Mary Jennings "MJ" Hegar isn’t the odds-on favorite to win her race against Republican incumbent John Carter in Texas' 31st Congressional District in November. But it's not the first time she has faced a closed door and prevailed.
In a powerful campaign video, "Doors," that debuted in June and quickly went viral, Hegar showed the world her story of surviving childhood domestic abuse and the negative effects of gender inequality in her military career. As the ad shows, she'd go on to make her mark on history despite it all.
"We need a new freshman class of servant leaders who are used to working with people we disagree with," Hegar said in a telephone interview with Military.com on Monday.
Hegar, an Air Force and combat veteran, believes her prior service aligns with the type of leadership the U.S. needs at a time of "hyper-partisan" politics that affects the way Americans deal, interact and empathize with one another. Her new mission is to work with her prospective lawmaker colleagues to back a stable, national security environment while fighting for better jobs and medical care back home.
"I see an uncomfortably flippant attitude toward putting our men and women in uniform at risk, by how we treat our allies, or how we treat a nuclear power or how we treat countries that are actively attacking our democracy. I think there are a lot of things that we need a lot more veterans in Congress because of that," she said.
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Hegar is running as a Democrat against Carter, an eight-term Republican. Carter, she said, once denied her a meeting years ago when she was looking for congressional support to pressure the Pentagon to allow women to serve in combat.
Hegar was one of four female veterans who signed on to a lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in 2012 against then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, calling existing restrictions against women serving in ground combat units unconstitutional. Resolution ultimately did not come through the courts -- the case remains open. But amid mounting pressure, Panetta reversed the ban in January 2013, paving the way for women to serve in previously closed units.
It is one of the reasons she wanted to put her story out there. Eventually, she said, it became the motivation behind her current campaign.
"In the military, we are thrown into a melting pot of cultures and communities and we disagree a lot on how to accomplish the mission, but when it comes time to get the work done, we focus our energy on accomplishing the mission," Hegar said. "We've got to tell our stories to influence culture, and we have to get more people elected who have faced challenges like domestic violence, working minimum-wage jobs, wondering how to get food on the table ... regular people."
Hegar describes herself a private, introverted person who doesn't seek attention. But she says she's concerned about the inadequate representation she's seen throughout her life as a service member, mother and proud Texan.
The "train had already left the station" for getting pretty personal during her powerful commercial, she said.
In the video, Hegar walks viewers through her life: Dreaming, as a young girl, of flying for the Air Force, to lobbying lawmakers to reverse outdated policies, to moments of pain that shaped her life story.
It "was very out-of-character for me, especially with anything to do with my kids [in the public eye] … but this is really who I am," said Hegar, who partnered with Putnam Partners, a political advertising firm, for the commercial.
"This district that I grew up in is a part of who I am, and I love my home, and I feel we deserve better representation," she said.
She won the primary runoff in May. She goes up against Carter in November.
"I got so sick of hearing, 'This is a state this or this is a state that, or I don't have to have a campaign or town hall' " to deal with issues, Hegar said. "If we elect people who have never been to public school, never had to worry about counting on Social Security, then how can they effectively legislate?"
Women as Warriors
Her memoir, "Shoot Like a Girl," which contains the occasional F-bomb, was published last year.
"There were very personal, private things like the domestic violence in my life," among other challenges, she said.
"I got this question once where someone asked me, 'How do you resolve the conflict of your warrior heart and your mothering, nurturing nature?' And it's the same thing. I don't know why the American culture separates the two for some reason, when in other cultures throughout history, women have been utilized in various military roles," she added.
Hegar experienced sexual assault in the Air Force. Her commanding officer helped her file the paperwork in order to deal with the crime internally, but justice never came. It was one of the reasons she left active duty when an opportunity to fly HH-60 Pave Hawks in the Air National Guard opened up in 2004.
On her third tour in Afghanistan in 2009, Hegar, co-piloting a helicopter during a combat search-and-rescue operation, came under direct enemy fire from the Taliban outside Kandahar.
She was shot, but hung on as the helicopter went down a few miles away. Two Army helicopters rescued the downed crew. Hegar returned fire as they circled over 150 Taliban fighters below. She earned the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross with "V" device for her actions, which helped save the lives of those aboard her helicopter.
"I feel like everyone always focuses on the shootdown," she said. "Being a pilot was a lot of hard work … and I had to demonstrate a skill set that I think will come in handy in D.C. and that was … to study and be an expert on a multitude of systems and things like that."
Hegar spent the first half of her career as an aircraft maintenance officer, an experience she said helped her develop management and business leadership skills.
"That's definitely more of the experience I lean on," she said.
Hegar served 12 years before separating as a major. Now, she wants those who exemplify "exceptional fortitude and courage under pressure" and "an inability to accept intimidation and bullying" to step up in Congress.
"The people who are sending our men and women in uniform into conflict need to understand that there are some things worth fighting for, but also understand the high cost of war," she said.
Catalyst for Change
Regarding the 2012 lawsuit, filed with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union, Hegar said her primary concern was for military effectiveness and the impact the exclusion policy had on recruiting and retention.
"We were losing women like myself because those women couldn't move on to jobs that were a natural progression or a natural fit for their skill set because they were women. Which was ridiculous," Hegar said, calling the lawsuit an extra boost to amplify the needed change.
"I was trying to provide a catalyst for change," she said, to "help push the administration over toward the other side of the fence to go ahead and take the very monumental and historic steps to actually repeal the policy."
Hegar helped co-found the Women in International Security's Combat Integration Initiative, a program that supports connecting female veterans through partnerships, conducts independent research to provide lawmakers, and meets with them or their staffers.
"I hate talking about women as a group -- I hate talking about any group as a group, because there are unique attributes to each individual, and that was really my whole argument for opening jobs and competition for women," she said. It should be about, "Let the best soldier win."
Hegar was supposed to sit down with Carter in 2013 to discuss these ideas, but he never showed up, she said. Carter has denied this account.
Hegar said she realized in the end that Carter's no-show wasn't just about trying to repeal one policy. It meant that better representation was needed across the U.S.
Stopping the Divide
Over the next few weeks, Hegar anticipates more town halls with community members and door-to-door visits with potential constituents.
It means "there's a real race on our hands," not just going to the ballot box and checking a name of someone district voters wouldn't know, she said.
"I'm doing my part to show the district that we deserve present representation who will listen to the different communities ... and not just stay in D.C. the whole time, but actually stay in the district, talking to and helping people in this district. Helping bring jobs here, helping people bring opportunity here."
She continued, "I think this toxic, hyper-partisanship is part of a gridlock that keeps us from getting anything done in D.C. It disgusts people and makes them tune out, turn off their TVs and stop reading the news. And that's dangerous."