Tammy Duckworth

George Washington University Commencement Address - May 21, 2017

Tammy Duckworth
May 21, 2017— Washington, D.C.
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Thank you! Thank you all so much! Congratulations, class of 2017! And, of course, congratulations to all of the parents, sisters, brothers and family members who – loved ones, children – who made this day possible. The last time I was at one of these, I was down there as a student.

It looks a lot different from up here! To the faculty, staff, students, and the entire GW community, thank you for this honorary degree and for inviting me to speak to you.

It's such an unexpected honor, and I hope I'm able to live up to the standards set by the previous speakers. You know, no one special like Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama or my colleague Cory Booker.

It can't be that tough, right? And to President Knapp, thank you for your service to GW over the last decade. I really want you to pay close attention here, Mr. President -- not only because I have a lot to say about all the work you've done to make this university a better place but also because I've been asked by some students to distract you for a few minutes as they try to kidnap your dog Ruffles, who I hear is quite the celebrity.

In fact, go, go, go.

Go get her.

We're going to keep her.

Mr. President, you get this one.

I'm sure it's not the first commencement Ruffles has come to. Seriously, though, we are here at a crucial time in our nation's history.

Every day we are reminded of the challenges and threats that we face abroad and here at home. Our infrastructure is crumbling, student debt is sky rocketing. In fact, there is more student debt held in this country than there is credit card debt, over $1.3 trillion. And we still have troops in harm's way all around the globe.

Many of you might feel like we're engaged in a battle for the heart and soul of our nation.

There are leaders in Washington with a dark vision for our future, who will say anything, criticize anyone and everything just to further their own self-interests, seemingly without regard for what's best for our people and for our nation.

The thoughtful, principled leaders once common in Congress and the White House, the kind of leaders who fought over policies during the day, compromised, and then shared a drink together as friends in the evening, those kinds of leaders today are too often drowned out by the loudest voice in the room, whether or not that voice has a plan or even cares to string together a coherent sentence while they're spewing hate.

It's in that environment that I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to say today. Thinking about what I wanted you to take away from your time at GW and hopefully from this address.

My message to you, wherever you fall on the political spectrum, is to get involved, not discouraged. The less well-known President Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, once said when explaining what it meant to be a citizen, quote, “it is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and short coming.”

Think about that -- there is no effort without error and shortcoming. It's really just an eloquent way of saying don't be afraid of failure. Don't be afraid of being embarrassed or of being criticized. Just try get into the arena. Successful people didn't make it because they never failed, they made it because they never gave up. When you don't get that job you really, really wanted, see it as an opportunity to find something better for yourself. If you weren't happy with the outcome of last year's election, think of it as a chance to get involved in your community as a catalyst for the change you want to make.

The point is you need to get into the arena, and then you need to stay there and make your voice heard.

When I arrived at GW, becoming a helicopter pilot or a United States senator were not a part of my wildest dreams. I came here because I wanted to be a Foreign Service officer, and I knew that there was no better place to prepare for the Foreign Service than the George Washington University.

So with the help of student loans, grants, a full-time job, I enrolled in the Elliott School.

When I got to my classes, I got to know servicemen and women and veterans from all different backgrounds, who were also student veterans. I always knew I wanted to serve my country, but my classmates at GW helped expand my vision of what that service could look like. These were individuals who were so unapologetically patriotic but also weren't afraid to think critically and criticize our government and how our nation conducts itself in the world. They helped me understand that our nation's strength doesn't just come from tanks and guns and helicopters -- although I do love them, and personally, I find helicopters sexy.

You do too, right?

He used to fix Black Hawks. I used to break Black Hawks. So it's a symbiotic relationship.

But that strength also comes from a strong diplomatic relationship around the world and a willingness to engage with those who are different from us.

Here at GW, I was surrounded by servicemen and women and veterans, and they showed me that serving in uniform and supporting diplomacy were not mutually exclusive.

Then it came time for me to decide what my own service would look like.

I'd just been laid off from my job because the company I worked for had been sold, and I chose to take that job loss as an opportunity to do something really different.

At that point -- I'm aging myself -- but at that point, the Berlin wall was falling, the Gulf War had began, and it became clear that joining the Army was a way that I could serve this nation that I love during a critical time.

So off I went to basic training. Woop!

I wasn't sure where it would take me, but I knew I had a duty to serve my nation. I wanted to think I had everything figured out, but there was no way I could have known how things would play out. I couldn't have imagined the challenges I would face -- challenges in the military, in Congress, or as a new mom. But that's the thing -- none of us can ever figure out and predict what's going to happen. We can't predict our successes or our failures. We can only control how we react to them.

When you're in the arena, failure is part of the process. Part of the success. But these failures, these challenges, aren't what define us. We are defined by how we respond and our perseverance.

Don't get me wrong.

It's not easy. It's not easy to face rejection, to face failure, to feel defeated by forces beyond your control. I've had plenty of moments when I thought of giving up, moments when I knew I had been defeated. November 12, 2004, is my "Alive Day." It was the day I almost died, but didn't.

It was a good day for me. I was flying high that day over Iraq in my Black Hawk with the best crew out there. Then, without warning, an RPG tore through the cockpit of my aircraft. It was a lucky shot. For the bad guys.

One of my legs was vaporized, and the other amputated by my instrument panel. The explosion blew off the entire back of my right arm. I was quite literally in pieces. My pilot-in-command managed to land our aircraft, and they started pulling out the wounded. They thought I was dead at first, but when they tried to give medical attention to one of my crew members, Chris, Sergeant Fierce -- that's a great name for an NCO, right?

Sergeant Fierce.

Sergeant Fierce refused help and told them to help me instead. He saw that I was still bleeding and thought maybe, just maybe, her heart was still beating.

He did what every troop in combat is willing to do without thinking, even if they hope they never have to do it -- he refused treatment for himself to save someone else. My buddies wouldn't give up on me. They refused to leave me behind.

It was a hard day for me and a harder day for my crew. They picked me up, covered in my blood and tissue, as they tried to keep my body intact. If I didn't make it, they knew they could at least return what was left of me to my family.

But they weren't going to leave me behind in that dusty field in Iraq. But it was a good day for me because good men saved me, and I lived. I survived to serve my nation again.

The days, weeks, and months that followed were some of the hardest I've ever endured. But in those most challenging moments, my life's mission couldn't have been more clear. I knew from that moment on I would spend every single day of the rest of my life trying to honor the courage and sacrifice of my buddies who saved me.

So with the help of my family, friends and fellow service members at Walter Reed, I began my recovery. It was anything but easy. Tasks like picking up a pencil -- or even just sitting up without passing out -- were no longer simple. At first, it was unclear how I would lead a regular life, let alone continue to serve my nation in uniform. I can't tell you how disappointed I was when they told me I couldn't go back to serve in my helicopter battalion. Being separated from my buddies ripped my core identity out, just as if that RPG ripped out my heart too when it took my legs.

But after every time that I couldn't do something, after every day when I didn't know how I would make it to the next, I made the choice not to give up.

It wasn't a choice really. Giving up would have been a betrayal of the effort my buddies put into saving me on that day, and I will never, ever betray them. Then one day, Senator Dick Durbin from my home state of Illinois invited me to be his guest at President Bush's State of the Union address. Even though I was just a few weeks into my recovery, I wanted to see the democracy that I had given up my legs -- and my career as an Army helicopter pilot -- to protect. Senator Durbin also made a foolish mistake when he gave me his business card, and he wrote his personal cell phone number on the back.

Senator 101. Don't do that. Because I used that phone number a lot. I figured if I had this chance to speak to a United States Senator about the problems my buddies at Walter Reed faced every day, I couldn't pass it up. I wanted to make it clear to all who lead this nation -- and really to anyone who would listen -- just what a dear price we pay when we send our troops into harm's way. I got back in the arena. I may have been broken, but I could still be an Army officer. I could still take care of my troops. Maybe I was done serving in combat, but I could see the next step in my life's path because it meant that I could serve my fellow veterans. After I got out of Walter Reed, I went to the VA, I ran for Congress and then I won my seat in the Senate.

Thank you. So now, I get to bug Dick Durbin in person every single day.

And I have all his phone numbers. My life since my Black Hawk was shot out of the sky has been incredible -- and improbable. There have been highs, and there have been unbelievable lows, over the last 12 years, but one thing has always remained constant. Every time I got knocked down, I got back up. I dusted myself off, and I got back in the arena -- when my face had literally been marred with dust and sweat and blood. And I am so glad that I did. My story has a few years on it more than you do.

But I'm really here to tell you that it's not that different from any of you. I've been in that audience. I know each and every one of you can get into the arena too. Have already gotten into the arena as well, which is good because our nation needs you now perhaps more than ever. You've been training for it, but now you need to step up.

You can be our nation's next generation of leaders. Luckily, as GW grads, you already have a head start on many of your peers. Over and over, the students of GW have proven to be some of the most civically engaged students in the nation, showing leadership in and out of the political arena.

GW students and graduates show their commitments to serving others, to making sacrifices in order to serve something bigger than themselves every single day, day in and day out.

In the past year alone, in just one year, GW students have donated over 700,000 hours of service in local communities and around the world to improve our environment, our education system and open up spaces for minority voices. Many of you take an active role in government, at both the local level and the national level -- including two of you who interned in my office this semester.

So Kathleen Hunt and Steven, thank you both for all the help. I don't know if I just embarrassed you.

A lot of GW students also volunteer to serve their nation in uniform, just as they did while I was here. There are over 450 service members and veterans in the Class of 2017 alone.

I'll ask all of you to stand up, as well as those in the audience who are veterans. Stand up and be recognized, veterans! I thank each of you. And your families for your service and sacrifice.

Every single graduate here today has something to be proud of. You also have a lot to be thankful for. As GW grads, you have been given opportunities millions of Americans will never know, and this degree will continue to open up new experiences that you can't imagine yet. Don't lose sight of the good fortune and luck that helped you get here.

Some of you may have been lucky enough to afford tuition here without any help, but even if you worked three jobs, took out student loans and earned scholarships just to get to class, there are people out there who aren't as lucky. I guess what I'm saying is, to quote Kendrick Lamar -- whose real last name is Duckworth, by the way -- be humble.

Be humble.

I can't quote the rest of the lyrics on this stage. There are cameras. The rest of you all will look it up and know what I'm talking about. It's a good single, man.

Because, in all seriousness, as GW graduates, you will have access to resources and opportunities that people who are simply less lucky than you won't have. But if you don't lose sight of those who are less fortunate, you can go out and make a difference. I hope that you continue the work you've already started as public servants, as activists, as entrepreneurs, as scientists, as journalists.

Keep making the changes and be those change makers well into the future. It's your turn now, but you actually have to do it yourselves. Earning your diplomas wasn't easy.

I know you struggled mightily during your time here, but you made it. And I want you to remember this moment, the tenacity, the diligence, the work ethic and the dedication it took for you to get here. You have that within you. Those qualities and the critical thinking skills that you learn here, that you learned here at this school, will take you far. But there will be hard times.

And your journey will not be without its challenges. The struggles you will face in life from here on out may be harder than any you faced on campus, but you will only get better at reacting to them. You will only get better at reacting and overcoming whatever it is that's in your path.

Remember that President Roosevelt's words that there is no effort without error and shortcoming. There will be moments when you are discouraged. There will be times when you don't get the job you thought you wanted or moments when paying off that student debt feels impossible. Trust me, I get it.

I'm still paying off my student loan debt. I'm not kidding.

Not all from GW though.

I got a Ph.D. as well.

So there's more. There will be hard times when you get hurt or lose someone close to you. But those challenges, those struggles, those are what make success possible. We are not successful in spite of our challenges. We are successful because of our will to overcome them.

President Roosevelt understood that well. In his mind, the credit belongs to people who actually do things, people who -- and I'm quoting him again – “at best know the triumph of high achievement and who, at worst, fail while daring greatly.” And his last line about that person who dares greatly, it's a good one. Their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

I want you to think about that. It's not just about credit and who gets -- or takes -- it. It's about trying and doing. Don't be afraid of failure. Be afraid of never tasting it. Take this as your call to action. I am calling on you to serve. We need your contributions. So get loud, get active, in whatever field you want to get involved in. Make a difference in the lives of your neighbors, in your city, in your state, in your country -- just like many other GW graduates have done, including those who have gone into space, who have won Olympic medals and held public office. They all took risks.

They all got knocked down, and maybe failed the first, second, or tenth time that they tried, but every single one of them made the choice not to give up.

Now, I'm not saying all you need to become an astronaut is to run for office. I'm saying put yourself out there. Don't be a timid soul that knows neither victory nor defeat. You should never forget the time spent here or what you accomplished here. But you also shouldn't lose sight of what lies ahead, what you can still accomplish, what you must accomplish to move our nation forward.

So with that, I cannot tell you how much of a honor it is for me to welcome each of you as the newest members of the GW alumni community. Congratulations, class of 2017. It's time to get in the arena.

God bless you all. God bless our troops. And God bless the United States of America.