Arizona Sen. Martha McSally reveals she was raped by a superior officer while in Air Force
Sen. Martha McSally revealed during a congressional hearing Wednesday that she was raped by a superior officer while she was in the Air Force.
A year after saying she was sexually abused in high school, Sen. Martha McSally revealed during a congressional hearing Wednesday that she was raped by a superior officer while she was in the Air Force.
McSally, an Arizona Republican, said only that an attack happened and implied that it occurred early in her military career that spanned more than two decades.
The personal disclosure came during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel intended to prevent and better respond to sexual assaults in the military in the future. McSally has been a tireless advocate for the military, which she says should include a system that protects women and men who have faced sexual assault and abuse.
It makes her a unique voice among the women on Capitol Hill who have gone public with their experiences surviving sexual assault and harassment in the wake of the national reckoning brought on by the #MeToo movement.
During her time in the Air Force, which stretched from 1988 until 2010, McSally said she saw weaknesses in how leaders handled the prevention, investigation, and adjudication of reports of sexual assaults. She said she did not report her own because she did not trust leaders would hold her alleged attacker accountable.
McSally, 52, did not identify her assailant, at what point in her military career the assault took place, where the alleged rape occurred, or the names of the people she later told.
“So, like you, I also am a survivor, but unlike so many brave survivors, I didn’t report being sexually assaulted,” said McSally, who was reading from prepared remarks, and at times appeared to steel herself by taking deep breaths. “Like so many women and men, I didn’t trust the system at the time. 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. In one case I was preyed upon and raped by a superior officer.
“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. 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 retired as a colonel. Her Senate colleagues applauded her courage in coming forward with her story, which opened the two-hour hearing that included testimony from sexual assault victims who served in the armed forces.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the ranking Democrat on the personnel subcommittee and a 2020 presidential candidate, said she was moved by McSally’s testimony and emphasis on the need to implement processes that encourage victims of sexual assault to have faith in a process that will treat them fairly.
“I was very grateful for Sen. McSally’s personal testimony, and I’m deeply affected by that testimony,” Gillibrand said.
The military has waged a years-long effort to combat sexual assault and harassment, while U.S. lawmakers have passed laws intended to improve how cases are handled. Even so, Defense Department officials reported an estimated 10 percent increase of reporting of sexual assaults during fiscal year 2017, and last year reported a 10 percent increase in the number of sexual assaults that were reported in the U.S. military, based on surveys.
There were 6,769 reports of sexual assault involving service members as either victims or subjects of criminal investigation, a 9.7 percent increase over the 6,172 reports made the previous fiscal year, according to the Department of Defense.
McSally kicked off her questioning by thanking fellow survivors for courageously sharing their stories. She said military leaders must fundamentally address an underlying culture that allows the breeding of “harassment and abuse, and abuse of power, and assault.”
McSally said commanders should be held accountable for reporting abuse and retaliation by both peers and superiors. McSally said she has seen first-hand retaliation in the ostracization and isolation of those who report abuse, particularly those who work in the same unit.
“People take a very complex issue and they come down on either, ‘He’s a rapist or she’s a liar,’ and everybody has to still go to work together,” McSally said. “And then there is this isolation by peers — not just by superiors, that sometimes is the cruelest.”
“I’ve had my share of experiences along the way, yeah,” she said during that interview.
And, she seemed to reference it last October, during a radio interview with KTAR-FM (92.3). Her comments came against the backdrop of Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, and as she was running for the U.S. Senate. At the time, McSally said her heart went out to to Kavanaugh’s accuser. She said it was important that people not be susceptible to false allegations.
“I would hope, as somebody who’s dealt with this personally and dealt with it also in the military, that maybe we could have this conversation about ‘Hey, let’s prevent the next assault and abuse from happening,’” McSally told the radio station.
McSally revealed last year to the Wall Street Journal that she herself was sexually abused as a teen by her high school track coach. The abuse came following the death of her father, during a traumatic and defining period of her life that she frequently references when talking to voters. To cope with the pain of losing her dad, she turned to running and other exercise. Her coach took advantage of her through “emotional manipulation.” The coach has denied the allegation.
In 2014, while running for Congress, McSally revealed she had been the victim of a stalker in response to a TV ad intended to help her Democratic rival. At the time, McSally said she had threats made against her, “and wasn’t even safe in my own home or my car where my stalker broke in and held me in a hostage-like situation.”
McSally said her personal experience in the Air Force motivated her to make recommendations to leaders to advocate for changes while serving in the military and in Congress.
She said all commanders should be trained and encouraged to prosecute perpetrators.
“And if the commander is the problem or fails in his or her duties, they must be removed and held harshly accountable,” she said. “… We cannot change from the outside alone — it must be deployed within — it must be built, constantly maintained, and expertly managed by commanders who are themselves educated, conditioned and given the tools to ensure what you survived — and what I survived — happens to no warrior under their command.”
McSally’s statement comes weeks after a colleague, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, disclosed in an interview with Bloomberg that she was raped in college. She acknowledged the matter only after her divorce papers claimed her husband had been physically and emotionally abusive.
Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to President Donald Trump, offered a similar experience, saying in an interview with CNN that she had been the victim of a sexual assault. She brought it up during the charged period around Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
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