U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s Iraq War experience and ongoing service in the Iowa National Guard have been central to her political rise over the past year, but have also drawn pointed questions and criticisms.
Is Ernst, who has more than 20 years of military experience, really a “combat veteran?” As a service member, can she make political comments? Is it a conflict to continue her military commitments while serving in the Senate?
Research by The Des Moines Register shows she meets the military’s definition of a combat veteran and that her service in the Guard does not limit her political speech, but the constitutionality of her concurrent service in Congress and the National Guard is less clear-cut.
The Republican’s military experience defined her candidacy in 2014, helping set her apart in a crowded primary and then secure a general-election victory to become Iowa’s first female member of Congress.
She’s also made military affairs a top priority since taking office, serving on the Armed Forces Committee and using her maiden speech on the Senate floor to introduce a bill on mental health services for veterans.
Let’s walk through the facts, military regulations and law that lead to these conclusions.
What is Joni Ernst’s history as a member of the U.S. military?
Joni Ernst has been a member of the Reserve Component of the U.S. military for most of her adult life.
She entered the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Iowa State University at age 20, on Aug. 27, 1990, and served in the ROTC until her graduation in May 1992.
She was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve in 1992, and subsequently was promoted to first lieutenant in 1995 and captain in 1999. She joined the Iowa Army National Guard in 2001, and was promoted to major in 2005 and lieutenant colonel in 2011, according to military records.
As of this May, she will have 25 years of service in the Reserve Component (which includes both the Army Reserves and the Army National Guard), of which 21 will count toward her military retirement, records show.
While serving as commander of the Iowa National Guard’s 1168th Transportation Company, Ernst was called to active duty on Feb. 10, 2003, and ultimately was deployed to Kuwait during the Iraq War. Ernst and her unit arrived in Kuwait on April 19, 2003, and remained until April 5, 2004, according to the company’s official mobilization and deployment history, which Ernst wrote.
From May through August 2003, Ernst and her unit drove supply convoys into Iraq, ultimately conducting 402 missions comprising 2,091 loads, 10.5 million tons of equipment and 230,728 miles driven. They transported everything from food and clothing to weapons and ammunition to embalming powder and “over $2 billion in paper currency,” according to the company history.