After Iraq and Afghanistan, pioneering women in the military set sights on Congress

By Mary Jordan
Feb. 8, 2018 at 12:28 a.m. GMT+9

Alex Cornell du Houx, center, has Joe Tate of Detroit, right, participate in an exercise during a session he was leading at the Veterans Campaign Political Leadership Workshop. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Alex Cornell du Houx, center, has Joe Tate of Detroit, right, participate in an exercise during a session he was leading at the Veterans Campaign Political Leadership Workshop. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

In Amy McGrath’s pitch to voters in Kentucky, she wears a bomber jacket and stands next to an F/A-18, the fighter jet she flew as a Marine to drop bombs on Afghanistan.

In Mikie Sherrill’s political ad in New Jersey, the camera lingers over a whirring Sea King helicopter, like the one she piloted on Navy missions.

And in Martha McSally’s video announcing her run for Senate in Arizona, she is crouched in the cockpit of an Air Force fighter jet to underscore that she was the first woman to fly in combat.

Women who served in the military are running for elective office in greater numbers than at any time in history. Many broke gender barriers in uniform and say it’s time to make their mark in politics. For generations, military veterans who become elected officials have overwhelmingly been male and Republican, but these female veterans, many of whom served in pioneering combat roles in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are overwhelmingly Democrats and critical of President Trump.

“Many of us felt like we really had to focus on some of the areas that needed further groundbreaking, such as the House of Representatives and the Senate,” said Sherrill, 46, a Democrat running in New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District. Sherrill said she and other female veterans are motivated to run for office by what she calls a “lack of respect” for women by the Trump administration and by the dearth of women on Capitol Hill. She said she was astounded to see an all-male Senate panel debating last year whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Sherrill is considered a strong contender who could flip the Republican seat being vacated by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who surprised many by dropping out of the race in January after 24 years in Congress. His district voted for Trump by less than one percentage point.

Only four of the 535 members of Congress are female veterans, two Republicans and two Democrats. But at least 32 more women who served in the military are now campaigning for the House and Senate — 25 Democrats and seven Republicans, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Scores more are campaigning for statewide office and state legislative seats, many with the aim of running for Congress later.

The increase in veterans running — the number of men is rising, too — is beginning to reverse the long decline of veterans in Congress. In the 1970s, more than 70 percent of House and Senate members had served in the military. Today, about 20 percent have.

Although the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan created a larger pool of potential candidates, it is no coincidence that at a time of sinking regard for politicians, bomber jackets, Bronze Stars and aviator wings are showing up in so many 2018 campaign ads. A recent Gallup poll showed that 72 percent of people had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military, but only 12 percent did for Congress.

Combat veterans in Congress have a long history of commanding attention when discussing war. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who lost her legs when a rocket-propelled grenade hit her Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq, was widely quoted recently when she called Trump a “five-deferment draft dodger” and accused him of goading North Korea.

In response to Trump calling Democrats “treasonous” for not clapping during his State of the Union address, Duckworth countered that she swore an oath to the Constitution and did not have to “mindlessly cater to the whims of Cadet Bone Spurs,” a reference to Trump receiving a Vietnam War-era deferment because of bone spurs.

Democrats want to highlight the fact that many military veterans are appalled by Trump, who has filled his inner circle with retired generals and is planning a huge military parade later this year.

Studies have shown that veterans in office are more reluctant to vote to go to war, but that once war is declared, they back an all-out effort, said Rebecca Burgess, who studies veterans in public office for the American Enterprise Institute.

In half a dozen interviews with female candidates who are veterans, health care was a key reason they wanted to run. Many also talked about the need to improve education, to gain greater gender parity and to institute paid maternity leave. Wanting strong national security, they said, was a given and rarely mentioned first.

“Women look around and see what is happening, and they want to see change,” said Maura Sullivan, 38, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and is a Democrat running for an open House seat in New Hampshire. She said many issues need to be addressed, including child care, mental health and maternity leave.

Sullivan, who worked at the Pentagon in the Obama administration, also said she has seen firsthand the devastating consequences of war, and thinks that Trump “puts the national security of this country at risk” with his “erratic and bizarre” behavior.

McGrath agreed that many veterans are upset with the commander in chief: “A lot of us are saying this isn’t the country we fought for.”

The former combat pilot singled out the need for better affordable health care for her candidacy. She first must win the Democratic primary — a field that includes Lexington Mayor Jim Gray — for the chance to unseat Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr (R). A viral campaign video has boosted her bid. In it she says that at age 13, she wrote to her members of Congress saying she wanted an opportunity to fly fighter jets. Her House member wrote back saying that women were not allowed in combat, and her senator, Mitch McConnell (R), never replied.

McGrath ended up flying 89 combat missions against al- ­Qaeda and the Taliban.

Several Republican Party officials acknowledged that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and liberal groups, including, are increasing their efforts to recruit veterans who are critical of Trump.

“Democrats have made a concerted effort because of the stigma attached to them since the 2016 election, which showed them to be out of touch with voters, a party of coastal elites,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

But Hunt said that although military service is admirable, “biography is not everything, and a Democrat is a Democrat.”

Voters are swayed by where a candidate stands on issues such as single-payer health care and tax cuts, Hunt said.

But many Democrats see the effectiveness of having combat veterans speak out on deeply partisan issues, including those involving guns.

Burgess, of the American Enterprise Institute, said veterans have an identity apart from political party. Many grew up in middle-class and rural areas, and that helps them “get away from the hated image of the elite politician,” she said.

Jeremy Teigen, author of a new book, “Why Veterans Run,” said Republicans have had more success in getting their veterans elected. Democrats have a history of backing veterans in long-shot races. But he said there are signs this year that Democrats are being more strategic.

Of 36 veterans who attended a two-day workshop run by the nonpartisan Veterans Campaign in Washington last month, 14 were Democrats, nine were Republicans and the rest were undecided or independents.

Erica Courtney, a former Army helicopter pilot and a Democrat living in Virginia, was one of those who attended sessions such as “Bulletproofing Your Service Record & Avoiding Common Pitfalls.” She said the military taught her to lead by example and to be inclusive, adding, “Now I am embarrassed to watch the nightly news with my children.”

In Arizona, McSally is embracing Trump as she seeks the seat being vacated by Sen. Jeff Flake (R).

Elected to the House in 2015, McSally faces former sheriff Joe Arpaio, another Trump ally, in the Republican primary. The retired Air Force colonel is flying herself to campaign stops, telling voters she will work with Trump on border security, a top issue in her Arizona district.

She also uses “salty language,” as she calls it — just like the guys she served with in the military. She got people’s attention last year when as a House member, she stood up in a GOP conference room during discussions about replacing the Affordable Care Act and said “let’s get this f—ing thing done.”

“Sorry if I offended you, but that is who I am,” McSally said in an interview. She said most voters appreciate her candid, straightforward, “even a little edgy” approach.

“Like our president, I am tired of PC politicians and their BS excuses,” McSally said in a video announcing her Senate bid. “I am a fighter pilot, and I talk like one. That’s why I told Washington Republicans to grow a pair of ovaries and get the job done.”

McGrath, the Kentucky Democrat, said the male-dominated world of politics makes sense for female veterans like her. “Success in combat as a fighter pilot is not gender-dependent,” she said. “A lot of women out there kicked butt.”

Alex Cornell du Houx, center, has Joe Tate of Detroit, right, participate in an exercise during a session he was leading at the Veterans Campaign Political Leadership Workshop. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

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