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Susan Kang Sunderland

The JFK, Henry Ford, Elvis And Tulsi Club

Tulsi Gabbard

Tulsi Gabbard speaks to local Jaycees. Photo from Tulsi Gabbard

Tulsi Gabbard receives a prestigious national honor from the U.S. Jaycees that has previously gone to some of America’s most iconic names

What do John F. Kennedy, Henry Ford, Elvis Presley and Tulsi Gabbard have in common?

Each has been named by the U.S. Junior Chamber (Jaycees) as an Outstanding Young American.

For Elvis, the award was his most valued, proving he was more than a pop culture phenomenon.

For Honolulu City Councilwoman Gabbard, 31, this recently announced distinction puts her in the national spotlight as someone who “exemplifies the best attributes of the nation’s young people.”

It positions her as a model of young leadership to create positive change in her community and around the world, according to the Jaycees.

No pressure here. If Gabbard’s track record is any indication, she is more than up to the task of global role model.

By dedicating herself to the ideal of “servant leadership,” Gabbard has amassed impressive achievements at a time when a lot of her peers were still out partying. She has shattered the glass ceiling of public service many times.

At age 21, she was the youngest legislator ever elected in Hawaii and the youngest woman ever elected in the nation.

She withdrew from an easy re-election in 2004 to volunteer for an 18-month-long deployment to Iraq with the Hawaii Army National Guard.

On a second deployment in 2009, she was among the first women to set foot inside a Kuwait military base and was the first female to be honored by the Kuwait National Guard for her work in training its soldiers.

At age 26, Gabbard attended Alabama Military Academy’s Officer Candidate School and became the first female distinguished honor graduate in the academy’s 50-year history.

If she is elected to the U.S. Congress in the forthcoming race for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District (Rural Oahu-Neighbor Islands), she will be the first woman combat veteran elected to Congress. (Former Assistant Secretary for U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs Tammy Duckworth also is running for Congress in Illinois).

These “firsts” provide Gabbard a public platform for visibility and recognition. For a candidate trying to establish statewide name recognition, it’s a useful forum.

The Jaycees honor the Top 10 Outstanding Young Americans at its June 30 annual meeting in Des Moines, Iowa. Gabbard shares the spotlight with Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Iowa State basketball coach Fred Hoiberg and international water engineer Sanjay Ramabhran, among others.

“This is so humbling,” Gabbard says. “I am proud to represent Hawaii in such a positive way and to highlight what is special about our state.”

Past Hawaii awardees are U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye (1959), Maui’s Shane Victorino and Lucas Boyce (2011). National winners are nominated by Hawaii’s Jaycee chapter.

But is it enough to get her votes?

Gabbard faces former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, Hilo attorney Bob Marx, former state Office of Hawaiian Affairs chief advocate Esther Kiaaina, attorney Rafael Del Castillo and water safety instructor Miles Shiratori in the Democratic primary congressional race.

“It’s a job interview with constituents,” she says. “My mentality is that I’m applying for a job, and I must present my credentials, experiences and plans to achieve results in order to win the respect and acceptance of people in the community.

“I was taught at an early age that true reward and true happiness come from service to others,” she adds.

“When I was deployed, serving two years in a medical unit in Iraq, I saw the fragility of life. I saw daily the ultimate cost of war, and how communities and families are affected by the loss of those in military duty, including soldiers, fire-fighters and teachers.

“Later, working as an aide to U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who was chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, I was able to draw upon my combat experiences. There is a difference between real-life situations and policy talking points,” Gabbard asserts.

If she tends to wax philosophical about leadership, it reflects inspiration from her two life models: Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi and civil rights advocate Martin Luther King Jr.

“One must lead with the mentality of service,” Gabbard says. “It is a leadership concept that empowers people through openness and persuasion, versus control. If we link arms, we can get things done.”

The Jaycees applaud this approach as it sees a generational shift in national and business leadership. It notes that record numbers of college graduates are applying for public-sector jobs, and working for the government is cool again.

But Gabbard is quick to indicate the stakeholders.

“It’s not about me,” she emphasizes. “It’s about you (constituents).”

That moment of truth was brought home dramatically the morning after Gabbard won her first election as House representative from District 42 (Waipahu, Honouliuli, Ewa Beach).

As she was mahalo sign-waving from the roadside, a woman passenger in a passing car wrote a message on the back of a file folder and propped it up in the vehicle window.

It read: “Don’t let us down.”

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