Tulsi Gabbard is accustomed to making history.
At 21, she became the youngest person elected to the Hawaii Legislature. At 23, she was the state’s first elected official to voluntarily resign to go to war. At 28, she was the first woman to be presented with an award by the Kuwait Army National Guard.
Now, at 31, Gabbard is on her way to becoming the first Hindu elected to Congress.
The daughter of a Samoan Catholic father and white Hindu mother who moved from American Samoa to Hawaii when she was a child, Gabbard is a rising star in the Democratic Party. She appeared onstage Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention, alongside House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, for a presentation highlighting Democratic women.
“As a combat veteran, I know the cost of war,” Gabbard, a captain in the Army National Guard, told the crowd in Charlotte, N.C. “These days, it’s often women in uniform — moms, wives, even grandmothers — who deploy and leave their families behind.”
Gabbard pulled off a come-from-behind victory last month over Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann in the Democratic primary for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. No Republican has held the seat since the district was created in 1971. She is expected to win easily in November.
“She has an equanimity of spirit, a calmness, perhaps engendered by her military service,” said Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie. “She’s a young person who reflects on the world around her and reflects on her place in it.”
She also has emerged as an unlikely advocate on social issues, notably same-sex marriage and abortion.
It’s a compelling evolution for Gabbard, the daughter of state Sen. Mike Gabbard and former state Board of Education member Carol Gabbard, social conservatives known for opposing same-sex marriage and abortion. Gabbard once shared her parents’ views but changed her mind after two deployments with the Hawaii Army National Guard to Iraq and Kuwait.
“It brought me to a deeper understanding of the meaning of freedom in our country,” Gabbard said in an interview. “We cannot afford to walk down that dangerous path of government overstepping its boundaries into the most personal parts of our lives.”
The experience also spurred Gabbard to run for Congress. One of her tasks in Iraq was to review casualty lists and contact injured Hawaiian service members or their families to make sure they received appropriate services.
“Those names, that experience, is something that will never leave me,” she said. “I understood and saw firsthand the true cost of war at a very personal level.”
When Rep. Mazie Hirono decided to run for an open Senate seat, Gabbard, then a Honolulu City Council member, jumped at the opportunity to replace her.
As a Hindu, Gabbard follows the principles of karma yoga, which is centered on “dedicating one’s life to the service of others,” she said.