Meet Sen. Joni Ernst of the Great State of Iowa
- There are currently 92 sitting members of Congress who served in the Armed Forces, and you are one of only 17 Senators within that group. As part of your impressive military career, you served as company commander in Kuwait and Iraq, where you led 150 Iowa Army National Guardsmen as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. After 23 years of military service, you retired as a lieutenant colonel from the Iowa Army National Guard. How has your military experience, and your deployments leading troops, shaped your approach to serving in the Senate, and what impact has it had on choosing your priorities as a legislator?
As a former company commander and retired lieutenant colonel, my experience serving our nation in uniform for over 23 years guides my decision-making daily. In the Senate, I’ve made ensuring my fellow veterans have the support they need one of my top priorities. The men and women who have selflessly sacrificed in defense of our freedoms, and our way of life, deserve nothing less than the benefits they were promised and a quality of care we can all be proud of. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I’ve also continued to work to equip our military with the resources necessary to defend America today and in the future. And I’ve been able to do a lot of this important work in a bipartisan way.
- As women continue to represent the fastest-growing population in both military service and the veteran community, we’d like to reflect on some of the pioneering accomplishments in your career. You were the first woman elected to Congress from Iowa and the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate. In 2018, you were elected vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference, becoming the first woman to serve in Senate Republican leadership in a decade. What did you learn from these experiences, and what do you believe Congress should do to better support female service members as they separate from the military and pursue new careers?
In 2014, I was elected as the first woman to serve in federal elected office from the State of Iowa — and the first female combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate. Fast forward to today — in the 117th Congress, women make up just over a quarter of all members — the highest percentage in U.S. history, and Iowa’s congressional delegation is majority female for the first time in our state’s history. It is truly an honor to work alongside so many remarkable women who come from different fields and backgrounds. My colleagues and I may not agree on all issues, but we can all get behind the idea of more women serving in elected office, as CEOs, as soldiers, as engineers and manufacturers, and in any other profession in our society.
Women continue to make strides in serving in critical roles within our nation’s military. As a woman who served in combat and commanded troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and with my own daughter who is going through training right now at West Point, I understand just how important it is for all service members to be properly equipped for the battlefield. That’s why I’ve worked hard to continue the development and fielding of protective body armor designed specifically for female servicemembers.
We also know that, tragically, female veterans commit suicide at six times the rate of non-military females. I was proud to get my bipartisan legislation signed into law to require the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to identify the most effective programs and approaches in reducing suicide rates among female veterans.
- The Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) Memorial Location Act was one of Wounded Warrior Project’s legislative priorities during the first half of the 117th Congress. We appreciate you sponsoring this important piece of legislation and leading the effort to get it passed and signed into law through the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act. Why was construction of the GWOT Memorial in the centrally located Reserve area of the National Mall a priority for you?
As a veteran of the Global War on Terrorism myself, watching the disastrous collapse of Afghanistan was extremely heartbreaking. I’ve heard from so many service members and fellow veterans of the Global War on Terrorism, many of whom are disheartened, distraught, and disappointed. I also heard from so many Gold Star Families who lost their spouses, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters during the war. As they watched the Taliban retake control of Afghanistan, many even questioned if their family member’s sacrifice was worth it.
I want them to know that the brave Americans who have kept us safe in the 20 years since Sept. 11, 2001, are heroes — every single one of them. They’ve succeeded in protecting our citizens and allowing us to enjoy the freedoms and liberties we possess every day. That’s why I continued to fight to honor the servicemembers, fallen soldiers, their families, and all those impacted by the Global War on Terrorism with a memorial on our National Mall. When folks from our home state of Iowa, and across the country, visit our nation’s capital, they should have the opportunity to honor their fellow Americans who served our nation honorably during this war. The Global War on Terrorism Memorial on our National Mall will be a longstanding testament and reminder of their selflessness for generations to come — and I’m so proud to help make this memorial a reality.
- You have sponsored suicide prevention legislation for both service members and veterans. One of your current initiatives is the Save Our Servicemembers Act of 2021, which would require the Department of Defense to evaluate the effectiveness of its suicide prevention efforts and take steps to improve the accuracy of suicide data reporting. Looking back, what policies have you supported that you think have been most successful in meeting the mental health needs of service members and veterans to prevent suicide?
Our service members carry out selfless duties every day to protect our nation and oftentimes they face serious and unique challenges. We cannot fail them. I joined with Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona on the Save Our Servicemembers (S.O.S.) Act, which directs the Pentagon to evaluate the effectiveness of their suicide prevention efforts and to improve its data collection, reduce bureaucratic duplication, and strengthen collaboration between its offices. These are simple steps that will save lives.
I was proud to support, and get signed into law, the Sergeant Daniel Somers Veterans Network of Support Act. This bill creates a pilot program to allow active duty servicemembers transitioning to civilian life to designate up to 10 loved ones to receive information from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) about benefits and services available to veterans through the VA and community partners. I’ve also worked on bipartisan legislation to establish an interagency committee on the development of “Green Alert” systems that would be activated when an at-risk veteran goes missing.
- Another one of your initiatives is legislation directing VA to designate one week each year as “Buddy Check Week.” During the “Buddy Check Week,” VA would organize outreach events and educate veterans on how to conduct peer wellness checks and recognize signs of suicide risk among fellow veterans. Why do you believe it’s so important for peers to be involved, and what advice do you have for those who want to do more to help keep their friends safe or guide them to care?
As you mentioned, my bipartisan bill with Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to designate one week per year as “Buddy Check Week” to organize outreach events and educate veterans on how to conduct peer wellness checks. This legislation will help our veterans recognize signs of suicide risk so they can check in with their fellow veterans and help get them the care and support they need.
Oftentimes, those who are struggling may turn to their friends or peers before a medical professional, and it’s important we educate folks on the resources available. For anyone who wants to do more to look out for their friends and loved ones, I’d encourage them to visit the Department of Veterans Affairs website to learn more about the resources available. The Veterans Crisis Line offers free, confidential support, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.