Mary Jennings “MJ” Hegar has overcome a lot of conflict in her life. The Round Rock, Texas, native faced sexual abuse in the military and domestic abuse at home before becoming an Air Force pilot, serving three tours in Afghanistan. When her helicopter was shot down by the Taliban in 2009, she held off the enemy by clinging to the skids of the chopper and firing off her rifle, earning her the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor — making her one of the few women, including Amelia Earhart, to ever be awarded the honor.
“You cannot come out of a situation like that and then waste your life,” says Hegar, 42. “I gotta pay for that somehow.”
After being injured in the crash, her piloting days were done, and she left the military because of a law that kept women from holding ground-combat positions. So she set out to change that policy. Working with the ACLU, in 2012, she got it overturned — with no help from her congressman.
“When I was fighting to open hundreds of thousands of jobs for women in the military, he would not take a meeting with me,” she says of GOP Rep. John Carter, who has spent 15 unopposed years presiding over Texas’ deep-red 31st District. “He doesn’t meet with anyone. He takes a paycheck, votes the way he’s told and isn’t interested in hearing what people have to say.”
She decided her district needed new leadership, especially after the 2016 election. “I feel like I’m letting my kids down if I don’t do something,” she says. “What were you doing in 2017 when our rights were under attack? I need to look at them and say I was giving it my all.”
Hegar’s military experience lends itself to national-security issues, but her chief concerns are job growth, health care costs, diminishing the power of special-interest groups and strengthening public schools. “I’m spending a lot of my funds explaining to voters in this district that their votes count, they’re not alone, and they have a choice,” she says.
Hegar’s candidacy, aided by a slick biographical campaign ad that went viral, has electrified progressives nationwide, but come November she faces a tough race against the 76-year-old incumbent. “It’s not insurmountable,” Hegar says. “And I do love insurmountable odds.”