MJ Hegar, Combat Veteran and Author
MJ Hegar fights for the rights of American women, no matter the battleground. From the skies of Afghanistan to the courtrooms of the Pentagon to the halls of Congress, the combat veteran is taking up arms against sexism and creating more opportunities for women.
Combat Veteran and Author
MJ Hegar is a fierce warrior for women, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and combatting sexist military policies in the U.S.
MJ Hegar, Combat Veteran and Author
Why She’s a MAKER: Combat veteran MJ Hegar has fiercely fought on the front lines for the rights of American women abroad in Afghanistan and at home in the Pentagon— and won. Overseas, the former Air National Guard pilot saved the lives of countless soldiers on the battlefield and earned a Purple Heart for her efforts. At home, she combated sexism in the armed forces by helping repeal the Combat Exclusion Policy, opening up 200,000 positions for women in combat.
Eyes on the Skies: After graduating from the University of Texas, MJ Hegar was commissioned into the Air Force to pursue her dreams of becoming a pilot. Knowing that less than 20 percent of Air Force officers become pilots, Hegar accepted a position in aircraft maintenance anyways. Despite facing discrimination as a woman, Hegar persevered and was accepted to one of the most elite pilot training groups in the Air Force. “I reported into my first commander thinking he would be a mentor and I saluted him. He didn’t even look me in the eye and said, 'The first time that your time of the month gets in the way of your job I am going to replace you and now get out of my office.'"
Warrior Spirit: After completing her pilot training, Hegar was deployed to Afghanistan as a search and rescue helicopter pilot. Although the military did not recognize her role as a combat position, Hegar was often caught in the crossfire on the battlefield—and she fought back. “I raised my rifle and started returning fire without any hesitation. I belonged there. I have that warrior spirit and it came out.”
Combatting Sexism at Home: When Hegar decided she wanted to fight for the rights of the American people abroad, she faced barriers from a sexist military policy at home: the Combat Exclusion Policy. In 2013, Hegar and the ACLU successfully fought to repeal the ban, opening up 200,000 combat positions for women in the armed forces. “Any woman who can hack it should be given the opportunity to serve her country in the way her heart and her soul is telling her to like the men and answer that calling.”
A New Battleground: Now, Hegar hopes to take up arms on a new battleground: Congress. The veteran is taking on a 15-year male incumbent for a congressional seat in Texas’ 31st District this November. “Until we change the culture of women being treated inferior and women being looked at as less than, then that culture will continue.”
MJ HEGAR: I've always wanted to be a pilot and I've always wanted to be a combat pilot. So when I say that I should have the right to be in combat, I'm saying that I should be afforded the opportunity to use those skills and to fight and defend and protect the things that I believe in.
I wasn't raised as a military brat, but my dad was in the Air Force. In junior high, when I was playing soccer, I got a little distracted watching an F-16 fly by, and I was like, that is so cool. And then all of a sudden, the ball hit me in the head, so I thought to myself, well, I guess that's my passion.
I reported in to my first commander thinking he would be a mentor. I saluted him, and he didn't even look me in the eye. And said, the first time that your time of the month gets in the way of your job, I'm going to replace you. Now get out of my office. And I was like, this is a test. This is a test, I'm sure it is. Because nobody actually says things like that, right?
When we got the call to go on my first mission, it was an American soldier, we were told he had a gunshot wound to the arm. When we got there, he had almost completely bled out. And five minutes into it our return flight, our medic was telling us, he's gone.
It was really difficult to go from being excited to get my first pick up to losing an American soldier onboard an aircraft. And I remember-- sorry.
I remember wanting to become a real rescue pilot, and then realizing what that meant, that killed that sensation immediately. So it's not about wanting to be in combat. It's about if combat has to happen, I want to be there to help.
I felt warm, and I saw my aircraft commander's reaction, and I looked down, and sure enough, I had bled all over my arm and my leg. I had about 15 pieces of shrapnel in my arm. The bullet fragmented when it came through, so I had to kind of prove to them, no, no, no, I'm fine, I'm not in shock, I'm fully functional.
After we sort of crash landed, we were receiving a lot of small arms fire, but we didn't know exactly where it was coming from. So I saw somebody came out from the cover to shoot out as. I raised my rifle and started returning fire without any hesitation. I belonged there. I have that warrior spirit, and it came out.
The commanders in the field were having to find loopholes to attach women to units that they could assign women to. There was no doubt women had been in combat for thousands of years, but the last 10 years, women had been proving themselves in combat.
LEON PANETTA: Today, we are eliminating THE direct ground combat exclusion rule for women.
MJ HEGAR: Until we change the culture of women being treated inferior and women being looked at as less than, that culture will continue. And women being allowed to compete for these positions is a big step in that direction. My goal is to open the competition to woman. And any woman who can hack it should be given the opportunity to serve her country in the way that her heart and her soul is telling her to, just like the men, and answer that calling.
- It was very interesting going through obtaining my private license in a post-9/11-- immediately post-9/11 environment. I can remember my first solo cross country, which is already a little bit scary, because if you know you have to rely on yourself. And these two guard helicopters came up next to me and were like, alter your course immediately. Apparently, there was a football game going on at Texas A&M, and I didn't realize it. You're not allowed to fly anywhere near large groups of people, because they were afraid there were still terrorist attacks going on.
So I kind of took a deep breath, and I got on the horn with Houston flight following. And they're like yeah, yeah, yeah. Thank you anyway. We're trying to keep these, you know, Boeings from hitting each other, or whatever. And I was like OK, well, be advised sir, I'm a student on her first solo cross country. And I just had to alter my course. You could hear him drop everything and like focus on me. And he was like, OK, where are you right now? What are your coordinates?
I finally said, look, I can see cows. I can see probably street signs by this time, because I'm so low. So I saw the beacon through the weather, and it was such a relief to see the beacon. And I landed, and I got out, and I took a deep breath, and I was just like, wow. And I think it was then that I knew I could take anything-- like any kind of stressful situation, because I didn't freak out. I just handled it. And I had full confidence in myself that I could do that for the rest of my career.
MJ HEGAR: When you apply to be selected for pilot training, you have to interview with your whole chain of command. At the time, I was married to a man who had already been selected for pilot training, so the group commander that I interviewed with actually said, you're definitely our top maintenance officer. You're kicking butt. But you're married to someone who's going to pilot training, and who's going to support him throughout his career? Who's going to take care of y'all's kids?
For that to have stopped me, I was furious. I went to my squadron commander very angry and told them what happened. And I, you know, I said, what should I do? And he called the colonel, and I'll never forget-- I was in the basement in my office. And he came down before a flight, and everybody stood up. And he was like, I just wanted to come down here and personally I tell you I was wrong. I'm really sorry. I'm recommending you as number one, and we'll bump you to the next level.
MJ HEGAR: When I was in Afghanistan the first time, at the end of the first tour, we found out that one of the guys who was coming in with the unit to relieve us-- his wife had just had a baby. And so they were looking for volunteers, and I raised my hand to volunteer to extend. So watching my unit go home, and the build-up to a unit going home is pretty significant. I mean, you're thinking about the cheeseburger that you want to eat, or the beer you want to drink, or the sports you want to watch, or something. It's not just women who need to be there for their kids. Men have family issues, too. And well, yes, if I had gotten pregnant, then I would need someone to cover for me. But I covered for plenty of guys whose wives got pregnant, and it's the same thing. So it's not a male-female thing. It's a we're going to cover each other's backs when we need to.
MJ HEGAR: When I became a pilot, at my first unit, there were no other female aviators at all. There was an attempt by some people to sexualize me because I was a woman. I myself was sexually assaulted. I actually didn't report it. My attacker reported himself a couple of hours later out of guilt. So there was no question of a he said, she said. I mean, they knew. They said, we know what happened, because he admitted it. So trust us. We're going to take care of this. And I said, OK, I trust you. You're going to take care of it.
So I'm sitting at an awards ceremony with my boss, and my attacker was called up front and given an award. I was so disgusted that I couldn't even stay at the ceremony. I turned and looked at my commander, and he looked at me, and he went, I know. When you look at a person, not just a woman, as an equal, and you find out something like that's happened to her, you want just as much as she does to have that person prosecuted. Maybe that is where part of the problem is. It is a leadership issue.
MJ HEGAR: Most people in the military in a life-or-death type job only care about whether or not you can do the job, really. If you prove that you're competent, and in some cases, more competent than some of the men that you're serving with, then that's good enough for them. And they accept you, and that's it.