In her first interview since the election, military hero and mom of two MJ Hegar talks about why it’s always time to act.
By Jenny Hoff, Photos by Annie Ray
MJ Hegar has a laundry list of incredible accomplishments. Each in their own right worthy of a blockbuster film—which happens to be currently in the works. But it’s how she handles setbacks that might be her most remarkable trait—and the secret to her success.
“It’s all about what is the goal,” says Hegar. She is relaxing on a Saturday morning in her Round Rock home, currently strewn with holiday decorations. Pictures of her two sons adorn the walls. In addition to intriguing landscapes that Hegar painted herself during some down time learning art online through Bob Ross videos. They don’t hang far from the displayed door of the chopper she was flying the day the Taliban shot at her. “Sometimes you feel like there is only one way to accomplish something, but there are always other ways. The ability to stick to it is crucial.”
This is Hegar’s first interview since losing the Senate race to longtime incumbent, Republican Senator John Cornyn. With so many successes under her belt—earning the Purple Heart and being one of only a few women, including Amelia Earhart, to earn the Distinguished Flying Cross; suing the Department of Defense and successfully overturning a rule prohibiting women from certain military leadership positions; and writing a bestselling memoir, Shoot Like a Girl, which is currently in the works to become a movie—a loss, especially one so public, might hit particularly hard for a woman who has accomplished almost everything she has ever set out to do.
It turns out taking a perceived failure and turning it into a resounding success is what MJ Hegar does best.
Dreams that Have Wings
Growing up north of Austin, she dreamed of being a pilot after watching her idol Han Solo defeat the Empire with his brazen and fearless style. While at the University of Texas Austin, she served as Vice Wing Commander of Detachment 825 Air Force ROTC and Deputy Commander of the Arnold Air Society. Showing her dedication, hard work and leadership skills. With her life plan laid before her and following every step necessary to make it happen, Hegar was shocked and disheartened when she didn’t get commissioned for pilot training upon graduation. She was also undeterred.
“I had been taught that whatever you were commissioned as, that’s your job,” she recounts. “It was crushing. But my refusal to accept failure kicked in. I asked if there was any other way to become a pilot. They said, ‘Yes, but it’s a 1% chance.’ I said, ‘Great, I’ll take it!’”
I just saw the
need for change.
Hegar went on to work for aircraft maintenance. She suffered a total of five rejections for the pilot program before finally succeeding, several years after graduation. She ended up completing the program top of her class, then served on three tours of duty in Afghanistan.
When asked who has helped her along the way and mentored her through the ups and downs of military life, Hegar doesn’t hesitate with her response.
“The first person I think of is Rhys, who was my commanding officer when I got shot down.”
Shot Down, But Not Defeated
MJ Hegar met Colonel Rhys Hunt in Afghanistan in 2007. A time when she was one of the few people offering to do back-to-back rotations. Performing seven to nine medevac missions per day. In 2009, Hunt was in the operations center as her commanding officer when Hegar was shot at during a search-and-rescue mission near Kandahar. Despite her wounds, she continued to fly and rescued the soldiers in need of her help. Finally, the gunfire forced her to make an emergency landing. When it was her turn for rescue, the chopper was too full. So she strapped herself to the skids and took off. Still shooting back at the Taliban to help protect her crew.
“I really attribute the saving of those lives to her. In my book, she saved the day,” says Hunt. The colonel also received the Distinguished Flying Cross and has now retired from his 28-year military career. “There were so many times she could [have]throw[n]in the towel, but she didn’t. I think her whole life has been one fight or another, for better or worse.”
Anyone familiar with MJ Hegar’s story, either from her book, her campaign videos or the numerous media interviews she’s done over the years, may already know about her early years. When she witnessed her father abusing her mother before they finally struck out on their own. The sexual assault she survived while in the military. Her fight against the Pentagon for equal rights for women. Her tattoos and tough talk have been the source of social media fodder. But Hunt says the more interesting juxtaposition to her fearless reputation is her deep sensitivity.
“She is sensitive in a way that means she pays attention, she sits and she listens,” says Hunt. “She really deeply cares. I think that is one of her shining characteristics that people don’t get to see as much unless they spend time with her.”
A Better World
Most people don’t have to think about their personal brand or the 30-second elevator pitch of who they are and what they value. Unless they’re running for public office. Where policy positions are reduced to short soundbites and personal integrity is constantly at battle with who can sling mud the fastest and farthest. For Hegar, it was especially tough. Trying to simultaneously appeal to historically Republican voters with her military career and bravery, push the Democratic policy issues she cared most about—healthcare access and children on the border—while also facing criticism from the more progressive branches of the party for seeming too much of an Ann Richards-style Democrat rather than an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. All this while showing her sensitive side as a mother of two small boys. Along with protecting them from the ugliness that political campaigns inevitably bring.
“People used to ask me, ‘What is this like for your kids?’ It was almost judgmental, like you’re a bad mom because you’re running,” recalls Hegar. “But this is the ultimate expression of being a good mom. I’m out trying to bubble tape all the sharp corners in the world. We owe our kids a better foreign-policy environment. A better education. A world where they can breathe the air and drink the water.”
Never Back Down
One thing Hegar says she refuses to shy away from is the truth. She believes including her children in the process of running for office helped show them how democracy works. How it’s not always pretty, but how it’s crucial to making change. She’s also honest about the toll campaigning can take on a family and its finances.
She’s been campaigning for three years straight (her first campaign was against incumbent Rep. John Carter, which she lost by only 3 points). Hegar was lucky enough to work as a public speaker to help pay the bills. Since the time it takes to run a campaign makes it virtually impossible to hold a normal 9-to-5 job. In the midst of a pandemic, speaking engagements have dried up. Hegar says her next step is finding work that can both accomplish the goals she set out to solve as a legislator and help put food on her family’s table.
The Power of Love
“It’s just wild how she is like a tornado of getting s*** done,” says her husband of nine years and biggest supporter, Brandon Hegar. “She is strong, capable, beautiful and powerful. It’s a crazy ride and I love it.”
MJ and Brandon’s love story is also about second chances. Knowing each other since elementary school, Brandon Hegar says he developed his first crush on her when she was auditioning for school mascot in middle school.
“The whole goal was for her to find this stuffed animal she had hidden in the crowd,” he says, laughing. “She got closer and closer to me and I was getting excited. It ended up she had hidden it next to my best friend. Heartbreak, of course, followed.”
While it never materialized into a romance when they were teens, MJ had left her mark on him. After he married and divorced and she survived three missions in Afghanistan, they ran into each other again and found they had much more in common than a shared childhood.
“She pulled up in this crazy purple Dodge Challenger, which is totally her,” he recalls. “The more we talked, the more I fell for her. It was like a dream.”
While Brandon Hegar says his wife is an adrenaline junkie, who is not afraid to confront danger (“She is definitely Han Solo; I’m more like R2- D2,” he jokes), it’s actually her patience and pragmatism that leads her decisions, rather than immediate action. It’s a quality that struck her friend and political advisor, Elizabeth Bray, as she watched MJ campaign. She recalls one event where a Republican tracker showed up. (Trackers follow everything a candidate for the opposing party does and says and records it.) Bray was impressed when she saw MJ telling her supporters to give him his space and respect him.
Called to Serve
“Anyone who wishes to see behavior in others is wise to model that behavior,” says Bray. “She was modeling the behavior she would wish to see. That takes strength and integrity. I think most people duck the problem and don’t address it. I’ve never seen MJ duck any problem.”
Bray says while Hegar’s style impressed her during the campaign, what astounded her the most was her reaction after the election.
“She said to me, ‘My entire life, I have shown up when I was called to serve. This is akin to my first failure to become a pilot. I spent two and a half years on aircraft maintenance. Had I not understood the aircraft like that, I would have died in Afghanistan. I was called to run, I did my job and there was a reason I wasn’t elected. In the fullness of time, I will know.’”
Taking the Next Step
Hegar doesn’t plan on running for public office again, at least not anytime soon, but she still has her eye on fixing the problems that made her run in the first place.
“I never dreamed of being a senator,” she says. “I just saw the need for change. I would love to work with the State Department or the U.N. I believe diplomacy is the military’s first line of defense.”
Most importantly, Hegar says she plans to make use of the life she was able to keep that day in Afghanistan. The world doesn’t always hand you second chances, but when it does, MJ Hegar believes it’s to take a route even more extraordinary than you could have imagined. That starts with refusing to give up.
“I don’t think dealing with rejection necessarily helps you, but I think it says a lot about who you are,” she says. “You can’t make yourself be a pilot or get published. But you can make yourself a person who doesn’t take no for an answer.”