After Tulsi Gabbard steps into the members-only subway train to the Capitol, the driver takes in her youthful appearance and winning smile. Then he says: “Excuse me, can you move to the other car?”
“I represent Hawaii,” she replies in a friendly tone as the doors close. Then she turns to me and adds quietly with amusement: “Happens all the time.”
Brigadier General Andrew P. Poppas and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard tour Kabul, Afghanistan.
Though some may not recognize her at first glance, US Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) has made great strides on Capitol Hill since being sworn in earlier this year. Elected to Congress and taking office at the age of just 31, she is one of the first female combat veterans to serve in Congress—and she’s the first person of Samoan heritage and the only American Hindu to do so.
Accustomed to early achievement, Gabbard was the youngest legislator ever elected to the Hawaii House of Representatives (at age 21), enlisted in the Hawaii National Guard at age 22, and voluntarily deployed to Iraq at 23. After her January 2013 swearing in, she introduced the Helping Heroes Fly Act that President Barack Obama signed into law this August; it improves airport security screening processes for wounded and gravely disabled service members and veterans. She also teamed with US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and others earlier this year to fight for legislation to protect military sexual assault survivors.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is a skilled surfer.
Gabbard uses her experience as a veteran to inform her decision-making on military matters—especially when it comes to committing our troops and resources overseas. “Coming back from these military deployments, I resolved to do whatever I could to make sure my brothers and sisters in uniform would not be sent into unnecessary wars,” she explains later while sitting in her modestly sized office. “War is hell, and the cost is great. It is also sometimes necessary to defend our nation. My experiences gave me a deep appreciation for the importance of our national security.”
She’s so passionate about caring for her fellow military members that she puts her thoughts on the record. Not yet a year into her first term, Gabbard publicly announced her strong opposition to a US military intervention in Syria. “As a soldier, I understand that before taking any military action, our nation must have a clear tactical objective, a realistic strategy, the necessary resources to execute that strategy—including the support of the American people—and an exit plan,” she explains. “The proposed military action against Syria fails to meet any of these criteria.”
Tulsi Gabbard meets with fellow Hawaiians from Waiakea Elementary School.
And just prior to the first government shutdown in 18 years—when many federal workers and contractors went without pay while members of Congress were paid as usual—Gabbard was one of the first members of Congress who vowed to return her pay to the US Treasury in a show of solidarity with affected Hawaii residents. (Hawaii is home to more than 47,000 military service members and 25,000 federal employees.)
Gabbard kept that promise, and her words on the record show her deep focus. But in person, her gravitas is balanced with a disarming ease and grace. As Minority Whip Steny Hoyer has said: “Tulsi is dedicated to working across the aisle to find bipartisan solutions. She has done a wonderful job of making an impact early on.”
Gabbard is sworn in as US Representative in Honolulu.
Though she continues to work on behalf of her constituents, she allows herself some fun, including surfing when at home. (“Growing up in Hawaii, I loved the land and the ocean,” she says.) And when she has a bit of a break, she squeezes in gym sessions with colleagues Aaron Schock (R-IL), Paul Ryan (R-WI), and Scott Peters (D-CA). (“I like to mix it up… and also play capoeira [a Brazilian martial art] when I can,” she says.)
But leisure time doesn’t come often. And though Gabbard is young, she refuses to let other people’s assumptions intimidate her as she completes her first year on the Hill. “I always try to put things in perspective: I had the tremendous honor of serving with people who paid the ultimate price in the service of our country. They never got to say good-bye to their families,” she says. “It’s my responsibility to them, my constituents in Hawaii, and the privilege of serving my country that keeps me focused and grounded. I have a mission to accomplish, and that’s why I’m here.”