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“I don't see myself as uniquely heroic. I was put into extraordinary circumstances. I fought alongside shoulder to shoulder with many men and women who, had they been put in that circumstance, would have responded the same way.” - MJ Hegar
MJ Hegar, Democratic candidate for Senate in Texas, talks about her campaign, what drove her to run in the first place, and the prejudiced responses she sometimes gets to the Purple Heart on her license plate.
MJ is an Air Force veteran, author of the memoir Shoot Like a Girl, and one of the only women to ever be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor. Learn more about MJ’s campaign for Texas’s Senate seat at https://mjfortexas.com/. Find her on Twitter at @MJHegar.
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MJ Hegar: I don't see myself as uniquely heroic. I was put into extraordinary circumstances. I fought alongside shoulder to shoulder with many men and women who, had they been put in that circumstance, would have responded the same way.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
My guest today is MJ Hegar, air force veteran, author of the memoir Shoot Like a Girl and one of the only women to ever be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor. MJ is now running for the US Senate in Texas against Republican incumbent John Cornyn. MJ, welcome to Burn the Boats.
MH: Hi, Ken. Thanks so much for having me on. Appreciate it.
KH: You never imagined yourself running for office. For those who live outside Texas, where you've become a household name, why don't you give us the short version? How did you wind up taking on one of the most powerful senators in Washington?
MH: Yeah, I definitely never thought I would run for office. In fact, I kind of thought I had all the personality that would be unsuccessful in politics because I have integrity and I am a truth sayer, and I don't really have the ability to bullshit people, but I have found that that's actually refreshing and that that's what people are looking for. They're really tired of the snake oil salesman. We may not always agree because I don't base my opinions on polls and what's kind of politically convenient. But we have good in depth, thorough conversations about actual pragmatic solutions. I do think it was the right decision to run. I think we need more people who can speak truth to power. And I often have found that the things that make it difficult for me as a candidate are going to make me a better legislator in the end. Things like not kowtowing to intimidation and kind of the forces that try to control politics, like the big powerful, wealthy, special interests and things like that.
I grew up in very rural Texas, a very Republican family. My family has always been kind of patriotic and for strong national security and for fiscal responsibility, but not really buying into a lot of the social conservative values. We've always been anti-discrimination and pro-choice and all of those types of things. I joined the military, I became a combat rescue helicopter pilot. When I did my third tour in Afghanistan, I got shot down and I was shot also, and the reason that's important to the story is because it was the beginning of my advocacy experience. Because I was in ground combat defending my crash site and my patients and my crew, after that experience I became kind of the spokesperson for the movement to open jobs for women in the military.
It was through that that I learned a couple things. I learned how broken our government is and how focused on quid pro quo and the impact of the wealthy, special interests and things like that and how difficult it was for me to get a meeting with any representatives unless I was a donor. That kind of turned my stomach. When you put on a uniform, you take an oath to support and defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. I felt that the way DC was working was a domestic threat to our constitution. So the other thing I learned was that I'm really good at building broad bipartisan coalitions. I think it's partly because I'm not putting my own self interest and ambition first, I'm actually putting, accomplishing the mission first and solving the problem first. It's amazing how simplified things get when you focus on the mission. Then, I worked for five years in healthcare. I had a couple kids, and I think something happens to you when you have little ones. You start to look a little bit harder at the world around you, at the gun violence epidemic in Texas, at the climate change crisis, at the fact that I want them to grow up to love whoever they want to love and marry whoever they want to marry and decide when they have children, instead of the government telling them when to have children. I want them to be able to breathe the air and drink the water. I often say that me running for this office is just - every parent listening, I think, will understand this - it's an overreaction to wanting to protect my children from the world, you know?
KH: Yeah, some kind of overreaction. When I do hear you in interviews talk about the kinds of people we need to start sending to Washington to begin to fix the problem, you talk about Congress needing more moms and more combat vets and more Purple Heart recipients, more people who understand what life in America's middle-class is like. You're basically describing a political unicorn, which is you. All of these put together don't equal any real person other than MJ Hegar. Do you get that a lot? Who is this person?
MH: No, I meet people like me. People like me are everywhere. I think that's why we are putting up a real fight against John Cornyn is because people across Texas see themselves in me. I'm saying we need more regular people in office. They don't have to all be combat veterans. I'm saying when John Cornyn says that his experience is somehow a reason people should vote for him, I would argue his 18 years in DC are exactly why he's so completely disconnected from the challenges of regular people, his time in his little privileged bubble are why he doesn't support universal background checks when 80% of Texas does. Two thirds of Trump voters support universal background checks in Texas. It's crazy to me that he would rather kowtow to the gun lobby because they give him so much money for his campaign. So, no, I think that what I'm saying is I've worked, I've waited tables, I've been laid off from a job, I've worried about whether or not social security is going to be there for me. John Cornyn's on three taxpayer-funded pensions. He's projecting onto us that, well, he's not worried about social security, so why should any of us be? It's human nature to project your circumstances onto other people. To be a good legislator and a good leader, you have to fight through that. You have to step outside of the echo chamber and go and actually interact with people. I don't mean at a photo op behind a velvet rope. I'm talking about actually really immersing yourself in the communities that you're supposed to be representing. I don't see that from a lot of people, but I certainly don't see that from John Cornyn.
KH: I definitely want to get to John, but I've just got to call you out on the idea that you're not extraordinary in a lot of ways. It is essential that you have waited tables and at times lived paycheck to paycheck, but you've also been shot and you've sat on the skid of an army helicopter that came to rescue you after your own SH60, actually, what does the Air Force call the, what's the prefix?
MH: Yeah, the H860, that's okay. I know what you meant.
KH: -was downed, and you were strapped to the skids, returning fire at the Taliban. I mean, there aren't many candidates who can combine that with having actually waited tables. That's got to be an enormous asset in bridging divides and getting people to sit up and pay attention.
MH: Yeah. There may not be a lot of candidates that have done that, but there are a lot of people that either have done that or could do that. I certainly medevaced tons of them myself. I don't see myself as uniquely heroic, I was put into extraordinary circumstances. I fought alongside shoulder to shoulder with many men and women who had they been put in that circumstance would have responded the same way. I can't tell you how many of my colleagues kind of reached out to me after that event and said, "What do you think was the key in your preparation for deploying that led you to be able to respond in a way that made your family proud?" It's kind of the hidden fear of everybody going into combat that you don't really know how you're going to respond when the bullets start flying and all of us hope that we've got what it takes. That was part of why it was so important to fight to open jobs in the military for women was because I had so much experience medevacing so many people and everybody, you can't control how you're going to respond in that kind of situation. You either are supposed to be there, or you're not. It's not just combat. I mean, I scrubbed in on a surgery once with a field surgical team and literally had my hands inside a person holding aside organs while the surgeon worked on them. I can tell you decidedly, I am not made for that. That was not a situation that I should have been in. They just needed an extra pair of hands. That was a lesson to me that it's not that I was some kind of extraordinary person. It was that I was fulfilling the role that I was intended to fill in this world that I have a warrior's heart, I don't have a surgeon's heart. I think that it's really key to living a fulfilling life to find that thing that you were intended for, that you're going to be really good at, or that you are a natural at and that you have the freedom and opportunity to pursue that. I mean, this country is supposed to be built on opportunity and I'm just going to keep fighting as a Senator for people to have the opportunity to pursue whatever career they want. And that's why it's so important that we fight against discrimination in employment.
KH: It is obvious to anyone watching you campaign that you bring that warrior's heart sensibility to the job of campaigning. It reminds me of something you hear a lot of people with your experience say, and I believe I've heard you say it too, that your biggest fear going into battle or into a combat zone isn't getting shot, it isn't even being killed, it's letting the people around you down. I imagine that has to continue to motivate you on the campaign trail.
MH: I didn't realize until you said it just now, because I have that fear now, when I meet people who look to me to fix so much of the problems and the dysfunction that's happening that they know is a threat to their family. I couldn't figure out where, like why that was a familiar feeling to me. It's totally feeling like you're worried that you're going to let down the person you're medevacing, you're not going to get there fast enough. You're going to let down your crew, you're going to make a wrong move. You're going to, but I feel that now, when I have someone come up to me. I had a man come up to me and he was crying, this was before COVID, he hugs me and he says, "You can't help me, but maybe if I tell you my story, you can help the next person in my shoes. My wife has a terminal diagnosis. She was given six months to live. My children were devastated. She chose a shorter lifespan, because of what's wrong with our healthcare system." I know I can fix it because I'm going to center the plight of Texans instead of centering what my corporate donors, because I don't take corporate PAC money, or what my party bosses want me to say, what talking points they want me to spew. I'm just not that person.
KH: Talk about John Cornyn. I mean, when you mention that name in most areas, you get either a shoulder shrug, or "John Cornyn? Never heard of him." Or, "He's not that bad. He's no Ted Cruz." But what's he become in the 18 years that he has held that seat?
MH: It's funny, he's been in statewide office in Texas for nearly four decades and he has like a 67% name ID, something like that, depending on the poll that you look at. He also only has about a 28% to a 32% approval rating where Ted Cruz has a 52 in Texas. So yes, I would agree he's no Ted Cruz, but the reason for the difference in the approval ratings for two people who vote nearly identically is because Ted Cruz has the perception that he actually thinks for himself. Whereas John Cornyn is very DC, very plugged into the broken system, very willing to be a lapdog for his corporate donors and his party bosses. I think that the problem his team faces is with such a low name ID, they can't just fight to raise his name ID because the more people learn about Cornyn, the lower his approval rating goes because he hasn't done anything for Texas. I think that's why they focus on attacking me because he's running his campaign on fear, the only way that he can win is if people are afraid to vote for me, because when they look at my vision for this state, it actually aligns with their values more than his actions. I would encourage anybody who's on the fence and thinking about who to vote for in Texas, because there is still a third of the electorate that's still undecided here: don't just listen to words, either mine or Cornyn's, look at actions, look at record, look at what we've done. If you look at what John Cornyn has done, it just doesn't match anything that he says. I think what he says is whatever the polls or his party bosses tell him to say, but then he turns around and acts in a different way.
KH: The attacks against you have been vicious and untrue, but they've extended beyond you. They've gone after your kids. There's this heartbreaking story I've heard you tell about your kids when they were toddlers being pelted by your opponent’s supporters in a parade throwing candy at them. I mean, things have just gotten so much meaner. How do you cope?
MH: It's horrifying and it's disgusting. I just, I mean, I just don't know if I just wasn't paying attention in my 20s, but it feels very much like we have devolved into this idea that if you disagree with me and my ideas for solutions to the challenges facing this nation and the state and our families, then that somehow devolves into a hatred. I don't understand that. I feel like we used to be able to disagree without ... What kind of human being would target a kid? In John Cornyn's defense, that was actually my congressional opponent, John Carter, not John Cornyn's team at the time, but I do think that it still is a symptom of the really dangerous and damaging political divide in this country. I think that people who have put on the uniform have served in countries where we've seen destabilization, and a lot of people in this country don't think that this or that could happen here, but we see the actions of this administration in a different light. We see it with the experience under our belt watching dictators and people that would use divisive rhetoric for their own political gain. It's something that's a real danger to our democracy and a threat to our constitution. I think that's why you see so many patriots who are military veterans or members of the intelligence community or whatever standing up to run for office. It's actually completely counter to our training to make our politics known and to stand up and advocate politically. As you know, Ken, it's kind of trained out of us to make an opinion known about our commander-in-chief, because we have to be able to follow either party's commander-in-chief into war. But we're going against that personality of wanting to keep things private because we see a threat to the constitution and because when you take an oath like that, you're not released from that oath when you stop serving in the military.
KH: In a way, this isn't new territory for you though, you sued the Secretary of Defense to end the ground combat exclusion for women. You have always had an anti-authoritarian streak.
MH: Yeah, it's really funny to me, Ken, that one of the attacks on me is Cornyn’s trying to convince people that I'm somehow beholden to or going to do as I'm told from Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer and those kinds of people. I just shake my head. I'm just like, "Okay, go ahead and try to convince people that I do as I'm told." It's like, I don't know. Maybe he should ask my husband if I'm good at following directions. I don't know. I've just always been able to center the people at the focus of the mission ahead of maybe what's good for my career or what's in my own personal self-interest, but yeah, nobody successfully tells me what to do unless it's a good idea that's in line with accomplishing the mission.
KH: Remind me which Secretary of Defense it was that you sued.
MH: It was Panetta. I was a little surprised that, how much support I got for that. Because I knew Panetta wanted to repeal that policy. I knew I wasn't insulting him by filing the suit. By the way, this is why I'm such a strong advocate for people's right to organize and unionize, because we don't have that right in the military. I basically threw away my life's dream and my career of being a pilot. You don't sue the Secretary of Defense and then stay in the military. But I knew he wanted to repeal it, it's just, it was such a huge move that giving him that political capital, I guess, giving him another reason to do the right thing was how I was looking at it. The policy wasn't keeping women out of combat. It was intended to protect women, which by the way, there's a definite correlation if you look internationally at countries that legislate protection of women and domestic violence against women. There's a sense of entitlement that comes with cultures that when you protect something, it's your right to treat that something how you want. I'm just not for legislating for our own good kind of in a patronizing way. It was so important to the culture of the military. It was so important that we acknowledged that it was tying the hands of the commanders in the field. They were having to rotate women in and out of assignments. They were having to attach instead of assign. I mean, women were in combat. I was medevacing women off the battlefield. The policy was just hurting recruiting and retention, and the joint chiefs unanimously wanted the policy gone. It was just a step to take. The real fight started when the Secretary of Defense repealed it after we filed our lawsuit. Then Jeff Sessions went on TV and insinuated he was going to legislate that policy back in place. He was going to look at legislating it and that's when the fight turned to DC and went to "Let's build a broad bipartisan coalition to stop that legislation from happening."
KH: I think your response to that threat by Jeff Sessions was that civil liberties are never safe, which is, it's an unfortunate realization, but it's absolutely true. They have to be fought for constantly and supporting and defending the constitution isn’t, it's not a onetime one time deal. For what it's worth, I think Panetta was grateful for the incredible excuse you gave him to do the right thing. We interviewed him on this program recently, and you can just tell in his announcement repealing the exclusion that he's glad. So I don't think there are any hard feelings there.
MH: Yeah. That was the idea. I guess that's why I answered the call to run for office is because I feel like I can look at a problem and a situation and pull the levers needed to fix that problem. Sometimes it's a lawsuit. Sometimes it's running for office. Sometimes it's bringing together people from both sides of the aisle. I'm used to standing around a mission planning table with people who I don't agree with on a lot of things. Hell, I stood around a mission planning table sometimes with people who didn't think I should be on the crew because I was a woman. And yet, we were able to figure out a plan and go out and accomplish a mission and save a patient. I'm going to bring that kind of leadership to my role as a Senator.
KH: MJ, we have to talk about the video, the one that put you on the political map nationally, because there are probably one or two people left who aren't familiar with it. I've got an off the wall question. Where did you find those old white dudes to sit in for the DC insiders? Because they are perfectly cas. Tell me that’s an uncle or something.
MH: Aren't they amazing? A lot of them were the fathers of my interns and things like that. My favorite is my own father-in-law. In fact, you could probably pick him out if you can pick the one that has the most pain in his eyes for slamming the door in my face. I love my father-in-law with all of my heart. I lost my stepdad when I was just starting college and my father-in-law just reminds me so much of him. I miss him every day, but my father-in-law is such a hard worker. He works in plant ops, which is basically maintaining hospitals. So he's a frontline worker. I grew up in a very blue collar kind of family and he and men and women like him are who I think about when I look at the COVID response or when I look at the fact that our legislators protect these uber wealthy special interests over regular people. I'm very worried about responding to the health crisis and the economic crisis next term, who we have in place is going to determine who we look out for. I'm hoping we have enough servant leaders in a place to protect people like my father-in-law, people that are just working hard to keep food on the table and keep a roof over our heads and take care of their families. It's why this is so personal to me. But yeah, the video was awesome. My story really resonated with people. I was a little sad that my story resonated with people so much because the response I got from people that were like, "Yeah, I don't feel like ..." Because a lot of it was centered around a lot of people in DC wouldn't listen to me because I wasn't a donor. For so many people to feel that, that was really sad for me that that resonated with so many people. Because that's not how our democracy is supposed to work.
KH: Even after that video came out, you experienced the kind of indignities that it was calling out. I'm thinking about those encounters in parking lots, where you had your Purple Heart license plate, and people would come up to the car as you're getting out and they would thank your husband.
MH: Yeah. It happens. I hear stories about women who park in parking spots that are reserved for combat veterans and then they come back to their car to a nasty note saying, "How dare you park in this spot? It's reserved for our nation's heroes." A lot of women who are combat veterans don't even identify themselves as veterans because of that. There was an instance when we were trying to find a parking spot at a football game and there was this Texas Ranger with a big 10-gallon hat and we pulled up and I rolled my window down and I was like, "Sir, is this parking lot full or can we come in here? Can we do that? Where should we go?" He leaned in, leaned over me where I had to back up because of the hat. right? He shook my husband's hand and said, "Thank you for your service." That doesn't offend me, because the vast majority of combat veterans are men. That's a numbers game. What offended me was when my husband said, "Oh, thank you, sir, but it's actually my wife's Purple Heart." He looked at me eye to eye and said, "Nah, that's horseshit." That offended me. It's not the assumption. I can understand that. That's well-intended. It's not believing it or not giving validity, when I have to prove it. For example, we get free parking at the airport because of the Purple Heart license plate, right? That's a big part of why I got the Purple Heart license plate, because airport parking is so expensive, but I had to prove it once coming through, they were like, "It has to be your Purple Heart, not just the Purple Heart on the vehicle." I had to show them my driver's license that it said veteran and that's what's offensive to me.
KH: One of the best comebacks I've ever seen to that sentiment is an answer you gave Bear Grylls at a ceremony when he asked you directly, "What would you say to young girls who want to follow in your footsteps?" You said completely unrehearsed, "Well, the same thing I would say to young men." Which I thought was just perfect. MJ, it has been so great having you on. We've got one last question. The one we always end Burn the Boats with. What is the bravest decision that you have ever been a part of? I know you've got a lot to choose from.
MH: Oh man, there's just so many different kinds of bravery, you know what I mean? I guess probably the answer that I'm supposed to give would probably be when we landed and deplaned our Special Forces guys at that incident where I was shot. I was shot immediately and we took off and the standard operating procedure was for aircraft to offset so that they could assess the patients without the sound of the helicopter and us kicking up the dirt and all that. The guys on the ground didn't know I had been shot. While we're in the air offsetting and circling and waiting to get called back in, we're assessing how serious my injury was. It wasn't very serious. There was a lot of blood, but it was really superficial. I had been hit by a bullet that fragmented into a lot of pieces. And so because it was a lot of pieces, it didn't do a lot of damage, just the damage was spread out a lot. So it looked worse than it was, if that makes sense. That decision to go back in, despite being injured and having the aircraft damaged was why the crew got the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor. The valor device is supposed to be, “you made a decision that saved someone's life that you wouldn't have been admonished for if you hadn't done it.” It's really hard for a rescue troop to meet that level, because our job is to put our lives on the line. Our rescue motto is “these things we do that others may live.” But we had every right to turn tail and go home because I had been injured and the aircraft had been damaged. Some would argue we should have, but that decision to go back in and pick up our patients and our PJs, I think most people would probably say that that was the bravest decision that I've ever made. Although, I mean, if you ask me that was just me doing my job. I think I would say the bravest decision I ever made was to have kids. That was the scariest thing. The scariest thing was to decide to bring two kiddos into this world and then be responsible for protecting them. I'm so glad I did, but we just owe them, we owe them the strongest possible country and national security environment as they grow up into this world and this amazing country.
KH: Well, I think every parent deserves a v-device on their chest. Wait till they become teenagers. MJ, so great having you. Thanks again.
MH: Thanks, Ken, thanks so much. Take care.
KH: Thanks again to MJ Hegar for joining me. Learn more about her campaign for Senate in Texas at her website mjfortexas.com and follow her on Twitter at @MJforTexas.
Next week on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen, a nonprofit impact investment fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of poverty. Jacqueline talks about the role of markets in working towards a better world and how the kind of work she does has changed in recent years as the rising generation demands sustainability, inclusion, equity, and justice.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.