WAILUKU - At only 30 years old, Tulsi Gabbard already has a long resume.
It includes being the youngest person elected to the state Legislature, two deployments to the Middle East with the Hawaii National Guard and her current position as a member of the Honolulu City Council, where she chairs the Safety, Economic Development and Government Affairs Committee and serves as vice chairwoman of the Budget Committee.
Now, the Nuuanu resident is seeking the 2nd Congressional District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, who is making a bid for the U.S. Senate. The House seat serves Neighbor Islands and rural Oahu, although candidates are not required to live in the district.
TULSI GABBARD, seeking 2nd Congressional District seat
Gabbard's opponents for the Democratic Party nomination include former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who had not pulled nomination papers as of last week. Gabbard is one of four candidates to check out papers for the seat, although she had not yet filed as an official candidate.
While some might believe it to be overreaching for Gabbard to set her sights on Congress, she said during an interview Friday at The Maui News that she's no stranger to challenges. When she sought an open West Oahu seat in the state Legislature in 2002, friends told her she was "crazy," she said. Nevertheless, she saw an opportunity, campaigned door to door and won the seat.
Born April 12, 1981, in Leloaloa, American Samoa, Gabbard was the fourth of five children born to Carol and Mike Gabbard, a state senator representing Leeward Oahu areas including Waikele, Makakilo and Kapolei. The family moved to Hawaii when Tulsi Gabbard was 2, and she said she learned at an early age that "real rewards and true happiness came from serving others."
She said she wants to serve those "who have no voice," who she describes as "real people, neighbors struggling to make ends meet, working two to three jobs to put food on the table."
In 2003, Gabbard joined the Hawaii National Guard, completing basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., at the top of her class and later finishing advanced training in Texas in medical logistics. Then, in the summer of 2004 as her two-year term in the Legislature was coming to an end, Gabbard said she learned the soldiers she trained with, the 29th Brigade Combat Team, were being deployed to Iraq, but her unit, the Medical Command, would not be deployed.
She said she could have stayed home to continue her political career or set aside her career in elected office and volunteer as an enlisted soldier in Iraq. She chose the latter.
"It did not take me long to realize there was no way I could stay home and watch my brothers and sisters in uniform march off to Iraq without me," Gabbard said.
She was stationed in Balad, about 40 miles north of Baghdad. And she said her job as a medical operations specialist included the "sobering" task of reviewing the daily list of Hawaii soldiers either injured or killed in action and making sure they were taken care of in medical facilities in Iraq or flown to facilities in Germany or the United States.
Gabbard said the soldiers' sacrifices "gives me the motivation and inspiration to do what I can to fight for our great country, to fight for them and what they sacrificed for and be a voice for them."
And she said that's why she's running for Congress.
Instead of focusing on self-interest and special interests, "the focus should be there in honoring the sacrifices of our troops, serving people, fighting for the people, and that seems to have been lost," she said.
Gabbard said that when she returned from Iraq, her friends and family expected her to return to the state House of Representatives. Instead, she volunteered in 2006 to help with the re-election campaign of U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka.
She was Akaka's statewide grass-roots coordinator during the campaign, and after he was re-elected, she served as his legislative aide on issues relating to energy independence, homeland security, the environment and veteran affairs.
Gabbard mostly lived in Washington, D.C., for two years and continued training with the National Guard, attending the Accelerated Officer Candidate School at Fort McClellan, Ala., becoming a 2nd lieutenant in 2008 and rising to the rank of captain in 2011. Also in 2008, she was deployed to Kuwait for a second tour in the Middle East, serving as a military police platoon leader charged with training the National Guard's counter-terrorism unit.
Gabbard said she believes the United States should not be in Afghanistan and should withdraw troops as soon as possible. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan after 9/11 because it was a safe haven for terrorists, including al-Qaida, she pointed out.
But now al-Qaida has been decimated, she said, with fewer than 100 identifiable members of the terror group remaining in Afghanistan, while the U.S. still has nearly 100,000 troops there and spends nearly $100 billion per year. Meanwhile, al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden has been killed and is no longer a threat, she said.
Gabbard said the United States can't continue to pay the price in blood and taxpayers' money to remain in Afghanistan as a nation builder, she said.
"We need to be investing in our own country," she said. "Our resources can best be used elsewhere."
Gabbard said her emphasis in Congress would be to improve the economy, which supports essential services such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; support small businesses; and protect the environment.
She took aim at rival Hannemann, saying he's connected to and funded by large corporate interests. She said it's "well known" that Hannemann's experience as a chief executive officer has led to an attitude of "my way or the highway."
"That way will not be effective as one of 435 members of Congress," she said. "I work well as a member of a team and have great relationships with our congressional delegation and would work well with Gov. (Neil) Abercrombie."
Gabbard's father, Mike Gabbard, is well known for his socially conservative views. He has been a vehement opponent of same-sex marriage and opposes abortion.
Gabbard said that while she deeply loves and respects her parents, she differs with them on social issues. She said she believes in a woman's right to choose and would fight to protect that right.
On same-sex marriage, she said she believes in equal rights for all and that any government benefit extended to one group should be extended to all. She said that in Congress she would work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman, and support passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, which would allow the U.S. government to extend benefits to all couples, regardless of sexual orientation.
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.