Throughout her career, U.S. Air Force veteran MJ Hegar has strived to fight for what is right, finding motivation in the face of adversity and intimidation. Now she’s running for Congress.
By MJ Hegar, Photo by April Skinner
I am often asked how I stay on my path amid obstacles and failures. The simple answer is that I don’t see them as obstacles and failures, but more as motivators and inconvenient delays that only serve to make me stronger.
As a young woman, I set out to become a combat search-and-rescue helicopter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. It was a difficult road that would take me through an institutionalized boys’ club fraught with discrimination. I would survive a sexual assault and push through years of rejection. But it was my determination to focus on the 95 percent of the men I served with who only cared about whether I was competent—as opposed to the vocal minority who needed to feel superior to someone to make up for some deeply rooted insecurity—that helped me brush all of that aside. I would become a pilot and follow my passion for fighting for my country and taming the wild blue yonder above us.
On my third tour in Afghanistan, I was shot down, receiving shrapnel wounds to my right arm and leg. However, my crew and I squared our shoulders to the incredible odds of 150 enemy fighters to our six to get everyone out alive. They had the numbers. We had the skill, the tools and the absolute unwillingness to relent. For me, it was just another instance of a determined group of people trying to stop me from my goal of seeing my crew safely back with their families.
When I returned home, my injuries prevented me from continuing my career as a pilot. But there was one job I could still do that would make use of my skill set while simultaneously satisfying the passion that stirred my warrior spirit. As a special-tactics officer, I would be on the front lines with ground forces, calling in air support and liaising between the ground and air forces. To be effective at this job, you need to maintain your composure under fire, grasp the intricacies of flight and 3-D airspace, speak the unique pilot language and have a deep understanding of aerial-support limitations and capabilities. In other words, it was the perfect job for me, with one minor problem. This career field was closed to women. I couldn’t even apply. Rather than face a desk, I chose to leave my beloved military. I felt the loss of my brothers and sisters in arms in my chest. But I was also aware that they were losing a highly trained, battle-proven warrior, and I could not let that go unanswered.
I partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union and filed suit against the Department of Defense, asserting that the Ground Combat Exclusion Policy was unconstitutional. I also worked with military leaders in and out of the Pentagon because most of them were aware that the policy was also damaging our ability to effectively execute our mission. The Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed and unanimously requested that the Secretary of Defense acquiesce. Within months, in January 2013, he repealed the policy and cleared the way for others to have the opportunity to compete for elite military positions.
While my military career was done, I was unsettled in my corporate life. Something was missing. The passion in my spirit for protecting people and fighting for what was right would not be silenced. The events of the last year have inspired a multitude of reactions within my heart. There have been times when I wanted to look away from the world and focus on my family. But now that I have children, I cannot ignore the fact that this world that so disturbs me is the world into which I am sending my boys. I have to do all I can to make it as safe as possible for them.
So, I embark on another journey. I’m running for United States Congress from my home district of Texas 31. Once more, into the fray I go, again, driven forward by those who would try to intimidate us. They have always inspired me to do more. They motivate me now. Their very actions serve to dare me to try. I accept.
MJ Hegar is the author of Shoot Like A Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front.