Mary Jennings Hegar is a somewhat unusual candidate for Congress. A former Air Force helicopter pilot who won a Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor and a Purple Heart for her bravery in Afghanistan, Hegar led a suit against the Pentagon over excluding women from combat — and won.
Last month, Hegar, who lives in Round Rock, did something that was also a little out of the ordinary for a candidate for Congress.
She got a tattoo. Another one.
Hegar, known as M.J., was adding and enhancing the cherry blossom and lotus flower tattoo she already has that runs from her shoulder to her forearm, making her “the candidate with the floral tattoo,” she said.
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And the reason for the tattoo is also unusual — to hide shrapnel wounds. One bullet shattered, breaking into 18 fragments that hit her arm and leg when she was co-piloting a helicopter rescue mission.
“I was kind of sick of seeing the scars every time I picked up one of my kids,” said Hegar, who has two young sons.
So, a few years ago, she decided to do something about it, well before she pursued a political life. Hegar, 41, is running for Congress as a Democrat in the 31st Congressional District held by U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock.
Hegar is critical of Carter for not holding town hall meetings and for supporting Trump’s agenda, especially on environmental issues and foreign policy.
Hegar is one of several Democrats who have filed or are expected to compete for the House seat. Also running in the Democratic primary: Christine Eady Mann, a family practice physician in Cedar Park; Kent Lester, a U.S. Army veteran and West Point graduate who retired from being a high school teacher in Belton; and Mike Clark of Georgetown, who works in the technology sector. Mike Sweeney, a software entrepreneur in Georgetown, is challenging Carter in the Republican primary.
Carter declined to comment for this story.
The week before Thanksgiving, Hegar took time out from her campaigning and speaking schedule — she left the Air Force in 2010 and is a professional speaker and author of “Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front” — to spend a couple of hours at Arthouse Tattoo on RM 620.
There she and owner Mike Metaxa, who did the original tattoo, set out to expand her floral artwork with branches across her shoulder and to add something: a dragon.
“It came out really good,” said Hegar a few days later. “It’s so detailed. He put a dragon wrapped around the trunk of the cherry blossom tree with some the clouds around it.” The drawing, which is on her shoulder, is only outlined now in black - which Hegar said is the most painful part — and the colors will be filled in later.
“It’s not quite finished. But it’s going to look pretty cool,” she said. Hegar feels a special connection to Metaxa, a Russian who also fought in Afghanistan. Metaxa, who said he didn’t want to talk about that part of his life, said he has been in Austin for three years after living in New York. Of Hegar, he said, “She’s very particular and knows what she’s looking for.”
“We had to work together to create her vision,” he said.
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Hegar feels connected to the tattoo. “It’s reclaiming my body. It’s reclaiming my memories. It’s reclaiming my progress,” she said. Her campaign slogan is “Protect our Progress.”
Hegar already has one son’s name, Jude, in Japanese characters, on her arm — she lived in Japan for several years — and soon will add her second-born’s name, Daniel, also using Japanese characters.
And she is in no way trying to occult her tattoo, which is very visible when she wears a sleeveless dress or top. “It’s not something we would hide. It’s 100 percent on brand with what we do,” she said, referring to herself.
“I’m just a transparent person. It’s symbolic to me because of the scars it covers,” she said. “It’s transforming adversity into something colorful and beautiful. The tattoo is something symbolic to me because of the wounds from battle.”
In the harrowing 2009 firefight north of Kandahar, Hegar was the pilot of a helicopter sent to rescue three Americans. It was ambushed as the aircraft touched down and Hegar was shot. The helicopter was soon airborne, however, with its rescued passengers, but, disabled, it landed again a few miles away, where it once again was attacked. Two small helicopters came to the rescue and Hegar and the others mounted the outside skids as they left, with Hegar returning fire as she clung to the outside of the aircraft, she said.
Her mother and her husband love the tattoo, she said, and more importantly, so do her sons. The younger one, 3-year-old Daniel, is now wearing temporary dragon tattoos.
Then there is a connection to someone else known for her tattoos, Oscar winner Angelina Jolie. The actress is set to play Hegar in the movie version of her book.
“That’s the one thing we have in common,” said Hegar with a laugh.
Monday is the deadline to file to run in the Republican and Democratic March primaries.