Every day in the military, men and women rush into danger while others take cover. And many of these brave servicemembers pay the ultimate price, laying down their lives for their fellow Americans. These men and women leave loved ones, never to return home. On Memorial Day, we pause to acknowledge the selfless courage and the tremendous sacrifice they’ve made for our freedoms.
I think about Army Corporal Jessica Ellis, who was serving on a medic team in a combat zone in Iraq when her vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device and she was killed. Or First Lieutenant Ashley White who was among the first women in combat with the Cultural Support Team and was killed in the line of duty. These women answered the call to serve, including unto death.
Having served in the Army Reserves and National Guard for more than 23 years combined, the men and women of our armed forces hold a special place in my heart. And I believe Memorial Day — a time when we reflect upon the loss of life for the sake of freedom — is a time to raise a call to service.
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This year, that call to service takes on a new urgency because we are facing a national crisis, a war against an invisible enemy, as the president has said. And this fight, it requires all of us to step up.
Women going above and beyond
When we give thanks for the heroes who have gone before us, we must also pause and pray for those on the front lines of COVID-19, including our Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, and of course our National Guardsmen. Behind the scenes and without a lot of fanfare, these men and women are yet again putting themselves in harm’s way and helping us battle this pandemic.
In my home state of Iowa, nearly nine hundred National Guardsmen and women have been on duty to perform whatever tasks are needed — whether it’s trucking in medical supplies, distributing food, or being a secure presence where needed. And for their front line efforts, I’ve called for these servicemembers to receive hazard pay — just as our National Guard troops deployed to combat zones get an extra stipend every month. Believe me, it’s the least we can do for our soldiers.
More often these days, the faces that people see coming to the rescue belong to women. Over 16% of our military across all branches, and including combat troops, are women.
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This past November, I had the opportunity to return to the base in Kuwait where I was stationed with the National Guard during the Iraq War, and to visit our troops, including Iowans, in Afghanistan. I was thrilled to see so many female soldiers, and have a chance to talk with them about their experiences. I even met a couple of women coming straight from fire fights. And let me tell you folks, anyone who doubts that women aren’t strong enough to handle combat, you’re wrong. The female servicemembers I met were tough, and I bet you if Cpl. Ellis or 1st Lt. White were here with us today, they’d tell you the same thing.
She should serve
For me, military service was life-changing. I still remember the feeling of pride and gratification that came the first time I realized that my service mattered — that I was saving lives and making a real difference. As an ordinary young woman from small town Iowa, I never realized that I could fulfill such big dreams.
So, when Iowans ask me if the military is a good career for their daughters, I easily reply, “She should serve.” My own daughter is entering her third year at West Point, and I could not be more proud of her decision to serve.
Now for many of our veterans, they’re finding their way into a different form of service, elected office. Ninety-seven veterans currently serve in Congress. Seven of them are women — a number that I hope to see increase as more and more women choose military careers. Currently in the Senate, I’m joined by Arizona Senator Martha McSally, who spent 26 years in the Air Force and was deployed six times to the Middle East; and Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, who lost both of her legs while serving in the Army in Iraq.
These courageous women, and the many women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice — like Ellis and White — serve as role models for our next generation of female leaders.
So, as we reflect on the sacrifice of our soldiers this Memorial Day, when our nation is experiencing a crisis that requires all of us to do our part, I hope our young women hear the call to service and respond. For that young Iowan wondering what might come next, I would tell you with all confidence, “You should serve.”
Joni Ernst is a U.S. senator representing Iowa. Her memoir, “Daughter of the Heartland: My Ode to the Country That Raised Me,” will be released May 26, 2020. Follow her on Twitter: @joniernst