When Tulsi Gabbard, then a member of Congress from Hawaii, ran for President in 2020, she won an intriguing distinction: After the public watched her performances in the early debates, Gabbard became the most Googled candidate in the Democratic field.
Chalk it up to Gabbard’s willingness to express thoughtful opinions on policy, domestic and foreign, veering far from the accepted positions of both major political parties. She would win the award for the category of “Most Impossible to Pigeonhole” if there were such an award. As it is, IWF is delighted to confer upon Gabbard our 2022 Resilience Award. She takes a great deal of heat for being a maverick but never flinches.
Gabbard may be the only Bernie Sanders pal ever to deliver an address at CPAC. She resigned from her position as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee to support Sanders’ bid for the White House in 2016 to highlight the contrast between his non-interventionist foreign policy and Hillary Clinton’s interventionist warhawk record. She was already a regular on TV, lambasting President Barack Obama’s refusal to identify radical Islam as “the real enemy” of the U.S. Gabbard knows war firsthand: She first deployed to Iraq as a member of a field medical unit of the Hawaii Army National Guard, and again as a Military Police platoon leader. She is the first Hindu and Samoan American elected to Congress.
How did Gabbard become such a resilient figure on the American political landscape? She has a fascinating biography that TV audiences watching her independent-minded commentary might not know.
“I’m the fourth of five kids and my dad was originally from American Samoa. His dad served in the Air Force and so he grew up a military brat, partly in Hawaii and partly in the panhandle of Florida at Eglin Air Force Base. His upbringing was unique. He was a brown-skinned Polynesian kid growing up in the South at a time when he was told he had to drink from the “colored” water fountains. This was confusing to him, to say the least. Mom grew up in Michigan and had a very different background from my dad. They met when they had summer jobs at a cafe at Yosemite National Park when they were in college. They had a long-distance relationship, with my mom going to the University of Michigan and my dad going to school in California. They fell in love, got married, graduated from college, and my dad stole her away to the islands. They both had teaching jobs in American Samoa—my dad was assistant dean at the community college and my mom was a speech therapist serving special needs kids.”
The Gabbard family moved to Hawaii when Tulsi was 2 years old. Her parents were pioneers in homeschooling their kids in Hawaii at a time when it was still rare. “It’s interesting to see what’s playing out now with a lot of parents waking up to how unions and government entities are trying to tell them that they can’t have a say in their kids’ education. Parents are realizing how important it is to be involved in their kids’ education. This is something that my parents saw and recognized when we were growing up. They didn’t want to just hand us over to total strangers to raise us, and decided that schooling us at home would allow them the opportunity to instill in us the values, principles, and education they wanted for us.”
The desire to form their children didn’t stop in the schoolroom. Gabbard’s parents also instilled the values of hard work, problem-solving, and personal responsibility in their children from a young age through their own example as entrepreneurs. “They were both teachers by trade and training,” Gabbard said, “but as long as I’ve been alive, they’ve had some kind of small business venture. While they were in American Samoa both teaching full-time, they had a place called Mike’s Sports Shop. They opened a private school, and later had a pretty successful family-style restaurant and deli where all of us kids worked growing up.”
With her grandfather’s military background, you might think that Gabbard entered the military as a way to follow the family tradition. That’s not quite how it happened.
“When 9/11 happened,” Gabbard said, “I was here in Hawaii, and until that point, I think like a lot of people, at least in my generation, I didn’t think a whole lot about what was happening in the world, or foreign policy. But that terrorist attack opened my eyes and deep down inside I knew that I wanted to do something to serve my country and go after these people who attacked us. I wanted to find a way to continue serving my state and answer the call to serve our country, so I decided to enlist in the Hawaii Army National Guard.
Chalk it up to Gabbard’s willingness to express thoughtful opinions on policy, domestic and foreign, veering far from the accepted positions of both major political parties. She would win the award for the category of “Most Impossible to Pigeonhole.”
“I enlisted into a medical unit and, within a few months of returning from basic training, I was serving in the state legislature and campaigning for reelection when our brigade combat team was notified that they would be deployed to Iraq. It was an 18-month-long deployment. I got a call from my commander saying hey, you’re not on the deployment roster, so you don’t have to go. He thought he was bringing me good news. But I told him there was no way I was going to stay home and watch you guys deploy. I suspended my reelection campaign and volunteered to deploy with a medical unit.
“I came back from deployment, and I found that my whole world had changed. I couldn’t just pick up the life I had left behind. I wanted to find a way to take the experiences that I had had during deployment and do something positive with them. I ended up serving as a legislative aide in U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka’s office. As Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, I had the opportunity to provide him with my own fresh experiences and perspectives on care for transitioning veterans.”
Gabbard ran a very tough race for Congress, was elected in 2012, and served four terms. What is she most proud of? “The things we were able to do every day to help improve people’s lives. I worked in a very bipartisan way and was able to pass legislation, but having the opportunity to be able to break through the red tape of the federal government and actually help people who needed help on a daily basis is the thing that I am most grateful I had the opportunity to do. For example, I was able to help a Vietnam veteran who never received the Purple Heart because he didn’t have proper documentation. But he had been walking around literally for four decades with shrapnel embedded in his leg, and the bureaucracy told him no way he deserved a Purple Heart because he didn’t have the paperwork. I helped him with that, and he got the Purple Heart.”
She first showed her ability to buck the norms when she was serving in Congress. “I was a member of the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees for nearly eight years,” she said. “I had barely been in office for six months when President Barack Obama announced that he wanted to go to war in Syria. He was going to come to Congress and ask for authorization to use military force. I took our role in Congress very seriously and did the research, examined the intelligence and conducted my analysis, hearing from the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and all the officials who were advocating for what the President wanted to do. After doing so, I penned an op-ed stating my opposition to President Obama’s plan because it did not serve the best interest of the American people and our security. There was no clear objective, no exit strategy, and it would have resulted in yet another costly boondoggle.”
The desire to form their children didn’t stop in the schoolroom. Gabbard’s parents also instilled the values of hard work, problem-solving, and personal responsibility in their children from a young age through their own example as entrepreneurs.
Unsurprisingly, people were displeased that she crossed the party line. “I got a lot of heat from the White House. I got a lot of heat from my colleagues saying how dare you, you’re a Democrat, you’re from President Obama’s home state, how dare you speak against him. But this was exactly why I ran for Congress.”
“A lot of my worldview is shaped by my experiences in the military,” Gabbard says. “My experiences caused me to reflect, learn, study, research, and bring me to the understanding that, when we look at so many of these wars and conflicts, many could have been avoided. I’m not a pacifist, I’m not an isolationist. I’m proud to wear the uniform and I will sacrifice my life to serve my country, but it’s because of those experiences in the military that I recognize that these decisions about whether to go to war or not have to be made very carefully, recognizing the cost and consequences. And unfortunately, too often these decisions are made by politicians who ultimately don’t care that they are making these decisions for the right reasons.”
Gabbard endorsed Biden after she dropped out of the 2020 presidential primary. What does she think of the Biden administration now?
“I worked in a very bipartisan way and was able to pass legislation, but having the opportunity to be able to break through the red tape of the federal government and actually help people who needed help on a daily basis is the thing that I am most grateful I had the opportunity to do.”
“I’ve never seen a more dangerous time in our country. To have people in power who are essentially weaponizing public institutions, law enforcement agencies that exist to keep us safe, against those who are either political opponents or people who disagree with this administration’s policies and actions, characterizing those people as extremists or as threats. Everybody from the parents who are showing up and protesting at school board meetings to the people the president most recently labeled as extremist threats to our democracy because they voted for Donald Trump. It is an incredibly dangerous instinct that reeks more of a banana republic authoritarian dictatorship than it does the democratic country that we are supposed to be.”
So how do we take our country back? “That can only happen through we the people standing up, speaking up, and fighting the tough battles that have to be fought on every front,” Gabbard says. “IWF is doing a phenomenal job. There are other organizations that are fighting on other fronts. We cannot afford to be complacent, because the lives of our kids and those we love, our communities, and, frankly, this democracy in this country is at stake. We are a country that represents freedom to so many, but that freedom is being lost, and the threat is coming from within and from some of the most powerful people. So, the only thing more powerful than the most powerful people is we, the American people. But if we stand by and do nothing, then I have no doubt in my mind that we will lose the country we love.”
As you can see, Tulsi Gabbard is not the sort of woman who sticks to the talking points. That’s exactly what makes this resilient woman such an important voice at this momentous time in our country’s history.