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Female Veterans Are Answering The Call To Service — This Time As Democratic Candidates For Congress

Amy McGrath, right, with her husband, Erik Henderson, waves to supporters after being elected as the Democratic candidate for Kentucky's 6th Congressional District, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, in Richmond, Ky. (James Crisp/AP)
Amy McGrath, right, with her husband, Erik Henderson, waves to supporters after being elected as the Democratic candidate for Kentucky's 6th Congressional District, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, in Richmond, Ky. (James Crisp/AP)
This article is more than 1 year old.

At our Indivisible meeting several weeks ago, about a dozen of us were settling in to write postcards urging voter registration, when one of our members started telling us about an exciting campaign ad she’d been sent. She pulled out her cellphone, and we all gathered close to peer into the tiny screen and watch MJ Hegar, a Democrat running for Congress in Texas’s 31st District, narrate her story.

The video is called “Doors,” and if you haven’t seen it yet, it does a powerful job of juxtaposing an image of the door from Hegar’s Air Force helicopter — the only part of the craft left after she was shot down while rescuing wounded soldiers in Afghanistan — with her early childhood memory of her abusive father throwing her mother through a glass door. She also describes her post-military drive to open and, if need be, kick down more doors to effect change.

Hegar did three tours of duty in Afghanistan. She was the second woman ever awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor by the Air Force. She is a brave pilot and person, and the inspiring video made several in our group reach for tissues. The child’s trauma undergirds the adult warrior’s fierce insistence that our politics must change.

Hegar is not alone.

She is but one of a handful of former servicewomen running for Congress as Democrats.

Here’s a little more about the others:

Mikie Sherrill, who is running in New Jersey's 11th District, is a Naval Academy graduate and helicopter pilot who spent 10 years in active duty.

Running in Texas's 23rd District, Gina Ortiz Jones is an openly-gay Filipina immigrant and Air Force vet who served during Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Amy McGrath, running in Kentucky's 6th District, is a Marine fighter pilot who flew 89 combat missions bombing al Qaida and the Taliban.

Chrissy Houlahan, a captain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, is the Democratic nominee in Pennsylvania's 6th District.

Running in Virginia's 2nd District, Elaine Luria served for two decades as a Navy officer and nuclear engineer, deploying a total of six times.

And finally, in New Hampshire's 1st District, candidate Maura Sullivan attended college on a ROTC scholarship, joined the Marines and later deployed to Iraq.

Republicans have long positioned themselves as the party of patriotism, and of the Pentagon. What is happening?

While each candidate expresses her own reasons now for running — from a fairly boilerplate statement of being dedicated to public service (Ortiz Jones) to a more specific expression of feeling distressed by Trump’s distorting American values (Houlahan), their collective wish for gender equality seems key.

Sherrill, explained to the Washington Post that “she and other female veterans are motivated ... by a ‘lack of respect’ for women by the Trump administration and by the dearth of women on Capitol Hill.” Sherrill said was “astounded to see an all-male Senate panel debating last year whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act."

As Hegar’s (and McGrath’s) viral videos display, these women are bold. They have seen war up close, served in combat and pushed to break down sexist barriers in the military. They have lived the complexity of diverse cultures and religions — at home and abroad. Some have sustained injuries and continued on. They love America; but they don’t love what they’re seeing in Washington — including its deviation from codes of duty and sacrifice engrained in them, and its retrograde attitudes toward women. They are eager to make a change.

... female veterans could help reinvigorate our democracy.

The outcome of their races this fall is unclear. Hegar’s district, for example, is considered “safe” Republican. Other districts look more promising. But each woman’s odds could change many times between now and November.

Meanwhile, their very presence signals a remarkable possibility: Should we have a blue wave, and should they get elected, female veterans could help reinvigorate our democracy.

At the heart of this notion is an irony: Unlike the Federal government, the press, or academia, the military is the one institution in America that hasn’t been relentlessly attacked and devalued by loud right-wing spokespeople. Tough veterans get respect. But this critical mass of outspoken female veterans turned politicians is a relatively new category. (Currently, there are four female veterans divided between the House and the Senate.) This group seems to be mixing contemporary notions of female equality with more established military values. And the mix might just produce a winning cocktail.

What are those “traditional” values? To quote from the Naval Academy mission statement, it seeks to imbue its graduates “with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who ... have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.”

It turns out the language of good government and civil society continues not only to be taught in all the service branches, but to have traction as well. However constantly the military might fail to hold true to its ideals, it’s still a place where enlistees get drilled in the concepts. And, at this moment, their knowledge and experience may be the fix Washington needs. Or at least a vital part of it.

The current Republican president shamelessly dodged military service and makes it clear he has no real guiding principles — much less ones that place others before oneself. Furthermore, he has no respect for bold women. This new “hybrid” group of female vets — old values, new attitudes — isn’t having it. The battle lines have been drawn.


Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.


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