Female Vets Say They'll Put Country First, Even On Capitol Hill

Oct 15, 2014
Originally published on October 15, 2014 2:18 pm

As the war against the so-called Islamic State continues in the Middle East, political ads have for weeks been raising the specter of terrorism. And several congressional candidates with military experience say they're the ones who can best keep America safe. Many of them are women. Only five female veterans have ever served in Congress, but 11 are running for seats this year – the most ever.

Just a few are running in competitive races, and Republican Wendy Rogers is one of them. Even if she never told you she spent 20 years in the military, you'd have a feeling.

For starters, she's ridiculously fit at 60. She's getting her 3-year-old granddaughter and 1-year-old grandson exercising on the pull-up bar at her house. And while rolling through the Phoenix suburbs on bicycle to meet voters, Rogers will note that maintaining "aircraft control" is first and foremost.

Rogers is a retired lieutenant colonel — one of the Air Force's first 100 female pilots. And now, she's part of the biggest class of female veterans ever who are fighting for a seat in Congress. Back in the late '70s, 3 out of 4 members of Congress had served in the military. Now, it's down to 1 in 5. But the number of female veterans running for office has climbed since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This election, they're almost evenly divided by party.

This year, Rogers is facing off against Democratic incumbent Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.

She campaigns as "Lt. Col. Wendy Rogers." Her license plate reads "AFPILOT." On her website, there are photos of her next to the military transports she flew. Rogers says there's a simple logic behind all this advertising.

"You only have someone's attention for a few seconds, and imagery is very strong," Rogers explained, "and so if I evoke that image of an Air Force pilot, that will stick."

Flagging her time in the Air Force isn't just a memory aide — Rogers says a military background signals other qualities that might help on Capitol Hill. Like the ability to hear the other side, even if you don't always agree.

"We in the military are taught to lead. But we are also taught to follow and listen. No matter who is on your air crew, for example, there is a valued input which might save your life," Rogers said.

A Pew Research Center poll from May found military service to be the No. 1 trait people in both parties want to see in a president. And for female candidates especially, it has the added benefit of helping rebut any idea that they're not tough enough for elected office.

Joni Ernst, who's running for U.S. Senate in Iowa, probably has the best shot at winning out of all of the female veterans running this year. She likes to mention she grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, but if anyone has lingering doubts about her toughness, Ernst will remind people that she commands the largest battalion in the Iowa Army National Guard.

But could more veterans actually change the tone in Washington? One of the first two female combat vets in Congress thinks so. Democrat Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii says as tribal as political parties can be, the kinship people in the military share can transcend party lines.

"Just taking that first step of putting country first, putting mission first, is one that many people are not willing to make," says Gabbard.

And Gabbard says the kind of people who put country first in a war zone are also more likely to put country first — rather than party — on Capitol Hill.

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Now let's talk about this fall's election. The war against ISIS has put national security at the center of many campaigns. And this year, for the first time ever, the numbers of female veterans running for Congress has hit double digits, 11 in all. NPR's Ailsa Chang traveled to Phoenix to catch up with one of them.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Even if Wendy Rogers never told you she spent 20 years in the military, you'd have a feeling. For starters, she's ridiculously fit at 60.

WENDY ROGERS: You want me to drop for 20 push-ups, I will oblige.

CHANG: And she helps her 3-year-old granddaughter workout on the pull-up bar at her house.

ROGERS: Upper body strength can and should be cultivated in women at a very young age.

CHANG: And when we're biking through the Phoenix suburbs, she issues this warning to me as I ride one-handed to hold a microphone.

ROGERS: Maintain aircraft control. That's first and foremost, and then everything else is secondary.

CHANG: Will do.

CHANG: Rogers is a retired lieutenant colonel, one of the Air Force's first 100 female pilots. And now she's part of the biggest class of female veterans ever who are fighting for a seat in Congress. Back in the late '70s, three out of four members of Congress had served in the military. Now it's down to one in five. But the number of female veterans running for office has climbed since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This election, they're almost evenly divided by party.

ROGERS: We're turning right here.

CHANG: The old bike I'm borrowing has carried Rogers to 13,000 houses in her district over three election cycles.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCK ON DOOR)

CHANG: This year, she's facing off against Democratic incumbent Kyrsten Sinema.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi.

ROGERS: Hi, I'm Wendy.

MAN: Hi, Wendy.

ROGERS: Rogers.

CHANG: And wherever she goes, one of the first things she'll bring up is her military experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROGERS: I'm the Air Force pilot who's going to be your Congresswoman.

MAN: Oh, nice. Yeah, let me step by you real quick.

ROGERS: OK.

MAN: My little dog might get yappy.

CHANG: She campaigns as Lieutenant Colonel Wendy Rogers. Her license plate reads, AF PILOT. On her website, there are photos of her next to the military transports she flew. Rogers says there's a simple logic behind all this advertising.

ROGERS: You only have someone's attention for a few seconds. And imagery is very strong. And so if I evoke that image of an Air Force pilot, that will stick.

CHANG: Flagging her time in the Air Force isn't just a memory aid. Rogers says a military background signals other qualities that might help on Capitol Hill, like the ability to hear the other side even if you don't always agree.

ROGERS: We in the military are taught to lead. But we are also taught to follow and listen. No matter who is on your aircrew, for example, there is a valued input which might save your life.

CHANG: A Pew Research Center poll from May found military service to be the number one trait people in both parties want to see in a president. And for women candidates especially, it has the added benefit of helping rebut any idea that they're not tough enough for elected office.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANCHOR: Republican candidate Joni Ernst is back on the campaign trail after a couple of weeks away serving in the Iowa National Guard.

CHANG: Ernst, who's running for Senate, probably has the best shot at winning out of all the women veterans running this year. She likes to mention she grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. But if anyone has lingering doubts about her toughness, Ernst will remind people she commands the largest battalion in the Iowa Army National Guard.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Combat veteran and lieutenant colonel...

JONI ERNST: Leading convoys into Baghdad, I focused on one thing - complete our mission and bring every one of my soldiers home. And that's what we did.

CHANG: But could more veterans actually change the tone in Washington? One of the first two female combat vets in Congress thinks yes. Democrat Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii says as tribal as political parties can be, the kinship people in the military share can transcend party lines.

REPRESENTATIVE TULSI GABBARD: Just taking that first step of putting country first, putting mission first, is one that many people are not willing to make.

CHANG: And Gabbard says the kind of people who put country first in a war zone are more likely to put country first, rather than party, on Capitol Hill. Ailsa Chang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.