Next mission for female vets: Storming the halls of Congress

Rep.-elect Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, as she poses with other female House members prior to the official opening of the 113th Congress. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

As one of the first 100 female pilots in the Air Force, Wendy Rogers, a retired lieutenant colonel turned congressional candidate, is familiar with being part of an elite group of women.

But if she is successful this November in her bid to unseat Arizona Democrat Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, Rogers will be part of an even smaller club: female military veterans who are members of Congress.

“Women vets have a unique perspective,” said Rogers, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully in 2012. “We have the nurturing and the compassion components uniquely blended into the service to country, mission-minded outlook.”

There are 1,483,600 female veterans in the United States, according to the Center for Second Service at George Washington University. Five of them have served as members of Congress. Currently two female veterans , Reps. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), are members of the House..

This image provided November 8, 2012 by Tulsi Gabbard for Congress , shows US Representative-elect-Tulsi Gabbard. At least five Americans of Asian or Pacific Island descent, all Democrats, won new seats in Congress. In Hawaii, 31-year-old Tulsi Gabbard was elected as the first Hindu member of Congress. Gabbard, who served in combat in Iraq, is of Samoan descent and her mother embraced the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. AFP PHOTO/TULSI GABBARD FOR CONGRESS=RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT " AFP PHOTO / Tulsi Gabbard For Congress " - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS=HO/AFP/Getty Images
Tulsi Gabbard. (AFP PHOTO / Tulsi Gabbard For Congress)

At least a dozen female veterans are running for Congress in 2014, perhaps the most ever, experts say.

Although some candidates are more viable than others, the rising number of willing female vets is encouraging, says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

“They have a commitment to public service, running for office is an extension of that service,” Walsh said, noting that her group has just begun to keep track of female vets running in this cycle. “This has been a great credential for men who run for office, I think for women it could be an even more powerful credential.”

Suzanne Patrick, a retired commander in the Navy Reserves and Democratic candidate in Virginia’s military-centric 2nd Congressional District, said her military experience is a must.

“Being a female veteran in the second district of Virginia, brings an overwhelming advantage, I feel, to the campaign,” she said. “This is the largest military district in the country.”

She added, “The 35 years of experience in dealing with the Navy and the military that I have is a formidable asset for this district.”

Among the reasons for the increase in female veterans running for Congress are the number of women now serving in the Armed Forces, the expansion of opportunities for women inside the military and two long wars, said Seth Lynn, director of the Center for Second Service.

“It’s that commitment to service, it’s humbling and it’s really inspiring to a lot of people,” he said.

Gabbard, who was elected to the House in 2012, said that adding more women veterans to the congressional ranks would be “very significant,” particularly because so few men or women of this generation have chosen to serve in the military. She said female vets running for office should emphasize their service.

“Don’t shy away from talking about your service and how it’s impacted your life in every respect,” she said.

Last year, about 10 female vets competed in general election contests for Congress, according to Lynn’s group.  But the number of female vets to win congressional seats has grown very slowly.


From Center for Second Service. Democratic candidates are in blue and Republicans are in red.

The first, Catherine Small Long, a Navy veteran, served only one term in 1985 after winning an election to fill her late husband’s seat.  Then came former Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), the first woman to command Basic Cadet Training, who served in the House from 1998 to 2008, followed by Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.) who served a single term from 2011-2013.

Martha McSally, a retired Air Force Colonel is running for the second time against Arizona Democrat Rep. Ron Barber. In 2012, McSally lost a close race to Barber in the special election to replace former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), who resigned after being seriously wounded by a gunman who opened fire at a event the congresswoman was holding at a shopping center near Tuscon. Barber is a former aide to Giffords.

McSally said her military career has more than prepared her for the rigors of elected office – and not just from a leadership perspective.

“Politics is not for the faint of heart and in a campaign you go through a lot of character assassination and lies and people making things up about you, and it can be pretty challenging to some people,” she said. “Being a woman in the military and breaking through the barriers that I have, I’ve been through a lot of that already.”

As Congress grapples with how to prosecute sexual assaults and the chain of command in the military, the addition of more women who have experience in the Armed Forces will add unique and necessary voices to the debate, McSally said.

“Having been in the chain of command and a commander, seeing the leadership basically fail on this issue, instead of getting talking points from staff you can speak first hand from your experiences,” she said, noting that as the first female pilot to fly in combat she had broken some glass ceilings much to the dismay of some in the military.

Lynn and Walsh said given the rising interest among female veterans to get into politics, they plan to team up for the next cycle to offer a training program for those who want to run for elected office. A near-even number of Democratic and Republican female veterans are running for office.

That bipartisanship is something Rogers said she hopes to carry into a divided House, should she win her race.

“When I get to Congress, the women veterans are going to be the first ones I look up and go have lunch with irrespective of their party of affiliation,” Rogers said.  “Because there is a bond, there is an understanding.”

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