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Martha McSally says officer raped her when she was in Air Force

Arizona Republican opens up during hearing on sexual assault in the military

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., revealed that while in the Air Force, she was raped by a superior officer. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., revealed that while in the Air Force, she was raped by a superior officer. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Martha McSally revealed Wednesday that while in the Air Force, she was raped by a superior officer. McSally, the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, spoke out at a Senate Armed Services hearing on the military’s efforts to respond to and prevent sexual assaults.

The Arizona Republican served 26 years in the military. McSally said she did not report being sexually assaulted by the officer because she did not trust the system in place to handle such a case.

“The perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways. In one case, I was preyed upon and raped by a superior officer,” she said.

She did not name the officer who raped her but said that the incident left her feeling ashamed and confused.

McSally: ‘I felt the system was raping me all over again’

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“I stayed silent for many years, but later in my career, as the military grappled with the scandals, and their wholly inadequate responses, I felt the need to let some people know I too was a survivor,” McSally told the committee. “I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences was handled. I almost separated from the Air Force at 18 years of service over my despair. Like many victims, I felt like the system was raping me all over again.”

McSally said she is disgusted by the failures of the military system and commanders who have not addressed problems of sexual misconduct in the armed forces.

“We must educate, select, and further educate commanders who want to do the right thing but who are naive to the realities of sexual assault. We must ensure all commanders are trained and empowered to take legal action, prosecute fairly, and rid perpetrators from our ranks. And if the commander is the problem or fails in his or her duties, they must be removed and held harshly accountable,” McSally told witnesses and fellow lawmakers.

Lawmakers in both parties have been focused heavily on the issue since a 2013 Pentagon report estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault in 2012 alone, representing a 37 percent spike within the military ranks in just two years.

Since then, Congress has passed dozens of provisions aimed at combating the problem, encouraging reporting of these crimes, ending retaliation and changing military culture.

As a result, sexual assault reporting has increased by over 88 percent since 2012, while the prevalence of these crimes has decreased by nearly 45 percent, according to the most recent report from the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

In January, a new Pentagon report looking specifically at the military service academies sent shockwaves through the Defense Department and Capitol Hill. The number of students estimated to have experienced unwanted sexual contact totaled 747 in 2018, a 47 percent increase over 2016.

Among the most noteworthy scandals in recent years was a 2017 incident that rocked the Marines when it came to light that nude photographs of female Marines, veterans from across the military and other women were shared on Facebook with comments and posts that were obscene and threatening. 

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee and a presidential contender, has made this her signature issue.

Gillibrand’s top proposal would take the decision for prosecuting sexual assaults and most other crimes out of the military’s chain of command. That would amount to a significant rewrite of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and has not been enacted.

McSally’s disclosure comes after Iowa Republican Joni Ernst disclosed in January that she had been sexually assaulted while in college at Iowa State University.

“Whatever policy prescriptions Sen. McSally or Sen. Ernst may come up with, we’d certainly be open to. … This is obviously a big problem, and if we can find a further way to address it, we should,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said upon hearing about McSally’s experience.

Ernst, a member of McConnell’s leadership team, served 23 years in the Army Reserve and National Guard and commanded units in Kuwait and Iraq. She retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2015.

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