Congressional Candidate Tammy Duckworth: Military Needs More Female Officers To Reduce Sexual Assault

The Illinois Congressional candidate and former Veterans Affairs official has been exhorted by her opponent Joe Walsh to stop talking about her time in Iraq. She talked to BuzzFeed Shift about why she won’t be doing that — and how the military needs to change to reduce sexual assault.

Duckworth is running for a seat in the House from Illinois’s 8th District for the second time (she ran unsuccessfully in 2006). She’s also a former helicopter pilot who lost her lower legs in Iraq — she was America’s first female double amputee in that war. She served as the Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs in the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, and still serves in the Illinois Army National Guard.

Leigh Vogel / Getty Images

Duckworth in 2010.

Your opponent, Joe Walsh, has been saying you talk about your military service too much. What’s your response to that?

I think that Mr. Walsh has been incredibly irresponsible in his words. When he says veterans shouldn’t talk about their military service, he encourages more veterans not to. But there are a lot of veterans coming home who need to talk — in order to get a job, they need to say, I was a leader in the military, and I can lead a shift in your factory. Or, I’ve proven that I can show up every day for work. These are all good things. People should talk about their service. People are already reluctant to talk about it because that’s the military culture, and this will make them clam up even more. Especially people with mental health issues who need to ask for help.

I’m proud of my service. I spent twenty years in the army, of course it’s going to color the things I talk about. If anyone spends twenty years doing anything, that’s going to play a part in who you are as a human being. We were asked in our debate about gay marriage, and I brought up my time at Walter Reed Medical Center [where I ended up after being wounded in Iraq]. That was his example of how I always talk about my service, but I was saying I was grateful to have my husband there to make decisions for me when I was unconscious for eleven days. I would want anyone to have their soul-mate there to make those decisions. I’ve never been hospitalized other than at Walter Reed, so that’s what I talked about.

The documentary The Invisible War has a lot of people talking about sexual assault in the military. What’s your take on this issue?

It is absolutely unacceptable that there is sexual assault in the military. We should remember it occurs not just with female service members but with males as well. It’s unacceptable and we need more oversight. I think the military is trying hard, but until you have more female high-ranking officers, you’re going to have some issues. I never experienced sexual assault, but I was a pretty tough chick officer, and if anything I was there for lower enlisted females to come to. I wasn’t a scared 18 year old who couldn’t push back. A lot of this stuff is about power. It’s power relationships. The military needs to redouble its efforts, and there should be congressional oversight. And women need to become a bigger percentage of the military — I think as we do, things will get better.

Did other women ever come to you to report assault?

I was usually the only woman in an all-male unit, but sometimes we would get women reporting issues of discrimination. But usually I was the only woman so it didn’t happen that much.

How did you decide to run for Congress this time around?

After I lost in 2006, I never really thought I would run again. But last year I was working at the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, and I was sitting in my office at midnight getting ready to shut down the government because Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on resolution for budget. It was my job to tell thousands of employees that they weren’t going to get paid. And I had to tell veterans it was unlikely they’d get their benefits and services in a timely manner because of a manufactured political crisis. I got really frustrated. I thought, we’ve got to do something different. And that’s when I decided to run again.

There’s been a lot of talk about the lives of women in government recently — what do you think about government as a workplace for women?

I think that women actually have greater success working in government than in the private sector. There are more women in government than in corporations, and I think that government service is a way that women can achieve high rank. The military is the one place where women make equal pay for equal work.

So how can we make the private sector better for women?

We need to get more women elected into office on both sides of the aisle. Women only make up 18 percent of Congress. And yet when we helped Afghanistan write their new constitution we urged them to have a provision that 25 percent of legislators must be female. If we can get more women in office so it actually reflects the population of women, then issues affecting women will come more to the fore.

You’ve been an advocate for disability rights — what are the next steps the country needs to take in this area?

A big first step was the Americans With Disabilities Act, and thanks to the first President Bush for signing that into law. It’s interesting that that bill had support from both sides of the aisle. But it’s really eroded. Until I was wounded I never thought about this and I think most of us don’t, but we’re all one bad car accident away from needing curb cuts [ramps that help people with wheelchairs navigate sidewalks] and other accommodations to help us lead productive lives. We need to strengthen the ADA. There are many things we can do with persons with disabilities that would gain bipartisan support. I would love a program where parents could put money away with a tax cut for the future of children with disabilities. Parents worry about kids with severe disabilities and what will happen after they’re gone, and this would be a way we could help them with tax savings. It’s about self-sufficiency, but it’s also about making sure we have programs there.

How do you feel about the Affordable Care Act, both for people with disabilities and in general?

I definitely am happy that it passed, and I was very pleased with the Supreme Court decision. We all know what the good parts are: the protection for children with preexisting conditions, which falls right in line with rights for persons with disabilities, raising the lifetime cap on insurance coverage, and protection for adults with preexisting conditions as well. But I worry about components of the plan that may not be helpful. Businesses with a high number of employees and low profit margin are really going to be challenged by the ACA. Restaurants, retail, lawn care, any type of business with a lot of shift workers, or where you have to have a lot of employees, they will be challenged, and we need to do something. We’ve got to roll up our sleeves and get to work to fix it.

What would a solution look like?

We need to take a look at a tax credit for those businesses. I’m starting some business roundtables, where I’ll ask them to frankly tell me what they need.

What advice do you have for young women and girls who want to get into government?

Volunteer early, get on a campaign, and work your butt off. Don’t take no for an answer. Be aggressive. My campaign manager right now walked into my offices in 2006 and showed herself to be incredibly capable, and within three weeks we gave her a job. She’s parlayed that into ever-increasing positions, and she’s not even 30 years old yet. Put aside your discomfort, show up, volunteer, and get to work.

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