WASHINGTON — Arizona Senator Martha McSally, a former Air Force colonel and one of the first female fighters elected to Congress, has revealed she was raped by a senior officer during her career military, but kept the attack secret for fear of reprisals.
“Like so many women and men, I didn’t trust the system at the time,” she told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “I blamed myself. I was ashamed and confused. I thought I was strong but felt helpless. The perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways.
The revelation came as the committee heard from other military sexual assault victims and asked Pentagon officials if they had done enough to address the issue.
Earlier this year, the Department of Defense’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response found that the number of military academy cadets reporting unwanted sex had risen nearly 50% over the past year. three years, reaching 747 incidents in 2018.
The news sparked a series of hearings and legislative proposals in recent weeks aimed at changing cultural norms within the military and forcing more aggressive action from Defense Department leaders.
McSally, a Republican lawmaker who has been outspoken on issues of equality for women in the ranks, served in the Air Force from 1988 to 2010. She was the first female service member to fly in combat after that the military lifted rules barring them from those pilot positions and provided close air support during operations in Iraq and Kuwait as part of Operation Southern Watch.
She did not say when the attack happened or who her attacker was, but said she did not discuss it with anyone until years later.
“Later in my career, as the military grappled with (sex assault) scandals and their totally inadequate responses, I felt the need to let some people know that I too was a survivor. “, she said. “I was horrified by the way my attempt to share my experiences in general was handled.
“I almost got separated from the Air Force at 18 years of service because of my desperation. Like many victims, I felt like the system was violating me again.
Despite that experience, McSally said she does not support legislation to remove crimes of sexual assault and harassment from the rest of the military justice system. A number of supporters pushed for the move, saying military leaders have repeatedly shown they are not equipped to properly respond to crimes or handle their prosecution.
“I share the disgust at the failures of the military system,” she said. “But it is for this very reason that we must allow, we must demand, that commanders remain at the center of the solution and assume the moral and legal responsibilities that come with being a commander.
“We need to correct these distortions in the culture of our military that allow sexual violence.”
McSally was nominated to the open Arizona Senate seat after losing the November election to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. During that campaign, McSally told the Wall Street Journal that she was sexually abused as a teenager by a high school track coach.
McSally is one of three Iraq War veterans in the Senate today, including Iowa Republican Joni Ernst and Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth. Duckworth was present at the subcommittee hearing for McSally’s announcement and was among the senators who praised his courage and insight on the matter.
McSally called the problem of sexual assault in the ranks a threat to national security.
“Commanders have a moral responsibility to ensure the readiness of their units,” she said. “This includes combat skills, but requires the commander to cultivate, protect and nurture a culture of teamwork, respect and honor.
“Any conduct that degrades that readiness not only harms individuals in the ranks, it harms the mission and endangers the security of our country.”
In a statement following the hearing, Air Force officials released a statement saying “the criminal actions reported today by Senator McSally violate every part of what it means to be an Airman. We are appalled and deeply sorry for what Senator McSally went through and we support her and all victims of sexual assault.
“We are unwavering in our commitment to root out this misconduct and breach of trust within our ranks.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, DC since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned him numerous accolades, including a 2009 Polk Award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism Award, and the VFW News Media Award.