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Congress’s four female combat veterans are speaking up on military issues

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), left, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), center, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who have all served in the military, stand on the U.S. Capitol steps on July 7. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

There are now four female combat veterans in Congress.

And they have something to say about the changing face of the Armed Forces, which is officially open to women joining combat units across the board.

They are a diverse group: Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) is a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) served in the military police in Kuwait. Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) flew A-10s for the Air Force, and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) served in the Iowa National Guard.

But they are speaking together in Congress just as the Pentagon is implementing sweeping changes to the face of the military. And as they raise their voices, their colleagues are listening to them on issues such as sexual harassment in the military, expanding family leave and planning options for soldiers, and – most recently – whether women should be eligible for the draft.

“There’s still a lot of misperception that exists and a lot of misinformation, though by and large most people are sincerely interested in learning more and hearing more from us” about women in combat roles, Gabbard said in an interview. “We’re coming at this as a continuation of the service to our country.”

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The foursome is hardly a sisterhood-in-arms – they are divided ideologically, and their interactions outside of the Armed Services committee rooms are relatively infrequent, although Gabbard and McSally belong to the same morning workout group.

But in a short period of time, the women have become go-to authorities in a legislative arena traditionally dominated by men – and especially male veterans. And their experience in the male-dominated military has taught them important lessons about how to survive in Washington.

“I mean, it [Congress] is a male-dominated institution … so it felt very, um, ‘familiar’ is probably the right word,” McSally said in an interview, laughing. “But I learned a lot along the way in the military on how to figure out how to be credible, respected and effective in that environment, when you are potentially the only woman at the table.”

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Of the 102 veterans serving in Congress, these four are the only women.

Each is fiercely proud of her military service and looks back fondly on the bulk of her interactions with fellow soldiers, commanders and underlings in the military. But each also has distinct memories of how being a woman in uniform meant being treated differently.

“There were different missions I had volunteered for, along with other females in our unit, and we were told we weren’t allowed to participate in those missions simply because we were female,” Gabbard recalled of her time as a military police platoon leader in Kuwait.

“When I was overseas, I had two senior officers from another battalion who were not good to deal with,” Ernst said, alluding to overt harassment during her deployment with the Iowa National Guard. “Sexual harassment certainly exists.”

For McSally and Duckworth, the differences were palpable before they even left basic training.

McSally wanted to be an Air Force doctor, but “the reason I decided to be a fighter pilot,” she explained, “is because they said that I couldn’t.”

“It motivated me to just say, you know, this is wrong, and I’m going to be a part of proving that it’s wrong,” she said.

For the female Republican veterans especially, issues pertaining to women in combat can put them at odds with their party leadership. But change from within the system, they say, is part of the job.

“I joke that I believe part of my calling in life is to create cognitive dissonance in people. First it was ‘women warriors,’ and now it’s ‘feminist Republican,’ ” McSally said. “But just to clash people’s stereotypes and make them have to choose.”

“We have very few people that actually have backgrounds in national security,” she continued. “So when I speak on a variety of issues, hopefully they take that into consideration.”

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Duckworth has a similar story: She entered the Army speaking four languages and thinking she would become a linguist. But when her superiors told her, as the only woman in her graduating class of ROTC cadets, that she didn’t have to consider combat roles like her male colleagues, she changed her mind.

“It’s why I became a helicopter pilot,” Duckworth said. “And what I love about the military is if you can do the job, then you’re part of that group – at the end of the day, it’s the ultimate meritocracy.”

But as lawmakers, getting people to hear their arguments about women in the military can be hard. Often, the female veterans find themselves repeating the same points to colleague after colleague, person after person, trying to change minds one by one.

The latest issue requiring a sustained persuasion campaign is the debate about whether women should be subject to the draft – something all four female combat veterans favor, even though none of them believe a draft is still necessary.

“It’s about equality,” said Duckworth, a former Army pilot whose Black Hawk helicopter and was shot down over Iraq in 2004.

“If we’re going to have a draft, then everyone should register,” she said.

Male veterans in Congress started the debate as a way of challenging President Obama’s recent decision to open all U.S. military combat roles to women.

But the effort to shock lawmakers into repudiating the new policy backfired when a majority of House and Senate Armed Services committee members supported the change to have women ages 18 to 25 register for the Selective Service.

GOP leaders have tried to stamp out the issue, stripping the draft language from the House’s defense policy bill and releasing a convention party platform opposing women in combat. The question will ultimately be resolved later this year when Congress finalizes a defense policy bill.

But in the meantime, the four women have been pushing back against the most common emotional arguments surrounding the draft — that is, no one would want their own wife, sister or daughter risking her life on the front lines.

“It’s a ‘gotcha’ — because ‘women shouldn’t be in combat. … I’m going to make your daughter sign up,’ ” Duckworth said, shrugging. “Great. I’ll go register her right now, she’s 18 months old.”

Said Ernst: “I believe we all need skin in the game, and my daughter will turn 18 here in a little over a year. And certainly — do I think she should sign up? Yes, I do. So it is personal to me.”

The issue of women in the draft is just one of many traditionally driven by male veterans on topics such as wars, weapons systems and persistent reports of sexual assault in the military.

Congress’s female veterans rarely agree unanimously on any major military issue other than the role of women in combat, now playing out in the debate over the draft.

All favor instituting standards and policies that would help recruit and retain more female troops.

But they differ over how to address the scourge of sexual harassment in the services, and the extent to which the government should shoulder the cost of more parental-leave and fertility-assistance options for enlisted soldiers.

On the question of fertility assistance, Duckworth, Gabbard and McSally support a new Pentagon pilot program to help service members continue to have children even if injured in combat. But Ernst says it’s not always feasible to pay for such measures — desirable as they may be — while the Defense Department is in a budget squeeze.

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They are also divided on how to respond to sexual assault in the military, an issue of heated debate in the Senate, where Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) – neither of whom served in the military – have been driving the standoff over whether cases should be prosecuted outside the chain of command.

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Democrats Duckworth and Gabbard support Gillibrand’s approach to take such cases out of the chain of command and hand them over to a military prosecutor. Gabbard has led that legislative effort in the House.

But Republicans McSally and Ernst who has dealt with a situation in which a soldier under her command was accused of rape – both said they are seeing enough progress to allow commanders to consider the issue.

Still, both took deep breaths before answering this question, adding that they reserved the right to change their minds if the military does not continue to significantly improve in this area.

The four have, however, found common cause in less politically divisive initiatives, such as McSally’s bid to secure burial rights for female World War II pilots at Arlington National Cemetery, a bill that became law this spring.

As for the draft and women serving in combat roles, all four are united in advising their colleagues against typecasting.

Some of the four would also like to use their influence to shed light on lower-profile issues affecting women in the military.

Elements of basic procurement may have to change, Duckworth said, recalling how the cut of her flight suit made the prospect of going to the bathroom while on mission a near-impossibility. As women move into new combat roles, the Pentagon and defense contractors will have to make changes to accommodate women’s bodies.

Establishing achievable but fair performance standards for women is more complicated than it seems, Ernst warned.

Even haircut policies can cause a problem, McSally said. Letting women evade the traditional buzz cut “can add to resentment” or allegations of special treatment for women, she said.

Some things, the female veterans argue, will just be worked out in time as the military matures to accept and promote more women, such as Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, who in May became the military’s first female combatant commander.

“As we get more women from my generation who served in combat roles and who actually saw real combat move up … you’re going to see some of the problems get more attention and be resolved,” McSally said.

But generational changes come slowly. And so all four are committing themselves to a long road ahead.

“I’ve lived through this nonsense for 26 years,” McSally said, referring to stereotypes about women in the military. “It’s a part of my journey in service. If you’ve got to change people’s minds one at a time, then you need to do it.”

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