WHEN I FIRST MEET TAMMY DUCKWORTH in her suburban Chicago campaign office, she nearly mows me over with her $ 4,000 titanium wheelchair as she cruises a narrow hallway festooned with military mementos. “I’m actually looking for scissors,” she says cheerfully. “They don’t let the candidate have scissors! They’re afraid I’m gonna roll over and hurt myself.”
Mission accomplished, she cuts a pair of shiny silver military insignia out of their packaging to send to a World War II vet she talked to that morning. As she fidgets with the box in her lap, her floral print dress shifts to reveal two carbon-fiber calves, one with a camo design, the other red, white, and blue. They connect to metal extensions that end in polymer-coated feet clad in black saddle shoes. A cane rests between her legs.
Whether or not Duckworth wins a seat in Congress, she’ll be celebrating this November. That’s because November 12 is her “alive day“—the day she and her three Black Hawk crewmates get together and remember the insurgent attack in 2004 in the skies near Baghdad that brought down their chopper and nearly killed them all. Duckworth left both legs behind.
It’s a loss that gave her “a great gift of perspective,” she tells me. “At the end of the day it’s not about Democrats or Republicans. It’s not about Obama or Romney. It’s about the fact that on that day, those men carried me out when they didn’t have to. They thought I was dead.”
Her copilot that day, Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Milberg (who’s preparing to deploy on his third overseas tour since 9/11), says if anyone is a hero it’s Duckworth. “Too many people, military people included, are too willing to have a pity party,” he told me. “Man, there’s no time for pity parties—look at this gal.”
Thirteen months after the attack, Duckworth was back on Army duty on titanium legs, and was training to fly again. By then she had also jumped into public service, advocating better treatment for vets and winning friends with her sunny disposition. (She’s been known to work out in T-shirts reading “Dude, where’s my leg?” and “Lucky for me he’s an ass man.”) Even after she became a vocal opponent of the Iraq War, lost a bid for Congress in 2006, and went to work for the Obama administration, her story drew praise from conservatives and liberals alike. “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chesley Sullenberger III has called it “beyond inspiring.”
Now, Duckworth is running for Congress against Republican incumbent Joe Walsh, a tea party freshman noted for calling President Obama a “tyrant” and engaging in legal battle over his child support payments. Should Duckworth win, she would be the first-ever woman injured in combat to be elected to national office. But to Democrats, the 44-year-old trilingual daughter of a Marine and a Thai immigrant represents much more: the changing face of America, a potential leader for the rights of women and immigrants, and a champion of assistance to the poor, jobless, and disabled. “She could play a key role nationally like no one else,” says Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), one of her political mentors. “There are few districts in the country where the choice between candidates so closely reflects the divide in our country.”