Politics & Policy

Senator Soldier: A Day After Winning, Joni Ernst Is Back In Fatigues

Iowa’s new senator-elect has other duties before she heads to Washington.

Des Moines — A day after winning one of the most contested Senate seats in the country, Joni Ernst reported for duty at her National Guard base. Ernst, a lieutenant colonel, started two days of training with the 185th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion on Thursday.

“Not many folks know she is in uniform on Thursday and Friday,” Ernst’s husband Gail tells National Review Online, “She does it without fanfare.”

A spokesman for the Iowa National Guard, Greg Hapgood, says soldiers don’t “punch the clock.” “We serve regardless of our situations and Colonel Ernst doesn’t want to be treated any differently.”

Ernst, a ferocious campaigner, had just finished a 24-hour straight campaign sweep of Iowa two days before reporting for duty. Her victory in the race also sealed the Senate for the GOP majority.

Joni and Gail Ernst both wearing the most American things ever, with their daughter Libby.

Hapgood admits that Ernst’s is a unique situation and the Guard will have to work with the senator-elect to find a balance. “She is going to be a soldier when on duty and a senator when off duty,” Hapgood predicts.

An Ernst campaign source says the National Guard has already been accommodating Ernst’s unique circumstances. “She was supposed to drill last weekend but was able to reschedule until after the election,” according to the source.

The senator-elect cannot do interviews while on duty, but those in close contact with Ernst say she is doing great and is happy to be back with her unit. According to Hapgood, Ernst’s duties this weekend as a senior officer will include working with her team on how to best serve the logistical needs of Iowa’s National Guard. “She’s working to make sure our units are totally combat ready,” he says.

Taking time off for National Guard duty is nothing new for Ernst. The then-candidate took time off the trail this summer to serve a week. While she was serving, a number of high-level GOP names visited the state to fill in at campaign events and the Twitter hashtag #ondutyforJoni was started.

Iowa senator Chuck Grassley tells NRO that Ernst’s military service is one of the prime reasons he’s excited to have her in the Senate. “It’s really good for our National Defense,” Grassley says, “having the first female combat veteran [to serve] in the Senate will be good for all debate on national security.”

Ernst served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and has been in the National Guard since 1993.

American Legion lobbyist Shaun Rieley is also an active member of the National Guard. He regularly shuttles between the halls of Congress and an Army training field and says it’s a culture shock. “It’s hard to go from Congress to a cold artillery field in the middle of nowhere,” Rieley says, “but it’s great knowing that you’re working in D.C. for the guys that you serve with.”

Will Ernst continue her training with the National Guard when fully instated as the junior senator from Iowa? “That is still to be determined,” one campaign aide admits. Interestingly, Ernst’s new Senate colleagues have been encouraging her, behind closed doors, to stay in the National Guard. “Senator Graham has encouraged her to continue her service, if possible,” the aide tells NRO.

“It takes a lot of work to do it correctly, but we can do it,” Hapgood says of Ernst remaining in the National Guard. “Ultimately this is a personal decision.”

Hapgood says that regardless of what decision Ernst makes, the National Guard could not be more proud of her. “She is the model of a citizen-soldier,” he says. “Her victory is indicative of our work ethic and commitment.”

Perhaps no one is more proud than Ernst’s husband, who is himself a retired Army Ranger. “Truly, she is my hero, wife, and best friend!” Gail says.

— Benny Johnson is digital director for National Review.

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