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US elections 2020

Asia watches as Bangkok-born Tammy Duckworth rises in US politics

War-hero senator seen as candidate for vice president or defense secretary

BANGKOK/NEW YORK -- Ladda "Tammy" Duckworth, the junior Democratic senator for Illinois, has emerged as one of the most prominent Asian-American politicians, from being on the short list for Joe Biden's running mate in November's presidential election to floated as a potential U.S. secretary of defense.

She is a unique proposition. Born in Bangkok in 1968, Duckworth and her life story -- tragic at times -- have inspired many. From humble beginnings, it includes a succession of shattered glass ceilings and remarkable triumphs over adversity.

Duckworth will never forget the afternoon of Nov. 12, 2004, and the ominous tap, tap, tap of ground fire hitting the right side of the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting in Iraq as a captain in the Illinois National Guard. A fireball from a rocket-propelled grenade erupted beneath her, vaporizing her right leg virtually up to the hip, ripping off her left leg just below the knee and shattering her right arm.

In Baghdad, Duckworth and her crew flew a taxi service -- picking soldiers up and dropping them off as flying was the safest way to get around. On that fateful day, Duckworth and her crew stopped in the green zone to get some stir-fry, milkshakes and even some Christmas ornaments after completing five or six pickups.

As Duckworth was leaving the green zone, she got another pickup request in Taji, just north of Baghdad. On the way back to the base, the crew flew into an ambush.

Copilot Dan Milberg assumed she was dead as he wrangled the stricken craft to the ground, where tall grass rushed up to push through the charred, gaping hole in the cockpit floor.

A member of the Army reserve since 1992, the 36-year-old pilot dropped her doctoral studies in Southeast Asian policy and a job with Rotary International to deploy to Iraq for a military adventure she personally viewed with skepticism. It was a deeply ingrained sense of duty that glued her to her unit when she could have stayed home.

Duckworth had chosen to be a pilot as it was one of the few combat positions open to women. She credits her crew for saving her life that day. They pulled her shattered body from the wreck, and stanched the massive wounds. Even so, she lost half her blood, and in any earlier conflict would almost certainly have died.

Battlefield fatalities by then had been halved since the Vietnam War. In just 60 hours, Duckworth had been evacuated through Germany and was being brought back to life at Walter Reed military hospital in Maryland. She awoke a week later to excruciating pain that felt like "molten lead burning in my whole body."

Tammy Duckworth with her father, on the bed, as well as her mother, husband and brother at Walter Reed hospital in Maryland in December 2004. (Photo courtesy of the family)

Alison Parsons, Duckworth's old schoolmate from Southeast Asia, recalled that time.

"My dad was one of the first people to see her at Walter Reed, and called me so broken up," Parsons said. "He kept saying it was like his daughter was in the bed. It was really hard to process."

Another visitor was Franklin Duckworth, the future senator's father and a retired U.S. Army captain who earned a Purple Heart as a Marine at the Battle of Okinawa in World War II. He was also a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars.

By coincidence, the old soldier was being treated at Walter Reed for heart disease. Usually undemonstrative of his affection, the elder Duckworth consoled his physically shattered daughter from her bedside. They remembered how she had always loved shoes, and he reflected on the prettiness of her lost feet.

He died a few weeks later when further heart surgery failed. His daughter, newly promoted to major, attended the interment at Arlington National Cemetery in a wheelchair.

By the time Tammy Duckworth reached Walter Reed, 283 U.S. service personnel had lost a limb in the post-Sept. 11 conflict led by President George W. Bush, but only 34 had lost two. Indeed, Duckworth was the most seriously wounded female warrior at the time. Such a devastating experience would have finished most people, but she returned to painful rehabilitation and a life on titanium legs the day after her father's burial.

She has proved unstoppable. In 2006, Duckworth took her first run at the U.S. House of Representatives, but lost narrowly. She instead became director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs later that year, and in 2009 was appointed under President Barack Obama to her first federal position as assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Duckworth resigned in 2011 to make her second run at Congress -- this time succeeding as representative for Illinois's 8th District. In 2016, the Democrat climbed further up the ladder, being elected junior senator for Illinois -- taking over the very seat occupied by Obama before he entered the White House in 2009 as 44th president.

Duckworth's triumphs over her disabilities include giving birth to two daughters, Abigail in 2014 and Maile in 2018 -- becoming pregnant with the latter when she was 49. She married Bryan Bowlsbey, who is still a major in the National Guard, in 1993. She was the first U.S. senator in history to have a child in office, and the first to bring one onto the Senate floor while she cast a vote.

If Biden selects Duckworth as his running mate against President Donald Trump, she will be the first Asian-American to contest the position. If not, at 52, she is young enough to be a contender in future presidential races.

"She is very strong mentally," Duckworth's cousin, Dr. Kanokporn Sompornpairin, told Nikkei. "She can cope with anything, and always has very positive thinking."

Dr. Kanokporn Sompornpairin, first cousin of Sen. Duckworth, and her father Sawang Sompornpairin, the older brother of Duckworth's mother, Lamai, at the King Mongkut Institute of Technology, Lat Krabang on July 20. (Photo by Dominic Faulder)

Kanokporn, who is four years younger than Duckworth and her first cousin, sends the senator Buddhist sermons and meditations by Luang Por Viriyang, a respected monk in Bangkok, to listen to in her car. Kanokporn, an associate professor at King Mongkut Institute of Technology at Lat Krabang, Thailand's top engineering campus, works on genetically modifying plants for medicinal uses.

"Her lifestyle is American, but she likes eating Pla salit," Kanokporn said of her cousin, referring to a deep fried fish skin dish. The senator is also partial to Thai-style dried shrimp.

"Duckworth is not very well known, but she has one credential that none of the other candidates have: war experience," Paul Risley, chair of Democrats Abroad Thailand, or DAT, told the Nikkei Asian Review. Decorated with a Purple Heart and an Air Medal, Duckworth's veteran status is a weapon against Trump.

Duckworth has chastised the 45th president frequently, dubbing Trump "Cadet Bone Spurs" for his medically deferred military service in the Vietnam years.

She recently obstructed over 1,200 top military promotions, looking to protect Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from any punishment by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper for the officer's role in Trump's impeachment. Vindman, also a Purple Heart recipient from Iraq in 2004, resigned in July without being promoted to full colonel.

The senator also rebuked Trump for his recent use of militarized federal agents to quell civil unrest.

"The military is not to be used against Americans," she said. "He is perverting, at best, the role of the military. And he's destroying what they stand for and the honor with which they serve. It is disgusting to me."

After her Senate election, Duckworth immediately recorded a video message for Democrats Abroad Thailand and spoke with pride about her Thai background. Thai was her first language, and according to family members she still speaks it with her mother, Lamai.

She also goes into Thai with local reporters, but needs to pepper interviews with English due to the lack of equivalent terms -- a common problem. Asked by reporters about Thailand's political situation, Duckworth urged patience: "Real democracy is messy," she said. "I understand the frustration of those who want things to move faster in Thailand, and I agree with you."

"I think she is basically a progressive senator, but I don't get the sense that she has made a huge mark in terms of Washington, D.C.," Phil Robertson, the DAT chair in 2016, told Nikkei. "I think she is very capable, and is what she purports to be, but she is not well known outside of Illinois."

Robertson thinks a plus for Duckworth running for the vice presidency is that the Democrats would have no difficulty retaining her Senate seat.

But advocates for Duckworth say that her legislative record, albeit short, is impressive among newcomers. In 2019, she was named the second top-performing freshman senator by the Virginia-based Center for Effective Lawmaking.

Duckworth comes from humble, hardworking immigrant stock. Her Teochew Chinese grandparents, Sae Lim and his wife Sai Cai, arrived in the port of Bangkok in the early 1930s from China's Jieyang, 40 km from the coastal city of Shantou. They belonged to a massive wave of impoverished Chinese economic migrants who washed across Southeast Asia at that time. The majority of Thailand's Sino-Thai population is Teochew, tracing its ancestry to Guangdong, China's warm and populous southerly coastal province.

In the mid-1930s, migrant Chinese workers were employed upgrading Klong Prawet Burirom, a massive canal dating from the 19th century and King Chulalongkorn, who reigned from 1868 to 1910. As a small boy, Duckworth's uncle, Sawang Sompornpairin, remembers hawking Thai desserts to the foreign laborers.

Duckworth's mother, Lamai, was born in 1938. Three years later, Thailand was occupied by Japanese forces. In 1944, heavy bombing by Allied planes forced many to flee the city. One of the strategic targets was nearby Bang Sue railway station.

The family by then had a small shop selling salted fish. Tragedy struck when Sai Cai fainted one day on a river landing and drowned. With their mother gone, Sawang and Lamai were cared for by their two older sisters.

Sawang attended a Chinese school for a while, and when he grew older helped his father with deliveries to grocery stores. Later, he moved to Surin Province, close to the Cambodian border, with his new wife, and lost contact with Lamai when she was being courted by Franklin Duckworth.

It was Lamai who, aged about 20, went through the process of acquiring a Thai surname for the family, Sompornpairin. Thai family names are nominally bestowed by the king and meant to be unique, which means that later immigrant families often end up with incredibly long ones. The senator is the older of Lamai's two children, and was born March 12, 1968. Her brother, Tommy Duckworth, also lives in the U.S.

Duckworth has visited South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand as a senator. A member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, she is hawkish and frequently calls for the U.S. to step up in the region, to ensure freedom of navigation and to counter China's rising influence.

Tammy Duckworth, left, speaks with then-Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra at the Government House in Bangkok in August 2013. Duckworth was then a congresswoman.   © Reuters

"I think we need to look at staffing and resources increasing for [the Indo-Pacific Command] in order to really deter Chinese aggression," she said. "The Chinese are really moving ahead of us."

"Our alliances in the Indo-Pacific region are vital to avoiding unnecessary conflict and to our nation's economy and security," Duckworth commented after meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. "We must recommit to strengthening these relationships, continuing our military and non-military leadership in the region and finding common sense solutions that benefit the hardworking people in each of our countries, no matter how many thousands of miles apart they may be."

Duckworth has been to Thailand four times since 2013, lastly in 2019 when she was invited by Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy -- the Thai equivalent of West Point in the U.S. She met with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and army chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong. She also had an audience with Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the popular second sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has a long history of lecturing cadets at Chulachomklao.

The senator always likes to visit the Joint United States Military Advisory Group Thailand, a compound in the heart of Bangkok that dates to September 1953 and was particularly active during the Vietnam War years.

Duckworth called by during its 60th anniversary year, and also in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The compound today has fewer than 40 U.S. officers under Col. Wayne Turnbull. She enjoys socializing with them, and meeting veterans and civilian staff, as well as attending the daily 5 p.m. flag-lowering ceremony.

"She is a vibrant lady," Tom Friend, who runs the Retirees Activities Office at the compound, told Nikkei. "She was very candid about her disability and rehabilitation."

Veterans are a particular focus for Duckworth, who was a lieutenant colonel when she finally retired from the National Guard in late 2014. Friend estimates there are nearly 700 veterans -- not all from the Indochina conflicts -- registered with his office, but there are likely more retired in Thailand.

"We don't require they register with us, so we don't know how many there really are," he said. A Vietnam veteran with a Thai wife, Friend spends much of his time with new widows, sorting out their pension entitlements based on their late husbands' service records. "I hate it when a widow comes in here and says, 'He didn't tell me anything.'"

"This is her first term as a senator," Friend said. "But we have high hopes, particularly if this pans out and she becomes vice president -- the veterans would then have a person in a very key position."

According to her family, Duckworth's early upbringing was "very Thai." She was quiet and unprecocious. Her father's civilian work -- some of it with Indochinese refugees -- took him to Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore and Laos. As a small child, she was in Phnom Penh before it fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. Her parents would take her out to listen to the fighting outside the city, which sounded like fireworks in the distance.

She befriended Alison Parsons, whose father was one of the first to visit Duckworth at Walter Reed after the injury, in the fourth grade at Jakarta International School. Duckworth's father was employed then in the development of Countrywoods, a gated 20-hectare piece of suburbia some 20 km from the city's central business district today.

Parsons, who now lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, recalls the pair bonding on camping trips. Her mother was involved with Girl Scouts of America, and was keen to develop outdoor activities in Indonesia -- more so than home economics.

"We learnt how to build fires, set up camp and cook our food," Parsons said.

They also joined an Indonesian jamboree. Duckworth still speaks some Indonesian.

"My mum said Tammy was really a pleasure to have in Scouts," Parsons said. "You could give her instructions, and she would do them thoroughly and cheerfully -- not complaining."

Parsons also remembers Duckworth as something of a prankster with a great sense of humor.

"Tammy does not do things with malice," she said. "It is not in her personality -- at least as long as I have experienced it. She'll get you laughing with her."

U.S. President Barack Obama boards Air Force One in Hawaii in 2016. Both Obama and Sen. Tammy Duckworth spent part of their youth in Hawaii.   © Reuters

Duckworth's home was "the best place on Earth to eat," Parsons said. She remembers Lamai as quiet and supportive. "She spoke English, but she wasn't an American mum in terms of engaging in play. I think that was more true of parents in the 1970s -- letting us as kids do our own things."

"Families would move suddenly, and one day my best friend disappeared," Parsons said. The pair reunited six years later at International School Bangkok, with Duckworth already a year ahead in 11th grade. Parsons remembers Duckworth as extremely "grounded," and serious about sports and school life.

"It was amazing that she showed up in Bangkok," Parsons told Nikkei. "Despite the difficulties of communication, Tammy has found me over and over again, and has been very meaningful in my life. She is a very loyal friend."

Duckworth graduated from McKinley High School in Honolulu, where her father found himself out of work, and the family relied for a time on food stamps. By one account, Duckworth sold flowers on the street to help her family make ends meet.

Duckworth's path through Jakarta, Hawaii and later Illinois has echoes of Obama's life story, and both developed broader world views as a result.

"Growing up overseas, we developed a love for America, for the ideal of the United States -- holding it to its highest standard," Parsons told Nikkei. "Everywhere we went, we were representing the country. Because there was a lot more development work then, the U.S. was really respected. What Tammy brings is an understanding of how we are seen in the world, as well as a literal experience of sacrificing for this country."

Duckworth's relatives mention occasional brushes with racism in Bangkok and Hawaii, but in the leveling international school environment most children did not think in terms of race.

"It was more important what your nationality was, and Thai was not her nationality. Tammy was American," Parsons said. "I don't think it can be discounted that she understands the global impact of our country on the world."

Mark Kirk, the Republican senator whom Duckworth unseated in 2016, made a terrible jest that probably will always haunt him when he told his opponent, "I'd forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington."

Sawang, Duckworth's amiable uncle in Thailand, sees things rather differently.

"I am very happy because she has been able to get a lot of people to respect her," he told Nikkei. "If you live in another country, you have to be patriotic."  

Additional reporting by Anchalee Romruen in Bangkok.

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