In 2009, while serving in the United States Air Force as a combat search and rescue helicopter pilot in Afghanistan, MJ Hegar was shot down by Taliban combatants, with fragments from the bullets shooting into her right arm and leg. Left with "superficial damage," as she calls it, in the form of scars and scar tissue, Hegar was honorably discharged and awarded a Purple Heart. But after the birth of her son five years later, the scars left from the shrapnel started to bother her.
"Every time I would reach to pick up my kids, I would see my scars and remember," Hegar says. "It felt like the Taliban had won."
As a way to reclaim her body, she decided to cover up the scars on her arm with something beautiful that she loved. She went to a local tattoo parlor close to where she grew up in Texas, and got a tattoo of a colorful array of cherry blossom branches down her arm.
The design was inspired by her time stationed in Japan, where she discovered and fell in love with the history of the samurai. "It’s more art and beauty and less toxic masculinity," Hegar says. "The cherry blossom is their symbol for the fragility of life and I thought that was beautiful. That’s what I wanted to be reminded of."
The cherry blossom tattoo also alludes to Hegar's leadership style, which is something she's eager to talk about as she campaigns to be the U.S. Representative for Texas' 31st Congressional District, a seat that's been held by Rep. John Carter, a Republican, for the past 15 years. It's a district where Hegar, a Democrat, grew up, met her husband, raised her kids, and got her tattoo.
"I'm a person who takes something that might be tough and negative and turns it into a positive, and something beautiful," Hegar says. "One of my strengths is that I embrace both physical and emotional scars and grow from those experiences."
Seeing a politician openly talk about their tattoos is rare in American politics, despite the fact that more than 40% of people in the country have tattoos themselves. But Hegar is fully leaning into her look, creating an entire campaign video around her scar and tattoo story called "Covered," which smartly addresses both being covered in tattoos and the pressing need to be covered by affordable health care. (Hegar has other tattoos as well, but doesn't speak as openly about them.)
"I think that it’s important that we elect people who are reflective of everyday Americans and the working class," Hegar says. "It’s important we elect people with integrity and character who embrace every aspect of themselves. That’s why I don't dress in the mode of the traditional candidate either."
Thus far on the campaign trail, her supporters and potential voters haven't been fazed by the idea that their representative in Washington, D.C. could be rocking a sizable tattoo that'd be visible if she ever wore short sleeves, according to Hegar.
"People want to take pictures of them first and foremost," Hegar says. "I think they like the idea they have someone who’s not trying to hide who she is. And, I am one of them. I have worked minimum wage jobs. I have been a bartender. I have been a waitress."
Her campaign has had luck with honest, moving videos in the past, too. Her video "Doors," which went viral with more than 2.7 million views, recounted her time in the military and her battle against discrimination in the Air Force. In 2012, Hegar and four other servicewomen filed a legal suit against then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, claiming that the Combat Exclusion Policy, which kept women out of serving in ground combat, was unconstitutional. Though it wasn't resolved in court, Panetta reversed the ban in January 2013 amid mounting pressure.
In the 10 days after that video's release this summer, Hegar's campaign announced that it had raised $750,000, which went towards helping her raise four times the amount of her opponent that quarter — a cool $1,171,373 to Carter's $266,889.
Asked now how she feels when she looks down at her arm, Hegar says, "I feel triumph." Come November 6, many are hopeful she'll feel that emotion again.