– calling herself a ‘survivor of rape and betrayal’ and sharing her ‘disgust’ at commanders who shirk their responsibility
Sen. Martha McSally, the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, said Wednesday that she was raped by a superior officer while serving in the Air Force – and almost left the military over the ‘betrayal’ she felt.
The Arizona Republican, a 26-year military veteran, made the stunning disclosure at a Senate hearing on the armed services’ efforts to prevent sexual assaults and improve the response when they occur.
She spoke pointedly of her ‘despair’ over the incident and the need to improve the system so that victims can feel comfortable sharing their stories, calling herself a ‘survivor of rape and betrayal.’
‘I share the disgust of the failures of the military system and at many commanders who failed in their responsibilities,’ she said.
McSally said she did not report being sexually assaulted because she did not trust the system, and she said she was ashamed and confused. McSally did not name the officer who she says raped her – although she had choice words for commanders who mishandle reported claims of assault.
‘Like many victims, I thought the system was raping me all over again,’ McSally said. ‘But I didn’t quit. I decided to stay and continued to serve and fight and lead,’ she said.
‘To be a voice from within the ranks for women, and then in the House, and now in the Senate. So this is personal for me, too.’
She called herself a ‘survivor of rape and betrayal.’
McSally brought up her account speaking to a hushed hearing room, pausing at times to maintain her composure recalling the incident.
‘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,’ she said, choking up as she detailed what had happened to her.
‘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.’
She faulted military commanders for failing to deal properly with the situation.
She addressed some of her remarks to other witnesses, including survivors of rape and assault.
‘So, like you, I also am a military sexual assault survivor, but unlike so many brave survivors, I didn’t report being sexually assaulted. 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,’ McSally said. ‘The perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways. In one case I was preyed upon and raped by a superior officer.’
‘We must demand that commanders stay at the center of the solution and live up to the moral and legal responsibilities that come with being a commander. We must fix those distortions in the culture of our military that permit sexual harm towards women and yes, some men as well,’ she said.
She said some commanders are ‘naive’ to the dangers of sexual assault.
‘And if the commander is the problem, or fails in his or her duties, they must be removed and held harshly accountable,’ she said.
With reforms under consideration including bringing it outside the chain of command, she said commanders ‘must not be removed from the decision-making responsibility.
McSally’s revelation comes not long after Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, detailed her own abuse and assault, and at a time of increased awareness over the problem of harassment and assault in the armed forces.
Reports of sexual assaults across the military jumped nearly 10 percent in 2017 – a year that also saw an online nude-photo sharing scandal rock the Defense Department.
McSally said she shares in the disgust of the failures of the military system and many commanders who have failed to address the problems of sexual misconduct. She said the public must demand that higher-ranking officials be part of the solution.