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How MJ Hegar's Fight To Open Military Combat Roles For Women Inspired Her Current Senate Bid

MJ Hegar participates in a debate in February with other candidates running for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.
Gabriel C. Pérez
MJ Hegar participates in a debate in February with other candidates running for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.

MJ Hegar has been the front-runner throughout Texas' Democratic primary race for the U.S. Senate. Hegar, who first ran for office during a wave of women seeking office following the Me Too movement, won 22% of the vote in the crowded March primary.

Her opponent in the July runoff, state Sen. Royce West, won 14%. That means Hegar is more likely to challenge incumbent Republican John Cornyn during his re-election in November.

Hegar first garnered national attention about three years ago when she announced she was running for Congress against Austin-area Republican incumbent John Carter. RELATED | Early Voting Has Started For Texas' Primary Runoffs. Here's What You Need To Know.

Hegar’s campaign ran a splashy ad that told the story of her career as an Air Force pilot, her childhood and her fight to get women the ability to serve in combat roles in the military. The ad was fast-paced, moving and featured Hegar as a no-nonsense fighter who had had it with her local congressman.

It got a lot of attention – 2 million views on YouTube within just a few days.

Hegar ended up losing to Carter by less than 3 percentage points in the 2018 election. But just to compare: Carter won his election in 2016 by more than 20 points. The election before that, he won by more than 30.

As with many other female candidates, gender discrimination was a major issue in the election Hegar said the issue became particularly important to her after she flew a medical mission in Afghanistan several years ago.

“In my third tour I was shot down and had to engage the enemy in ground combat in order to help rescue my crew and patients,” she said.

Hegar said it was a group effort, but they got out. Everyone survived.

“That experience made me one of the lead voices in the fight to open ground combat jobs for women,” she said. “Women were in ground combat, but they weren’t allowed to officially serve in the roles that are considered the primary ground mission roles.”

Hegar said the policy was not only discriminatory, but it also hurt the military.

“It was tying the hands of the commanders in the field,” she said. “I agreed to take on that fight even though it meant the end of my pilot career. You know, we don’t have the right to organize. We don’t have unions in the military.

In 2012, Hegar sued the Pentagon, ending her military career.  

She shifted to health care and stayed committed to getting the military to change its policy on women.

Hegar said most of the pushback she got didn’t come from the military; it came from politicians in D.C.

“That’s when I had to become more active politically,” she said. “I think a lot of Texans find a distaste for politics, and I was one of them.”

So, Hegar and a colonel in the Army created a kind of lobbying group. She said they recruited 25 female combat vets who were frustrated with the military’s policy. They knocked on doors and lobbied members of Congress.

“You know, we didn’t raise money and pay ourselves a salary,” she said. “We just took time off work and went to D.C. and talked to as many senators and Congress men and women and staffers as possible. “

They eventually won the fight, but Hegar said it was hard to get politicians to talk to her.

The experience, she said, taught her how D.C. works. Hegar said she learned that unless you’re a moneyed special interest, it’s hard to get lawmakers' attention.  

“It seems like they are more focused on getting reelected and serving their corporate donors and their profit margins,” she said.

That’s why Hegar said she decided to run for office in 2018. In particular, she chose to run against her own congressman – one of those politicians who wouldn’t hear her out.

Now, in her run for U.S. Senate, Hegar is stressing she understands what families in Texas are going through – especially these days – because she’s raising a family here herself.

“I have a 3 and a 5-year-old,” she said. “And so when I look at them and I look at the world they are growing up into, and I look at the impact of climate change and the impact of the gun violence epidemic – I wonder whether or not they will have access to quality education and quality affordable health care.”

Hegar said she’s making those issues her next fight.

Got a tip? Email Ashley Lopez at Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio .

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Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Ashley Lopez joined KUT in January 2016. She covers politics and health care, and is part of the NPR-Kaiser Health News reporting collaborative. Previously she worked as a reporter at public radio stations in Louisville, Ky.; Miami and Fort Myers, Fla., where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.