ANDREA PLATE WRITES – Retired Lieutenant Colonel Amy McGrath served 20 years in the Marines, flew 89 combat missions and dropped bombs on Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Now, she’s aiming for a bigger target: the Senate seat of Republican Majority leader Mitch McConnell, the longest-serving US Senator from the state of Kentucky and the longest-serving Republican Senate leader in American history.
McGrath, who made her announcement last week, typifies the new generation of post-9/11 warriors— inspired to enlist when the World Trade Center fell, then discharged to the battlefield of politics. In the midterm elections of 2018, sixteen veterans were newly elected to the House of Representatives — the largest incoming class in a decade.
Three veterans are running for the Presidency in 2020: Pete Buttgieg, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, spent seven months in Afghanistan (and six years in the Navy National Guard); Seth Moulton, (Democrat- Massachusetts), served four combat tours as a Marine in Iraq and was elected to a second term in the House of Representatives in 2018. Tulsi Gabbard (Democrat-Hawaii), in the House since 2012, volunteered for a twelve-month tour in Iraq, serving in a field medical unit — before deploying to Kuwait. She is the first Samoan American and Hindu to serve in Congress.
They are eager young turks, successors of the Old Guard of war heroes who became President: Eisenhower; Kennedy; Johnson; Ford; Nixon; Carter; and H.W. Bush. Oddly, over the past quarter century, no US President—repeat, no titular Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces— has done active duty. George “W” Bush took cover in the Air National Guard. Clinton got a student deferment. Trump got out on bone spurs. Barack ‘No Drama’ Obama, a teen during those times, eventually signed up for law school.
The women post-9/11 veterans, in particular, are ideal political candidates—trained to fight hard despite being pushed back all the time. For decades, women in the military were restricted to support roles (nursing and other so-called “assistive jobs”). It wasn’t until 2015 that President Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, officially invited them into combat ranks.
In actuality, though, “female engagement teams” were commanded into battle decades earlier—because you can’t win the hearts and minds of a people by letting male soldiers perform searches on Muslim women. And you can’t win over war-torn mothers and children by having male soldiers make nice after kicking in doors. Still, being caught in crossfire didn’t count as combat. Then.
Surely, Lieutenant Colonel Amy McGrath could outmaneuver Mitch McConnell on the military front. The senator from Kentucky served just five weeks at Fort Knox before his honorable discharge due to an eye condition. Political opponents — and reporters — have long taken a jaundiced view of the senior senator’s refusal to produce records of that short service stint — how many pages can it be?! And they have raised eyebrows at McConnell’s denial that his dad, an Army man, used political pull to withdraw his son.
Nevertheless, the man with the shortest military term and the longest political career seems undaunted by the upcoming political challenge. Kentucky is a deep-red state, and McGrath is true blue. She has already lost one congressional bid, in 2018—to Republican Andy Barr. Her response, two years later: launch a bigger mission and increase the target size.
Women veterans are unique—trained to fight but permitted, at least more than military men, to show emotion upon return. Like McGrath, Martha McSally, Republican of Arizona, lost a 2018 congressional race. But months later the governor of Arizona appointed her—make that, anointed her— to the late Senator John McCain’s Senate seat.
Already, she is making her mark. At Congressional hearings on military sexual trauma, McSally revealed a long -kept personal secret—that she was raped by a male superior in the Air Force. With that, she launched a campaign to support victims of military sexual trauma.
Former Army Lieutenant Colonel Tammy Duckworth, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, was the first double amputee from the Iraq War and a former top officeholder in the US Department of Veterans Affairs. This first Thai American in Congress, now a Democratic Senator representing Illinois, has taken hard stands in favor of gun control and against wasteful defense spending; but she softened the nation’s heart as the first woman to cast a vote from the Senate floor— while holding a newborn.
Lieutenant Colonel Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa, spent twenty-three years in the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve, then twelve months in Kuwait. Ernst readily takes on formidable foes. In a letter to Robert Wilkie, Secretary of the US Department of Veterans Affairs, she wrote: “With approximately 20 veteran suicides every day in the United States, this lack of outreach is simply unacceptable.” She sure does feel their pain.
This feminization of the military is worldwide. In South Korea, the Ministry of National Defense pledged to double its number of female soldiers by 2022. In Japan, an increasing number of women in the Self Defense Forces are entering male-dominated military fields. In India, as in America, women have risen from nurses to fighter pilots. Will some of them, from some of these countries, forge ahead to politics? Too early to tell.
McGrath and crew have their naysayers. On a vet-centered Facebook page, a Vietnam Era veteran writes: “No man would have received her rank as fast and retire early…the fix was in.” And when McGrath failed to come out swinging against Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh for alleged sexual misconduct, the left-wing blog “Jezebel” slapped back: “Unfortunately, the woman trying to unseat Mitch McConnell also kind of sucks.” Well, yes, she could have, should have had a prepared response. Despite her past congressional run, McGrath is a political novice, more skilled at dropping bombs than slinging political barbs.
No matter. Win or lose, this former fighter pilot— like her brothers and sisters who bore arms after 9/11 — are in it to win it. Or not. It seems they don’t mind losing a congressional battle here or there if they win the long-range gender equality war. What’s one or two brutal political campaigns compared to 89 combat missions?
Andrea Plate, who teaches in LMU’s Bellarmine College, is certified by the state of California as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and is the author of ‘Madness: In the Trenches of America’s Troubled Department of Veterans Affairs,’ soon to be published by Marshall Cavendish Editions, International.