By James Irwin
George Washington University President Steven Knapp got to know Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), M.A. ’92, at a series of events in 2009, when the university became one of the first academic institutions to commit to the Yellow Ribbon Program. Rep. Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran, Purple Heart recipient and then-assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, was honored that fall with the Colin Powell Public Service Award and participated in several veterans-focused events alongside the university president.
“She gave a wonderful speech,” Dr. Knapp said of her remarks at the Yellow Ribbon Program announcement. “Later I had the honor of serving on a panel with her at a conference focused on veterans in New York City.”
On Thursday, Dr. Knapp and the university community again recognized Rep. Duckworth, presenting her with the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award at the GW Alumni Association’s annual Capitol Hill Alumni Reception.
The award is the highest form of recognition given by the Alumni Association to an alumnus or alumna on an annual basis, and recognizes alumni who have distinguished themselves through outstanding accomplishments in either their professional, volunteer or philanthropic activities.
“This is a tremendous honor,” Rep. Duckworth said. “GW really helped to broaden my horizons. It was here that I met many outstanding military officers, and meeting them is what got me interested in serving in the military. The rest is history.”
Despite sustaining injuries during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Rep. Tammy Duckworth still serves in the military as a lieutenant-colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard.
Rep. Duckworth’s military career began at GW in 1990, when she enrolled in the university’s Army ROTC program. After graduating from the Elliott School of International Affairs in 1992, she became a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Reserves. She was called to active duty in 2004 and, as a helicopter pilot, was one of the first women to fly combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Her Blackhawk was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in a November 2004 attack in which she lost both legs and partial use of one arm.
Since then, she has been a tireless advocate for veterans, serving as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and as assistant secretary at the VA. She was elected to Congress in 2012 and currently is pursuing doctoral degrees in political science and health and human services. And she’s still serving in the military, as a lieutenant-colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard.
“She is, without a doubt, one of GW’s most remarkable graduates,” Elliott School Dean Michael Brown said. “In her spare time she volunteers in food pantries. Let me say that again: in her spare time. She has had a truly extraordinary record of academic and professional achievement, military service and public service.”
Rep. Duckworth's military career began when she enrolled in GW's Army ROTC program as a graduate student. She continues to be a tireless advocate for veterans. "Those of us who have worn the uniform are looking for a place where we can find a way to serve this nation and be part of something bigger than ourselves once again," she said. "And GW helps our military men and women find that path."
In many ways, Rep. Duckworth said, the foundation for her professional life began at GW. After graduating from the University of Hawaii in 1989 she enrolled in the Elliott School, where her passion for international affairs and her introduction to military service helped define her career.
“I came here because GW had the nation’s highest pass rate for the foreign services exam in the early 1990s,” she said. “I never realized I would come here and find a whole new life and a whole new world of things I could try. I am absolutely inspired by the consistent commitment of this institution to prepare the future leaders of this country.”
“GW prepared me for where I am. I wouldn’t be here without you.”