MJ Hegar: Standing ground
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
Women have been fighting for equal rights for over a century, but some victories have been achieved as recently as 7 years ago.
In a 1994 directive by then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, the Department of Defense officially banned all women from ground combat. “Service members [were] eligible to be assigned to all positions for which they are qualified, except that women shall be excluded from assignment to units… whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.” For no other reason than their sex, women couldn’t serve their country in the same capacity as their male counterparts. Under the directive, over 200,000 jobs, military assignments, and schools were exclusively for men. But in 2013, by the persuasion of a class action court case, the DoD lifted their sexist bar against women being assigned to ground combat units. That monumental class action suit? Hegar, et al. v. Hagel.
MJ Hegar, along with 3 other plaintiffs and the ACLU, successfully sued the Secretary of Defense on behalf of military women’s rights. Yet shortly after the DoD directive was rescinded by Ash Carter (though a mandamus was not issued), while MJ Hegar was still celebrating this win, Jeff Sessions promised to legislate the policy back in place. “That’s when I had my first lesson in civil liberties, that you can win a civil rights battle, but the war is never over. You can gain ground on a civil right, but then you have to stand and defend that ground indefinitely because there will always be people there trying to take those rights away from you.” MJ had advanced women’s rights forward into a more equal society, but her fight wasn’t unopposed; the battle was won, but war raged on. So she didn’t stop.
She and “25 other really pissed-off female combat vets” founded the Combat Integration Initiative, a campaign that lobbied to keep the ban-on-women-in-combat policy off the table. Supported only by the love, kindness, and understanding of their families, jobs, and communities, these women would take time off of work, fly to DC on their own dime, and advocate for women’s rights in the Armed Forces. Together with Congressmen, Senators, staffers, and offices, the CII was able to build a broad bi-partisan coalition of support to keep those jobs open and beat Jeff Sessions. While in the nation’s capital, MJ caught a glance behind the curtain, spied the puppet master at work, and realized that some politics are just as corrupt as they seem on TV. “I was surprised at how things ran,” she recalls, “I was told I wouldn’t be able to accomplish my goal because I wasn’t a large-scale donor, or couldn’t get meetings with certain people if I wasn’t on their donor list, I didn’t have access to the cigar-smoke filled rooms. I didn’t have enough political capital.” MJ walked away from the experience jaded, concerned, and disturbed that this is the way our country is run. The contract for MJ was stark: from a third tour in Afghanistan - where she was shot at while defending the Constitution - to visiting the seat of our government felt like a slap in the face. Working to maintain gender equality in military combat assignments was not a fight MJ faced unopposed, and this first exposure to politics prepared her for where she is now: fighting to represent the people of Texas in the US Congress. MJ Hegar is running for one of two U.S. Senator seats.
Rural Texas supplied the backdrop for MJ’s childhood. Her mom worked three jobs just to keep food on their table. Life wasn’t glamorous or extravagant growing up. MJ waited tables, and she’s worried about finding affordable healthcare, experiences that she shares with so many other Texans. Everyday Texans can relate to MJ’s experiences, and their struggles that are often forgotten by Washington are the very struggles that have informed MJ’s political perspective. “Texans aren’t looking for handouts — they’re just looking for the government to live up to its commitments and ensure a level playing field for us to succeed.”
MJ’s upbringing and the environment where she grew up is not the only thing that has shaped her beliefs: serving three tours in Afghanistan as a combat search and rescue/medevac pilot has also impacted her worldviews. She spent eleven years in the Air Force and Air National Guard as a combat search and rescue and medevac pilot. MJ credits this military background for training her to stay focused on the mission at hand, and her rural Texas roots remind her not to take any community for granted; this powerful duo is why her mission is fueled by connecting with communities all across Texas and bringing their voices to the halls of Congress. “Senator Cornyn has repeatedly failed us when we need servant leadership most, and I’m as fired up as ever to send packing any politician who’s more DC than Texas.”
Joining the Armed Forces was just one of the ways MJ’s dedication to a life of service and leadership has manifested. She was inspired to enlist because her step-dad, a Vietnam veteran, taught MJ the value of working hard, fighting for what she believes in, and never shying from a challenge when her values are at stake. MJ lost this personal hero of hers 23 years ago in a workplace accident, but his spirit still inspires her: “I’m a fighter for everyday Texas workers and families because of his lessons.” MJ’s time in the military prepared her to focus on a mission regardless of imminent challenges or obstacles, and this pandemic has not stopped her campaign in their tireless efforts to earn the votes of hardworking Texans.
The antidote for feeling powerless to the current state of affairs is action. And MJ advises everyone to “do it. There is never a ‘good time’ to take a vacation, change jobs, run for office, to pursue a higher education degree, you always just have to do it. People very rarely regret action. They often regret inaction… rarely do people say, ‘I really shouldn’t have gotten that master’s degree.’ So don’t wait for the perfect time: to have kids, to run for office, to start a small business – just do it.”