Senator Martha McSally said she was raped by a superior officer when she served in the Air Force and that when she tried to talk about it later with military officials, she “felt like the system was raping me all over again.”
The Arizona Republican, the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, said she initially didn’t report instances of sexual assault while in the military because she, like others, didn’t trust the system for dealing with such incidents in the armed forces. She made the revelation Wednesday at a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing on the military’s response to sexual assault reports.
“I blamed myself. I was ashamed and confused. I thought I was strong but felt powerless. The perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways,” said McSally, 52. “In one case I was preyed upon and raped by a superior officer.”
McSally said she told no one for years.
Years after the rape, she said, she shared her experience and was “horrified” at how it 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,” she said, tearing up.
But she said the military has gotten better at handling assaults in part because service members are speaking out about their experiences. She said that although many commanders have failed to meet their responsibility in dealing with sexual assault cases, she opposes proposals to remove them from overseeing such cases, saying they must be held accountable for policing assaults and preventing them instead.
“We must ensure all commanders are trained and empowered to take legal action, prosecute fairly, and rid perpetrators from our ranks,” she said. “And if the commander is the problem or fails in his or her duties, they must be removed and held harshly accountable.”
McSally has previously recounted abuse by a high school coach and has said she was harassed while in the Air Force. In 2004, she became the first woman to command an Air Force fighter squadron, and she retired as a full colonel in 2010 after 26 years in the service. She was later elected to the U.S. House.
Her account follows the disclosure by her fellow Republican senator, Iowa’s Joni Ernst, that she was raped in college by someone she knew, and the allegation that her ex-husband physically abused her. Ernst also is a veteran.
“I just texted her real quick and I just said ‘I love you and I support you,’” Ernst said.
Ernst said she’s hopeful they can develop a bipartisan effort to deal with these issues.
“We need to talk about, of course, repercussions for those that perpetrate sexual assault, sexual harassment, but then what we need to do is really address the root cause of it and prevent it,” Ernst said, citing the need for more education teaching dignity and respect.
Ernst said she met with Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and top panel Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California on Tuesday about reviving the lapsed Violence Against Women Act and said she’s also spoken to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who she said also supports the effort.
McSally was appointed to serve the final two years of the late John McCain’s Senate term after losing last year’s race against Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.
In an interview for “CBS This Morning” McSally said, “it’s not just as a commander that I speak, but it’s as a survivor that I just felt I needed to talk about it.”
“But it isn’t about me,” she said in the interview, which is scheduled to be broadcast on Thursday and Friday, “I wanted to give the perspective of why I am advocating so strongly for women in the military and why I’m advocating that the command chain has to step up and do their job to rid us of sexual assault.”