Book excerpt: "Every Day Is a Gift" by Sen. Tammy Duckworth

"Every Day Is a Gift" by Sen. Tammy Duckworth, the Illinois Democrat's new memoir, tells of what inspired her in her journey from Iraq War veteran to U.S. Senator.

Read the excerpt below, and don't miss correspondent Nancy Cordes' interview with Tammy Duckworth on "CBS Sunday Morning" March 28!


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Twelve Books

In 1974, my dad took a job stringing telephone wires for a United Nations Development Programme project in Phnom Penh. At the time, Cambodia was embroiled in a violent civil war, with communist Khmer Rouge insurgents seizing territory controlled by the U.S.-backed Khmer Republic, mile by bloody mile. The fighting had been raging for nearly five years, a savage echo of the war going on just across the border in Vietnam.

The situation in Cambodia was dangerously unstable, but at age six, I had no idea about any of that. I loved living in Phnom Penh. In Bangkok, we'd had a small apartment, but here we had a multistory house with a garden. Because we were a UN family, we had security – a gate surrounding the house, with an armed soldier posted out front. I didn't understand that the guards' fully loaded rifles were more than just decoration, or that the threat of violence in the capital was real and ever present. I just liked playing with the soldiers and trying to learn enough words in the Khmer language to talk to them.

When I think back on our time in Cambodia, I think of drives down wide boulevards lined with mango trees and bougainvillea flowers. I remember the smell of French boules, crusty and golden, their interiors fragrant with warm, yeasty, deliciously doughy bread. Whenever Mom would take Tom and me to the market, she had to buy two or three at a time, because we would tear into them as soon as we got to the car, devouring an entire boule before the driver got us home. Phnom Penh was colorful and fun, and the people at the market always seemed so friendly.

But then, I remember another scene. My mom and I were in the car, heading to market, and suddenly she grabbed me and shoved me headfirst down to the floorboard. She yelled at the driver to turn around, and I lay there confused, my face flat against the mat and Mom's hand pressed to the back of my head to keep me from looking up. A bomb had exploded in the market just minutes earlier, and she was desperately trying to protect me from seeing the blood and body parts scattered among the stalls. The driver floored it, and we raced straight back to the house.

Somehow, I still wasn't scared, even as the bombings inched closer and closer to our home. My parents used to take Tom and me to the roof so we could see the bombs drop over the river and the flares soaring into the sky. "Look, Tammy," my dad would say. "Look at the pretty fireworks." I believed they were fireworks, so when I'd hear the sounds of explosions and see the rockets lighting up the sky, I never felt scared.

Dad also brought us to the airfield to see the C-130 planes that sometimes ferried him to Laos and Thailand for work. A couple of times, he brought us along for rides to Bangkok, to see our relatives. My mom wasn't keen on this, but to me, there was nothing cooler than sitting in the back of one of these big planes, looking out of the lowered tailgate, and seeing jungles, rivers, and villages whiz by below. I couldn't have imagined then that one day, thirty years later, I'd be piloting my own aircraft over palm groves and villages not so different from these.

In later years, when I asked my mom about our family's experiences in Cambodia, she would describe this time as a difficult one. While my memories are of colorful street scenes and fresh bread, hers are of being mostly confined to our gated home as the fighting closed in on the capital. It must have been incredibly stressful for her, worrying about the safety of her young children in a war zone that was only growing hotter. She also never knew if my dad would return home safely each night from his job sites across the city. Yet when most Americans started flooding out of Phnom Penh in early 1975, my dad insisted that we stay. He believed that there was no way the United States would allow Cambodia to fall to the Communists, and that any day, American troops would arrive to fight the Khmer Rouge.

"They're coming," he'd say. "You'll see." He was a firm believer in the domino theory, that if one country fell to communism, others would soon follow suit. The war in Vietnam had ground to a bloody stalemate, and if we couldn't defeat the Communists there, then surely we could – we had to! – erect a firewall in Cambodia. My dad trusted that the Americans would do everything they needed to do to hold the line in Southeast Asia. He refused to believe that our government would do anything less.

But as the fighting drew ever closer to our home, my dad finally realized that he couldn't keep us there anymore. So in early April of 1975, he got Mom, Tom, and me on the last commercial flight heading out of Phnom Penh. In my recollection, we just went to the airport and got on the plane. Years later, though, my mom told me that in the airport, we had to sit on the floor, our backs pressed to a wall, crouching below window height to avoid bullets that were flying overhead.

We made it safely to Bangkok, and shortly after that, my dad told my mom in a phone call that a bomb had blown up right outside our house. The explosion had sent shrapnel flying through a window and over the bed where he was sleeping, peppering the wall across the room. That same week, he was up a telephone pole, stringing wires with a Cambodian worker, and a rocket landed at the bottom of the pole. It didn't explode, thank God. But my dad realized that he too had to leave, or risk losing his life there.

Dad was evacuated in Operation Eagle Pull – the final wave of U.S. military transport planes to leave Phnom Penh, on April 12. By that date, the capital was surrounded by the Khmer Rouge, completely cut off from supplies and bombarded by endless waves of artillery fire. Five days later, on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge stormed in, and Phnom Penh fell. We had made it out just in time.

From my family's safe haven in Bangkok, we watched TV news coverage of the chaos erupting across Indochina. Two weeks after Phnom Penh fell, Saigon did too, as North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops surged into the capital. And many of the Americans in Saigon did exactly what my dad had done, waiting until the last possible moment to get out.

At first, they evacuated in airplanes. But after the North Vietnamese Army launched bombing attacks on Tan Son Nhat Airport, the United States initiated the largest helicopter airlift in history, Operation Frequent Wind. In less than twenty-four hours, our helicopters evacuated more than 1,000 Americans and 5,000 Vietnamese from Saigon to U.S. aircraft carriers in the South China Sea.

On TV, I saw the famous image of people pushing their way up a ladder, trying to board a Huey perched on the roof of a Saigon building. Decades later, I would begin my own military service by learning to fly those same Huey helicopters, and much of my training – and the training of other pilots I'd fly with – would come from Vietnam War Veterans. Little did I know it then, but the tactical flying skills these helicopter pilots had learned in Vietnam would one day save my own life.

I also saw much more disturbing images, of rickety boats crammed with frightened people and their crying children. In the spring of 1975, tens of thousands of Vietnamese, some with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, clambered into fishing boats, trawlers, and sampans in hopes of making it to one of the many U.S. warships anchored off the coast. This was the first wave in what would become a nearly two-decade exodus of hundreds of thousands of "boat people" from Southeast Asia.

Watching these scenes as a seven-year-old child affected me, even though I was too young to fully take in what I was seeing. I understood that the United States was rescuing people with helicopters, and that the people who crowded onto those boats were looking to us for protection. I wasn't sure exactly what Communists were and why they wanted to do such terrible things, or even what those terrible things were. I just knew that we had been at war with them, and now they were winning and the Americans were leaving. The local people were desperate to go with the Americans, because they needed our help. This felt personal for me, because I was American and so was my dad. I was proud that we were the good guys, but also confused about why Americans couldn't save all those people.

Seeing those TV images of people crammed into boats in 1975 made a strong impression on me. But I also saw the plight of refugees in person. My dad got a job working with UN refugee programs, delivering aid to camps filled with Cambodian and Vietnamese people who'd managed to escape to Thailand. A couple of times he brought me along, so I could watch him deliver big bags of rice and boxes of medical supplies stamped with the American flag and see how people's faces lit up. Those moments intensified the pride I felt. From a child's perspective, this all seemed very simple: Americans were the ones who helped people in need, who opened their doors and took in refugees, who cared.

I had the same feeling when my dad took us to see the U.S. diplomats cutting ribbons to open new hospitals and schools in Bangkok. I would eagerly tell other people in the crowd that my dad was American, and because of that, I was American. I still had never been to the United States, and wouldn't get there for five more years. But these experiences marked the beginning of my deep feeling of patriotism for this country.

From the book "Every Day Is a Gift." Copyright © 2021 by Tammy Duckworth. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All Rights Reserved.

      
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