Adam Kinzinger, the 34-year-old Republican congressman from Illinois, considers September 11 2001 the first of two major, life-changing moments for him. The second came five years later, in 2006, when Kinzinger and his then-girlfriend were walking down Milwaukee’s North Avenue after having dinner with a friend.
“I hear this commotion and screaming and this girl is running at me across the street, and she’s just holding her throat, with blood pouring out,” he says. “I don’t know if you’ve been in a situation where you’ve separated from your body almost, because it’s just unreal, and that was one of those.” Running up behind the injured woman was a man, her boyfriend, wielding a knife and donning what Kinzinger called a “psycho look.”
At that moment, the future congressman had two thoughts in his mind. The first was that, if he tried to save this woman, he was probably going to be killed in the process.
“I said, I’m going to get stabbed and I’m going to die,” Kinzinger says. “But the second thought that went through my head was, I can’t watch this happen to her and live with that memory for the rest of my life. And I don’t want to live with that. You know, because as a man, and especially as a military officer, you always like to think of yourself as a protector of people. I literally would have rather died than to have the thought of saying that I sissied out and ran.”
So he confronted the psychotic looking man and tried calm him down. When that didn’t work, he says, Kinzinger started yelling at him. “My goal is to get him pissed off at me so he runs after me, because I’ll outrun this fatty any day,” he says. “He was drunk, and he was schizophrenic. But a big dude.”
By this point, Kinzinger’s girlfriend had been trying to put the bleeding, scared woman into a car. The crazed man lunged toward his victim to finish the job. Kinzinger was at a decision point.
“If you ever have a fight-or-flee battle in your body, it’s a real thing. It’s not like psychological. It’s like your mind is saying ‘fight’ and your body’s saying ‘get the heck out of here.’ And literally, the fight thing won by probably an iota,” Kinzinger says. “Otherwise we’d be talking about the story of how I ran away from a girl getting murdered. I turned around and I saw him pull her out. He goes to stab her, and I grab him, I put my arm around him, and we actually grappled for probably a good 15, 20 seconds, where it’s a power struggle.” He says he doesn’t remember what happened next, only that he ended up on top of the man, with one hand pinning his face to the ground and the other pinning his knife-hand.
“And I remember, if I had a third hand, I was actually trying to kill him at that point,” Kinzinger says. A fellow bystander who had been watching, unsure of how to help, pounced on the man, and Kinzinger’s girlfriend kicked the knife out of his hand. The police showed up soon after and arrested the man for attempted murder. The woman got over 100 stitches in her neck and survived.
“That was a point when I realized, if you make a decision to give your life for something, which I did, it changes you,” he says. Almost every day since, he adds, he’s thought about that night and the lessons about leadership he learned from that experience.
“In a combat situation or in a real crazy situation, half of people will run, no matter what,” Kinzinger says. “Four-fifths of the remaining fifty percent will act only when told what to do. And ten percent will actually take control of the situation and lead. That’s what our military teaches officers, is how to not run and then not just do what’s told, but how to actually lead in that chaotic situation.”
Kinzinger, who has military experience, likes to think he’s part of that 10 percent in Congress, leading on the issues that matter and taking a stand on principle, even when the situation looks like a political loser. It’s how he says he approached the issue of entitlement reform, specifically the Medicare reforms of the House Republican budget, for which he voted. Since taking office in 2011, Kinzinger has held 50 town hall meetings—events his predecessor, Democrat Debbie Halvorson, was infamously reluctant to hold—and several of those meetings were at senior centers and with AARP members.
Kinzinger says the urge to go toe-to-toe with his opponents, political or otherwise, is just who he is. “I don’t like really running away from a fight much,” he shrugs.