Debate between Senate candidates Duckworth, Kirk gets heated over veterans issues


Daily file photo by Sam Schumacher

Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill) butt heads in their race for the U.S. Senate seat Kirk currently occupies. Kirk and Duckworth met for their first televised debate Thursday night.

Sam Krevlin, Reporter

U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said Thursday that serving veterans has been her life’s work. Her Republican opponent Sen. Mark Kirk said her record is questionable.

Duckworth and Kirk clashed at the televised debate at the University of Illinois Springfield. The State-Journal Register, University of Illinois Springfield and multiple news channels sponsored the event.

Discussion surrounding the years-old lawsuit against Duckworth from her work at the Anna Veterans’ Home, a nursing home for veterans, intensified during Thursday night’s debate for the Illinois Senate seat. The case involved employees at the home claiming one of them was fired for complaining about her boss. The employee was soon reinstated.

According to the Kirk campaign, employees were complaining to their boss about convicted felon Jessie Bell, who worked at the home. Bell was later convicted for second-degree murder and is currently serving time in prison. Duckworth maintained in the debate that the lawsuit was settled. The Illinois attorney general’s office, which is representing Duckworth, said a settlement has been reached, but is not yet completed and still before a judge, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Kirk said Duckworth’s actions were unacceptable and praised the whistleblowers for their work, saying Duckworth fired and threatened whistleblowers.

“These whistleblowers should be commended and applauded, not crushed, Tammy,” Kirk said. “You fired them directly just because they said you were caring badly for veterans. I think that shouldn’t have been done.”

Duckworth called the lawsuit a political stunt. After losing both her legs in combat, Duckworth said she has worked every day of her life for veterans.

“I will always honor the sacrifices my buddies made to save my life, and that means that I will continue to work on the programs I have always worked on,” Duckworth said. “I will never leave my vets behind because my buddies didn’t leave me behind.”

The whistleblowers in the lawsuit supporting Kirk were present at the debate.

Both Duckworth and Kirk are veterans. Duckworth served as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot through the Illinois National Guard during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Kirk was commissioned as an intelligence officer for the U.S. Navy Reserve on various missions until his retirement in 2013.

Duckworth said she created outreach programs for women serving in the military, established one of the first veteran hotlines in Illinois and has been working to end veteran homelessness. Duckworth said the country must make a lifetime commitment to veterans so when they come home there are jobs available for them.

“When we send our troops to war, we don’t talk about the fact that we will be caring for our veterans for the next 60 years,” Duckworth said. “That is a cost of war we should be talking about. If you send me to the United States Senate, I will be there every single day reminding my colleagues that when you go to war … we are making a lifetime commitment to these vets.”

Later in the debate, Duckworth and Kirk clashed on the Syrian refugee crisis. Kirk was hesitant on letting refugees into the United States, while Duckworth was more open to accepting them.

Kirk said until the government can ensure the safety of the American people, they should not let Syrians into the country. He said the CIA needs to have a detailed database to background check those looking to enter.

Duckworth adamantly disagreed and said if Americans treat refugees badly, they may grow up to be the next insurgence that attacks American troops.

“We are not a nation that turns our back on children drowning in the Mediterranean,” Duckworth said. “We are not a nation that turns our back on families fleeing butchers.”

Duckworth and Kirk will make their case to voters one last time as they debate on Nov. 4 on ABC.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that multiple employees of the veterans’ home had been fired. One was fired then reinstated. The article also misstated the nature of the employee’s complaint, which was about her boss. The story has been updated with information about the lawsuit’s settlement, as well as to clarify that Jessie Bell’s second-degree murder conviction occurred after he was hired at the veterans’ home.

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