Women changing makeup of military, and perhaps its politics

WASHINGTON (AP) — It had been months since retired Lieutenant Commander Michele Fitzpatrick paid attention to news coverage. She was turned off by President Donald Trump’s tweetstorms and attacks on critics such as the late Republican Senator John McCain, a war hero. But as the November mid-term elections approached, she fired up her laptop.

A member of the US Coast Guard Academy’s Class of 1980, the first to include women, Fitzpatrick began researching candidates and poring over issues. On Election Day, she voted without hesitation: All Democrat.

“I just don’t think what’s happening now is helpful,” Fitzpatrick, of Groton, Connecticut, said in a telephone interview, pointing to the negative discourse in Washington. “It’s almost like watching kids and bullies on the playground instead of people actually doing something about helping this country to survive and to thrive.”

That’s hardly a startling view from a Democrat these days. But from a military vet?

Long seen as a bastion of support for Republicans, the face of the US military and its veterans is changing — and perhaps too is their political bent.

Michele Fitzpatrick, a retired lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. – AP

Veterans by and large did vote for GOP candidates on November 6, affirming Trump’s frequent claim that they stand among his strongest backers. But more women are joining the military, and they are bucking the pattern, according to data from AP VoteCast.

The 60-year-old Fitzpatrick recalls suppressing her opinions as a young “hardcore Democrat” in an overwhelmingly Republican military but finding other ways to promote change, such as supporting other female cadets.

Now, women in the military are helping elect new Democratic lawmakers and spur discussion on once little-mentioned topics such as sexual harassment and women in combat roles. As political candidates, female veterans also had a breakout performance in the midterms, sometimes campaigning as a foil to Trump: Empathetic and competent on issues such as health care while also trustworthy on military and defence, typically a GOP strength.

“I see this as a beginning edge of a larger movement,” said Jeremy Teigen, professor of political science at Ramapo College and author of “Why Veterans Run: Military Service in American Presidential Elections, 1789-2016.”

Both current and former female service members were more likely to vote in the 2018 mid-term elections for Democrats than Republicans, 60 per cent to 36 per cent, according to the data from VoteCast. Men with military backgrounds voted Republican by roughly the same margin, 58 per cent to 39 per cent.

A record number of female veterans — four — were elected to the House, all Democrats. Three won in political swing districts, helping give the party control of the chamber next year.

Democratic Representative-elect Chrissy Houlahan, a former Air Force captain, said she was motivated to run after organising a bus trip last year to the Women’s March in Washington. She felt her election would serve as a repudiation of Trump, but she avoided sharp rhetoric in favour of a message of service to country and getting things done.

She recalled Pennsylvania voters telling her they were exhausted by gridlock and partisan attacks and “would like our nation and our democracy and our values to stabilise to what we can recognise.”

All told, 55 per cent of voters who had served in the military backed Republican candidates in the elections, compared to 42 per cent who supported Democrats, according to VoteCast data.

Trump frequently embraces the US military and veterans in speeches, referring to “my military,” though he has also insulted war heroes such as McCain and military families who criticise him. “I think the vets, maybe more than anybody else, appreciate what we are doing for them,” Trump said last month.

Not the female veterans, though. Their margin of support for Democrats was comparable to that of women overall, according to VoteCast data.

AP VoteCast is a nationwide survey of more than 115,000 midterm voters — including more than 4,000 current and former service members — conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago.

Laura Cavallaro, 35, who served on active duty in the Marine Corps from 2001 to 2005 and on inactive duty until 2009, says she’s never voted but thinks she will in 2020. A recent graduate of Rhode Island College, she said she believes Trump has kept his promises about helping the economy and creating jobs. At the same time, “Who knows if he’s going to say something to the wrong person and start another war?” she said. That’s particularly concerning for military veterans who know what’s at stake in combat.

When Cavallaro joined the military, she considered herself a Republican because her parents were. Now, she sees herself more as an independent, saying she’s pro-gun rights and pro-equality.

“I think being in the military kind of opened my eyes to a lot more things,” she said. “If I had stayed in Rhode Island, I wouldn’t have met so many different personalities and people with other political views.”

In 2016, the Defence Department lifted all restrictions on the roles women can perform in the military, spurring broader debate about combat missions and even whether women should be eligible for the draft.

Currently, there are more than 20 million veterans of the US armed forces, about 10 per cent of them female, the fastest growing subgroup. In the US military forces, 16.6 per cent of those enlisted are women, up from about two per cent in 1973.

Women now make up 20 per cent of the Air Force, 19 per cent of the Navy, 15 per cent of the Army and 8.6 per cent of the Marines, according to Defence Department figures. In the Coast Guard, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, women make up 22 per cent of the officers and 13 per cent of those enlisted. The Coast Guard Academy, where Fitzpatrick was among the first women to attend in 1976, enrolled a class this year that is 40 per cent female, a new high.

Teigen, who studies military voting, said that in the context of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, female veterans running for office provided a contrast for voters, “someone who was willing to volunteer to take time out of their youth to serve their country and stand up for others,” compared to Trump, a New York billionaire with five wartime draft deferments and a fraught history with women. Of the military veterans who ran for the House, 12 were women, the highest number ever.

Houlahan will serve her first House term starting in January, along with former Navy pilot Mikie Sherrill and Navy veteran Elaine Luria who defeated another veteran, Republican Representative Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL. The women prevailed in tight races by tying their opponents to Trump and the GOP congressional majority while pledging to work on both sides of the aisle. All had stories about being among the only women working among men and used their platforms to speak out about abuses in the military.

Representative Tulsi Gabbard a frequent Trump critic, also won re-election. She is a member of her state’s National Guard.

In all, seven female veterans will serve in the next Congress, up from four. The veterans in the House will join Senators Tammy Duckworth, a former US Army helicopter pilot, and Joni Ernst, a combat veteran in the Iowa Army National Guard. Representative Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel, lost her Senate bid but was later appointed by Arizona’s governor to replace Senator Jon Kyl in the seat that belonged to McCain.

“I sure hope I get to make history,” Houlahan said cautiously, when asked about her candidacy and the influence female veterans could have on Washington. “That would be amazing. And I would be happy to serve everybody, not just the women and the Democrats.”