F/A 18 Hornet, Amy McGrath’s ride for 89 combat missions. Photo from Pixabay.

These thoughts collide at the intersection of veterans serving in Congress and women serving in the military.

There were not quite the percentage of veterans in Congress as there were among my peers, but you expected to see a military record in a candidate bio. By the time I signed up, the custom had spread to women or, I should say, girls. I was 17, and sometimes I think the military recruiters took too much advantage from the belief we all had that we were bulletproof.

The boys were split on the idea of girls enlisting, but that cow left the barn in WWII, and the dispute had moved on to women serving in combat units. Two things seemed to me decisive. First, the enemy does not inquire whether a person in uniform is assigned to a combat unit. Second, it’s a fact of military life in wartime that promotions are tied to getting your ticket punched in a zone of combat operations.

There were women pilots just about from the time there were pilots, but their primary duty was delivering to the front lines those aircraft that were not shipped in pieces, a method that became impractical as technology got more complicated. The next step was assigning women to fly medevac, and I have never understood how they could be assigned that duty and maintain the fiction that they would never have to fly into a hot zone and pick up casualties while under fire. Isn’t that what medevac does?

The first overt combat missions for women that I remember were assigned in the First Gulf War. I’m not a military historian and my impression could be wrong, but I am certain that the fear of women shot down being subjected to sexual assault was realized during that war. No surprise there. Armies have always raped, just as they have always looted. The difference is that our pilots are issued sidearms and trained in their use. If I were behind enemy lines and had a chance of evading capture, I’m sure a fist full of 9 mm would increase my confidence — and I have no reason to think a woman would feel differently.

Women combat veterans may be a new idea, but part of getting used to it is watching them run for Congress. There is a lot of that going around.

I remember when Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) was running for her current position. Her opponent accused her of being a one issue candidate, the one issue being veterans’ affairs. The accusation was false but sounded credible because she had worked in veterans’ affairs at the state level, and there was some credibility behind her advocacy in the fact that she left both her legs in Iraq when her chopper went down during a medevac mission. I confess that I sent her a campaign contribution from Texas motivated by my own status as a disabled veteran.

Another attack line was done on the down low, an accusation that she is by blood not American but rather Thai. She is the daughter of a GI marriage, born in her mother’s country, Thailand, but I’m thinking if the non-American party were British rather than Thai, we are not having this conversation. That sounds like an argument that arose along with Donald Trump, and it’s about as credible.

Sen. Duckworth has three, count ’em three, female combat pilots in the hunt to join her in the U.S. Senate. One is there now by appointment. Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) is seeking reelection after being appointed to her current term. I am an independent, and I considered supporting McSally against a very strong Democrat, but that impulse died quickly when she abandoned the traditional Republican Party in favor of Trumpism.

Trump has made himself so obnoxious to Arizona voters that he is expected to take McSally down with him. She will probably be replaced by Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut, twin brother of another astronaut and husband of Gabby Giffords, the Congresswoman injured in a mass shooting at one of her campaign events.

The other two combat pilots are probably either going to be elected or not, depending on whether this is a wave election and Trump is buried under a landslide.

Amy McGrath has the tougher row to hoe. The Kentucky native is taking on Moscow Mitch McConnell, the current majority leader who takes great pride in his nickname, “Grim Reaper.” He is better known for bills he does not allow to come to a vote on the Senate floor than for legislation he has passed. Right now, he is preventing a vote on another relief package for persons left jobless by the pandemic. Of course, he will find time to push through Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.

McGrath is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a twenty year veteran of the Marine Corps. She is a veteran of three combat deployments flying aboard the F/A 18 as a backseater and as a pilot including 89 combat missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

I get to vote in the final race featuring a woman pilot. MJ Hegar is taking on John Cornyn (R-TX), who served as Republican Whip until 2018. From that position and his seat on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Cornyn has been a Trump enabler exceeding nobody with the possible exception of Moscow Mitch McConnell. In the last month of the campaign, he has released his death grip on Donald Trump’s coattails. Trump has been unable to break away from the dead heat with Joe Biden shown in Texas statewide polling.

I have two things in common with MJ Hegar. We both graduated from the University of Texas and we both are disabled veterans who have caught hell for the ways we chose to conceal our injuries. I have a scar across my face I chose to cover with a beard, which led to becoming unemployable as a high school teacher (and going on to law school). Hegar has scars from the injuries that won her a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor. She has hidden her scars with tattoos. Her detractors point at her tats and her motorcycle as unladylike.

Hegar flew three combat tours in Afghanistan on search and rescue and medevac duty. During one of those missions, her helicopter was shot down by the Taliban. After a hard landing, she helped her patients on board another chopper. Hegar, still bleeding from her own injuries, was evacuated tied to the skids as she returned fire on the Taliban. That was a bit unladylike, too, but her part in saving her patients after the crash earned the V (“valor”) on her Distinguished Flying Cross.

Sen. Cornyn is defending himself by running against Bernie Sanders. Medicare for all, Green New Deal, etc. It’s a tried and true tactic in Texas that will work again unless this coming election is a wave in favor of change. Cornyn is not terribly popular and it won’t take a flood to sweep him away.

Amy McGrath’s run will require a veritable tsunami, but the fact is that McConnell and Cornyn are the two chief Trump enablers in the Senate — meaning that McGrath and Hegar might attract a few honest Republican votes.

When we were having the debate over women in combat, I don’t recall anyone anticipating that we would have the possibility of four female combat veterans serving in the Senate at the same time. I don’t look at public office as a reward for military service, but I do think veterans are less likely to fall in line when the war drums are beating. You think wars are wonderful things? Ask the man (or woman) who served in one.

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)

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