Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth tells NPR’s Ailsa Chang about meeting Sen. John McCain for the first time when she was a wounded veteran in Walter Reed Medical Center. McCain died Saturday at 81.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Tammy Duckworth became a Democratic senator for Illinois just last year. But the first time she met John McCain was well before she was ever elected to Congress. He had visited her while she was recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In 2004, the Blackhawk helicopter she was flying in Iraq had been shot down by insurgents. She lost both her legs in that attack.
And after McCain’s death, Duckworth took a moment to remember her first meeting with the senator by writing about it in the Illinois paper the Shelbyville Daily Union. Senator Duckworth joins us now from Capitol Hill. Welcome.
TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Thank you.
CHANG: So can you take us back to that first meeting with John McCain? You wrote that he actually joked the two of you had something in common. What did he say exactly?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. That’s the thing about John McCain. He had kind of a subversive sense of humor.
CHANG: He sure did.
DUCKWORTH: (Laughter) And I was - there I was just a couple months after having been so severely wounded. And I was sitting on the therapy bed. And it’s a room full of war-wounded and most of us amputees missing one, two or even three limbs, sitting on these mats, going through our physical therapy. And he was walking around the room. It was a little bit notable because I was one of the few women.
And he came, and he sat down next to me on the therapy bed. And we got to talking. And they introduced me. And then they said, you know, this is Captain Duckworth. She was shot down. She’s a helicopter pilot. And I said, you know, Sir, you’re a great hero to me, Senator McCain. And he said, well, you and I both - you know, we have something in common. I said - you know, of course, here I am, just in awe of this great man, this hero.
DUCKWORTH: And I was hanging on to see what he was going to say. And he said, you know, we both flew into missiles and rockets. That didn’t take a lot of - that didn’t take any talent at all. Now what you do to recover is what matters.
CHANG: Few people could’ve teased you like that at that moment.
DUCKWORTH: Right, right. You know, and I had, like, done this whole build-up talking with him about how he was my hero and everything. And he said, well, I just flew into a rocket, and so did you, and that didn’t take any talent. Like, OK, well, yeah, you’re right. (Laughter) Falling out of the sky - this is not a talented thing to do.
CHANG: Did he offer any advice at that moment about what to do, how to move forward after something like that happened?
DUCKWORTH: One day at a time, one day at a time. And it is the philosophy that I have embraced myself, which is - you know, at the time when you’re trying to get through that trauma, you can’t think a year, 10 years, whatever. You just have to get through the day. And that’s what I was doing - you know, getting through the pain of each day, getting through the therapy of that day, whatever I had to go through, the surgeries that day. And I can only imagine - well, I can’t imagine. It’s incomprehensible to me and to most Americans what he went through those five years in the Hanoi Hilton.
CHANG: How much did Senator McCain influence your decision to eventually run for office after serving in the military?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I’ve always held him in high regard. I - you know, my heroes were John McCain, Daniel Inouye, Bob Dole - the greats, those who served and, after their service in the military, often with significant personal sacrifice, found a different way to serve their nation.
You know, I wasn’t ready to stop serving when I was wounded. I - there I was, a helicopter pilot who couldn’t fly helicopters anymore. And I was at a loss. And so at the time, the opportunity to work on behalf of veterans came forward, and that was what I thought I would do. And so I had always held him up as a role model, as I had Senator Inouye, who was a medal of honor recipient, and as Bob Dole was himself a combat-wounded war veteran.
CHANG: You said that McCain was one of your personal heroes. And, you know, obviously you guys had some policy disagreements. How did you handle that in your relationship with him?
DUCKWORTH: You know, he was inordinately kind. It was easy to handle any - the differences. I only got to serve with him a short time since I was only elected in 2016. And I - but even then, he was very kind to me because I was able to pass many pieces of legislation in conjunction with him that had to do with service members.
And John McCain was about his nation first, was about love of this great nation and love of this democracy. And that’s what he put first and foremost. And if you love this country as much as he did, he was willing to sit down and talk with you and work with you. And I love this country more than life itself, and so we found common ground.
CHANG: What does his absence mean for such a sharply divided Senate that we have now?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, it’s more than a loss. It’s irreplaceable. I don’t - not that you could ever replace John McCain, but I don’t think that that spirit is there at a time when you have a president in the White House who’s trying everything he can to divide us. John McCain was a uniter.
DUCKWORTH: And he didn’t always agree with you, and I often disagreed with him. But the fact of the matter was he was civil, and you could, through love of country, come together.
CHANG: Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, thank you very much.
DUCKWORTH: It’s my honor. Thank you.
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