Senator Tammy Duckworth’s experiences as a soldier and wheelchair user shaped her response to the Capitol riots


When rioters pushed by President Trump stormed the Capitol a week ago, Senator Tammy Duckworth was not in the Senate Chamber with her colleagues. She was in the underground tunnels of the complex on her way to the Senate, where she planned to speak in favor of certifying the Electoral College ballots in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

But this speech was not to be. Before Duckworth could board the train to the ground, Capitol Hill police told him that rioters were pressing against the building’s doors and asked him to find a safe place to take cover. With the building locked, the Illinois senator had to deal with other security considerations compared to some of her colleagues; as a wheelchair user it is not so easy for her to evacuate.

Duckworth’s military training began and she remained calm while keeping in touch with her colleague, Senator Amy Klobuchar, to find out what was going on outside of her lockdown location.

“As a soldier, I’ve been to places where I help other people fight for democracy,” Duckworth says. “And yet I was there, and there was nothing I could do about it yet.

In an interview with Fortune, Duckworth reflected on what was on his mind on January 6 – and what needs to happen next. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Fortune: Where were you during the Capitol attack? What was going through your mind?

Senator Tammy Duckworth: I was on my way to the ground – I was in the tunnels. I was supposed to speak at 2:50 p.m., and they walked through the Capitol at about the same time. In the tunnels to catch the train, the Capitol Police said I could keep going if I wanted to, but they would prefer that I take myself to a safe place. Instead of continuing on the floor, I went to a safe place with my staff.

I was pretty calm. I was speaking with Senator Klobuchar; I couldn’t believe the Capitol had been violated, that the Capitol police could be overwhelmed. It was incredible to me that people who call themselves patriots are actually trying to overthrow the government and stop us from doing our constitutional duty to certify the ballots.

I just waited, making sure the leaders knew I was okay – not to worry about me. I always carry groceries in my backpack – water, aspirin, Tylenol, power bars. I was okay with crouching down a bit.

Lawmakers with military training appeared to remain calm throughout the situation. Did this training and experience help you?

Absolutely. I knew exactly what the Capitol Police were up against and what to do. I knew the best thing we could do was stay out of their way – be one less factor for them to worry about.

I always know where the exit of a room is. I always say the old ways are dead. And I knew I could take care of myself.

Once I knew the ballots had been secured, that was one of my concerns.

Are you concerned about the accessibility of the Capitol complex as a person in a wheelchair?

Yes, that’s why I didn’t continue on the floor. I had a choice, but I knew that if the Capitol was violated, there was only one way in and out for me. There are several doors in the floor of the Senate chambers, but I can only really get in and out from behind the platform. I can only use the elevators. I knew that putting myself in this situation was going to make it more difficult for everyone if they had to evacuate us, so I chose to shelter in place instead.

The public has recently learned more about some of the dangers, like Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s panic buttons are ripped off. Has something else been discovered for you?

They did not make it to my main offices, although they tried to enter my shelter [private offices located near the Senate floor], because it has a window to the outside. This window has been smashed. Thank goodness it held so that they never breach my refuge. If I had been there, I would have been in real danger. It’s pretty cracked and the inside of my hut is filled with broken glass.

How do you feel when you see this damage?

For me, it’s frustration. Because there was nothing I could do about it. As a soldier, I have been to places where I help other people fight for democracy. And yet I was there, and there was nothing I could do about it yet. And so it was really frustrating for me to see people carrying the American flag – the same flag I wore on my uniform when I went into battle – but they carried the flag to attack our Capitol and try to overthrow the Constitution. And this image was much more hurtful than broken glass in my hiding place. Glass can be replaced, furniture can be fixed.

There was a determined group within this crowd that was systematic in the way they reached the Capitol and were well coordinated.

What should happen next?

We need to find everyone involved, and these actions must have consequences. And then we have to review the security plans. The Capitol Police worked very, very hard. And they responded as best they could, but they were overwhelmed and fundamentally disappointed with their leadership. We have to watch the Capitol Police Department, then we have to look at the chords – the fact that [D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser] did not have the capacity to call the dc national guard, for example.

What about President Trump?

We are about to go to impeachment. I think he also has to face the consequences of his actions. It must be forbidden to resume his functions.

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