Earlier this month, retired Marine Lt. Col. Amy McGrath grabbed national attention overnight when she announced a bid for Congress with a video ad that quickly went viral. Days ago, she released another spot, this one recalling the chilling role she was called to play in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Then a newly minted F/A-18 Hornet pilot stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, McGrath (call-sign “Krusty”) was one of the few weapons systems officers to report to the base before it was locked down.
"My commanding officer had no choice but to put me in the back seat of an F-18 with engines running at the end of the runway, ready to take off at a moment's notice," she said. "I sat there for four hours, waiting to see if we would have to shoot down a passenger airliner. All I could think of was, this is not what I signed up for."
Although the order to take out the passenger plane never came, for McGrath, the episode illustrates the power wielded by the president and the contemporary choice she believes lawmakers may have to make: "Do you stand with the president, or do you stand with the country?"
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In her ads, McGrath said she is troubled by what she perceives as President Donald Trump's failure to condemn recent white supremacist demonstrations. In an interview with Military.com this week, she said she was also perturbed by the atmosphere of dishonesty and "fake news" that followed the 2016 election.
"I think they respect the office, but many of my [military] colleagues are worried that [Trump] does not understand what a commander-in-chief is," she said.
McGrath, 42, retired from the Marine Corps on June 1 after a 20-year career, having completed her final tour of duty as an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy. To go from being subject to the orders of a sitting commander-in-chief, to openly challenging him in politics in just a matter of months isn't a role she envisioned for herself.
"If you had talked to me a year ago today, there's no way I would tell you that I was going to be running," she said.
While she is challenging Republican incumbent Andy Barr as a Democrat for Kentucky's 6th district, McGrath said she's interested in getting beyond the partisan politics. Her husband, retired Navy officer Erik Henderson, is a lifelong Republican, she said, and while he won't be able to vote for her in the upcoming primary, they agree on a majority of issues.
McGrath's campaign website currently has a detailed biography of her life and service, and will eventually include a section that outlines her political stances. While she said she's working on that now, it's emblematic of her priorities, which stress leadership and service above all.
For McGrath, a recent example of congressional politicking that did not serve the people came with the unsuccessful Republican attempt to repeal the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, an effort that culminated in a down-to-the-wire midnight vote in July.
"I think people are hungry for regular people to stand up and throw the bulls--- flag," she said. "That's essentially what I'm doing. I want to be someone who says 'Hey, we need to stop this.' Great military leaders are not the ones who say we can have it all and don't follow through. I just felt like we need better leaders. And if I don't try, I can't complain."
There are now 102 military veterans serving in the House and Senate, and that bond of military service may help to overcome other dividing political lines, she said.
"Veterans are already sort of invested in the country ... we put our lives on the line in combat," McGrath said.
McGrath often tweets about military issues, and weighed in recently to condemn Trump's recent plan to ban transgender troops from serving. A centerpiece of her first viral campaign ad was the fact that she is the first female Marine to fly a Hornet in combat, years after petitioning local and national officials -- as a teenager -- to overturn the policy preventing women from doing so.
She also supports the full gender integration of initial military training, a move currently being considered by Marine Corps leadership.
"When you have a pack and you're doing the exact same thing that the guy next to you is doing, it's much harder for that man to turn to you and say you don't belong," she said. "And that's why integrated training is so important."
McGrath is exultant now that women in uniform have the right to serve in any military position, but emphasized that she and other female troops did not need handouts to succeed.
"I never asked to be placed in the cockpit of an F-18. I asked to compete," she said. "We're just asking for that opportunity."
The primary is set for May 22, 2018. McGrath will face Democrat Reggie Thomas, a member of the Kentucky state senate, before she can make it to the general election.
Video Flight of the F-18