Does Military Service Prepare Veterans For Politics?


Congressional candidates MJ Hegar (right) and Gina Ortiz Jones speak at the LBJ Presidential Library in June. Both are military veterans seeking their first political office.
Jay Godwin / LBJ Library

Dozens of military veterans – many of them with recent service in Afghanistan and Iraq – are offering themselves as an antidote to Washington’s partisan rancor.

Veterans now make up less than 20 percent of Congress, compared with about 75 percent in the 1960s, according to the non-partisan organization, With Honor. Some high-profile candidates are trying to reverse that trend.

They’re running for Congress, often as political newcomers challenging longtime incumbents. Their campaign ads and websites play up their military experience and their service to the country.

“We’re at a record low number of veteran representatives in Congress, and it’s no coincidence that we’re at a record level of toxic, hyper-partisanship,” said Texas congressional candidate MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who is running as a Democrat in a historically Republican district that includes Fort Hood.  “I have a record of putting this country ahead of myself.”

Hegar is challenging eight-term incumbent John Carter, a non-veteran with an extensive background in military affairs. She kicked off her campaign in June with an autobiographical video that earned more than 4 million views online and raised upwards of $750,000. It puts her combat experience front and center, starting with the day she earned the Purple Heart.

“I was on a rescue mission in Afghanistan as a combat search and rescue pilot. I heard the windshield crack and realized I’d been shot,” Hegar tells viewers as the scene unfolds onscreen. “But I continued the mission and airlifted the patients out. After taking even more fire, we crashed a few miles away.”

Grounded by the attack, Hegar tried to get a different job in air support, but Pentagon policy at the time barred women from combat roles. With assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, Hegar challenged the policy in court and won.

Now, as she runs for Congress, Hegar says she put her military service at the center of her campaign not as a strategic move but as a reflection of who she is.

She argues that, while military experience isn’t the only thing that defines a candidate, veterans are uniquely equipped to deal with socially and politically divisive issues.

“I think that veterans have been thrust into a melting pot of people, have had to take on large-scale obstacles, and have been all around the world and immersed in other cultures,” she said.

At a campaign event in Austin, Democrats Debra Coe said Hegar has the kind of background that can help their party win control of Congress.

“She’s not afraid of anything” Coe said. “She’s fierce, and that’s what we need.”

Female veterans run in several states

Hegar is one of more than 400 veterans who’ve run for Congress this year, though some have already lost their primaries. As of mid-August, about 80 had won their party nominations; ten of those are women.

In addition to Hegar, they include fellow Texas Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer; Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath, a former Marine pilot; and New Jersey Democrat Mikie Sherrill, who served as a Navy helicopter pilot.

For former military members, it’s not always easy to transition to politics.

“You’re out there in a very nasty and polarized political environment; that’s a big change from what most of our constituents saw in the military,” said Norm Bonnyman of  Veterans Campaign , a non-partisan organization that trains veterans to run for office.

Among the challenges facing veterans: As newcomers to politics, they often have little experience raising money and may lack the political connections they need to get party support. Many also lack deep ties to a community because they moved around a lot during their years in the service.

“While they have the discipline, while they have drive, while they have the leadership traits that a lot of folks are interested in seeing in their elected officials, those barriers to entry are very high,” Bonnyman said.

Then there are the gerrymandered, less competitive districts that make it hard for anybody to beat an incumbent.

“You can run a very compelling candidate with a military biography, but you can’t move a plus 20 Republican district into the Democrats’ column with merely changing the biography of your candidate,” said Jeremy Teigen, a political scientist from Ramapo College of New Jersey who wrote the book Why Veterans Run.

Rep. John Carter (R-TX) has been serving in Congress since 2003. Though he’s not a veteran, he’s talked a lot during his campaign about his support of the military. Credit Carson Frame / American Homefront

Incumbents stress their military support

Carter, the Republican incumbent in Texas’ 31st District, has said little during his reelection campaign about the military service of Hegar, his Democratic challenger. But he’s played up his own support of the military.

Carter wrote and championed the Veterans Transplant Coverage Act, a newly-passed piece of legislation that allows veterans to receive organ transplants from non-veterans with their VA coverage. He also pushed to get additional funding for Fort Hood as part of the defense budget.

“By their very nature, soldiers and the military demand more attention, and I’m glad to give it to them,” Carter said. “My overall congressional experience has been heavily centered on veterans affairs.”

Carter has run against veterans before and never lost.

“I think we rise or fall on our accomplishments of our lives,” Carter said. “That’s generally how I run my race, whoever I’m running against. ”

During a recent appearance by Carter at an American Legion post, many voters in the heavily Republican district said they didn’t know much about Hegar, and that her veteran status was unlikely to make them vote across party lines.

“I won’t vote for a Democrat,” said American Legion member American Legion member Larry Gossett. “Their philosophies and their beliefs are nothing close to what mine are.”

The Cook Political Report in August ranked the seat “Likely Republican” in the November election.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2018 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.
Advertisements

West Point Women Reflect On Marines’ Nude Photo Scandal


Laura Westley and Carol Barkalow are both West Point graduates and authors of memoires about their military experiences.
Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

The recent scandal over Marines sharing nude photos of female Marines online hasn’t demoralized some women veterans. Two female West Point graduates from Florida refuse to let it overshadow recent gains women have made in the military. And they have some ideas on how to prevent similar incidents.

The United States Military Academy at West Point didn’t even accept women in their ranks until 1976. Carol Barkalow was in that first class. She graduated in 1980 and served 22 years in the Army.

Barkalow remembers how female cadets were hazed and harassed back then. But she said women have made progress since, even in light of the nude photos.

“There is some good news with this, even though what they did was horrible,” Barkalow said. “Now, we have the social media and the interest to try at last to get the military to understand that we are a vital part of this force. We are never going away and some very basic things have to change within our military.”

West Point has come a long way over the last 40 years, she said. It now has a female dean of students and female commandant.

“But what we have to have – we have to have women, general officers admirals in every rank in each of the services. So much so that, when you walk in a room, it’s not just one woman, it’s not just two women, it’s a number of women sitting at the table and have the ability to influence our future,” Barkalow said.

Barkalow, who lives in Pinellas County, is friends with 2001 West Point graduate Laura Westley, who grew up in New Port Richey. Continue reading

Remembering the First Fallen from All-Female Team

   1st Lt. Ashley White was a member of the all-female Army Cultural Support Team. She was killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan in October 2011 while supporting a Ranger night mission. Credit Ashley White Family / Memorial Page


1st Lt. Ashley White was a member of the all-female Army Cultural Support Team. She was killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan in October 2011 while supporting a Ranger night mission.
Credit Ashley White Family / Memorial Page

Among those who will be remembered this Memorial Day is 1st Lt. Ashley White, a member of an all-female, all-Army Cultural Support Team attached to a Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan.

White is buried behind her family’s church in Ohio. It’s the same church where she was baptized and where she married Capt. Jason Stumpf six months before she was killed.

The family had the option of burying Ashley at Arlington National Cemetery,

“They wanted to keep her close to home,” said best-selling author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. She tells the story of Ashley and her female teammates in her new book: Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.

“One of the things that always stays for me is the first time I was in Ohio there was a sign in her room written on ripped up notebook paper that said in all block letters ‘YOU ARE MY MOTIVATION’,” Lemmon said. “You realize, it was not this exceptional person’s death that defined her. It was actually her life and the kind of person she was.”

White and two Army Rangers, Sgt. First Class Kris Domeij and Private First Class Christopher Horns, were killed by an improvised explosive device during a night mission in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan October 2011.

One was 29 and on his fourteenth deployment; another was just 20 serving on his first. And one was a National Guard member who answered the call to join a new, all-female, all Army special operations team. – Ashley’s War –

“This story is part of changing the way we see our heroes. And that is really what was so compelling about telling it was it was this team of women who came together and took the call to serve and will be family forever,” Lemmon said.

Ashley's_War_book_coverShe writes that the only comfort Ashley’s teammates could find in her death is that she was treated equally, the same as the two Rangers who died alongside. Just like them, a Ranger coin was placed on her casket before departing Afghanistan and her photo was placed on the wall of Ranger fallen.

“Special Operations commanders here in Tampa said these women may have well laid the foundation for ultimate integration,” Lemmon said. “They were out there every single night on these kinds of combat operations that less than 5 percent of U.S. military sees at the tip of the spear while officially women were banned from combat.”

She added that the White family considers that part of their daughter’s legacy is reminding the country of the courage and valor of this team of women who answered that call to serve.

You can read an excerpt from Ashley’s War here.

Author Lemmon also wrote the New York Times best-seller, The Dressmaker Of Khair Khana, which tells the story of a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business created jobs and hope for women during the Taliban years. Lemmon was in Tampa recently to speak to the Women in International Security Florida Chapter.

You can listen to the WUSF News story with Lemmon and the NPR interview from April.

The Story of the All Female Unit That Served with SOF

Ashley's_War_book_coverGayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of Ashley’s War, a book on the women who served with Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan, is speaking Monday, May 18, 2015 at 3:30 pm at the Port Tampa Library,  4902 West Commerce Street, Tampa, FL

Good Reads calls Ashley’s War “a gripping story of a groundbreaking team of female American warriors who served alongside Special Operations soldiers on the battlefield in Afghanistan—including Ashley White, a beloved soldier who died serving her country’s cause.”

Lemmon’s discussion is sponsored by the Women In International Security Florida WIIS. It will be followed by a book signing.

In Ashley’s War, Lemmon uses on-the ground reporting and a finely tuned understanding of the complexities of war to tell the story of CST-2, a unit of women hand-picked from the Army, and the remarkable hero at its heart: 1st Lt. Ashley White, who would become the first Cultural Support Team member killed in action and honored on the Army Special Operations Memorial Wall of Honor alongside the men of Ranger Regiment with whom she died on mission.

Lemmon also shared details about the book during an interview with National Public Radio in April. You can listen to that interview here. She also authored the New York Times bestseller, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

The author is also scheduled to appear a the US Special Operations Command celebration of the Global SOF (Special Operations Forces) Foundation One Year Anniversary Celebration at the Tampa History Center at 7 pm on Monday, May 18, 2015.

Confessions from a Woman Marine – A Book Reading

EYES RIGHT Tracy CroweAuthor of the book,  Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine, is the featured guest at a free reading and book signing planned Friday, April 5, at Saint Leo University, 33701 State Road 52, Saint Leo, FL.

Tracy Crow served as a Marine officer and a military journalist and is now a creative writing teacher at Eckerd College. Eyes Right is a book about her military experiences in the 1980s.

Crow is scheduled to speak at 3:30 p.m. in the Student Community Center Greenfelder-Denlinger Boardroom C. She will be introduced by Saint Leo University creative writing teacher Gianna Russo.

The event can be followed live online if you can’t make the presentation. You may view the presentation live at 3:30 p.m. ET. Contact Nikki Collins, assistant director of alumni relations, at (352) 588-8837 or nichole.collins@saintleo.edu for more information.

Learning Leadership as a Vietnam POW at the “Hanoi Hilton”

Author and former POW Lee Ellis in the WUSF studios in Tampa. Photo credit: Yoselis Ramos/WUSF

Author and former POW Lee Ellis in the WUSF studios in Tampa. Photo credit: Yoselis Ramos/WUSF

Living with rats and bugs – enduring no heat in the winter or cooling in the summer – surviving torture – these are conditions that Lee Ellis endured as a prisoner of war and he says taught him leadership.

Ellis is a retired Air Force colonel, a fighter pilot, who was shot down over Vietnam and spent more than five years as a POW in the downtown prison nicknamed – the “Hanoi Hilton.”

“It’s a French prison built in the early 1900s. It occupies an entire downtown block,” Ellis said. “The walls are 15 feet high, 5 or 6 feet thick, guard towers at all the corners so impossible to escape from.”

Likening their prison to a “hotel” was part of the gallows humor that Ellis said got him and others through their captivity and torture.

His new book is “Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hotel.”

Photo credit: Freedom Star Media

Photo credit: Freedom Star Media

Ellis said his most powerful lesson came after his first interrogation that included torture. It lasted almost 24 hours before he agreed to fill out a biography..

“I gave my name, rank, service number, date of birth which that is what we were supposed to do,” Ellis said. “But I didn’t give any more that was accurate, except for my father’s name.”

Yet he felt broken having given in to the torture, his morale hit an all time low.

“I felt like I was the weakest, poorest military person who had ever worn the uniform,” Ellis said. “As it turned out later, I’ve learned that everybody had been through that type of thing and done about the same thing.”

Ellis said his fellow POWs and the military leaders at the Hanoi Hilton like the senior ranking officer, Lt. Col. Robbie Risner, helped him recover and learn to deal with the torture.

“He said we just need to bounce back. He said be a good American, live by the code of conduct. Take torture to resist only up to the point of where you don’t lose physical or mental damage,” Ellis said. “Then, go ahead and give in, give as little as possible and ready to bounce back.”

Ellis’ book is broken into 14 chapters. The first six chapters address how to lead yourself. The last eight chapters detail skills needed to lead others.

Each chapter starts with a story about his time as a POW. He then describes the specific leadership skill he learned followed by examples of how that skill applies to today’s civilian world and CEOs.

You can hear Ellis’ interview with WUSF 89.7 FM HERE.

%d bloggers like this: