect union, because things are always getting better.

    That's why the book is called "Every Day Is a Gift." Every day since my shoot-down has been a gift that my buddies gave to me for saving my life that day. And I try to live up to it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the other reason I asked that question is because, clearly, there are things that have happened in this country that you profoundly disagree with and things that Americans have done that you profoundly disagree with.

    And yet you're saying it's all worth fighting for.

  • Tammy Duckworth:

    It's all worth fighting for, because we can disagree and we can yell at one another.

    And even January 6, the insurrection that angered me, and I felt so betrayed as I watched people carrying the same American flag that I wore in my — on my arm and on my uniform into battle, that they used that to beat police officers and to break down the doors of the Capitol, it's still worth it. It's still better than everything else that's out there.

    And we have to show up. And we have to fight for this country, this democracy. And, yes, we're imperfect, but you know what? As long as we keep showing up and keep fighting for it, it's going to be that more perfect union for my daughter when she's 18 than it is even right now. And that's worth it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth.

    The book is "Every Day Is a Gift."

    Thank you so much, Senator.

  • Tammy Duckworth:

    Thank you for having me on.

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