United States Senator Martha McSally, the first female Air Force fighter pilot to fly in combat, said on Wednesday that she had been raped by a superior officer, and later, when she tried to talk about it to military officials, she “felt like the system was raping me all over again”.
McSally, 52, who spent 26 years in the Air Force and commanded a fighter squadron, revealed the attack in emotional remarks during a Senate subcommittee hearing on sexual assault in the military.
“I am also a military sexual assault survivor but unlike so many brave survivors I didn’t report being sexually assaulted,” McSally said.
“Like so many women and men I didn’t trust the system at the time,” she added. “I blame myself. I was ashamed and confused. And I thought I was strong but felt powerless.”
McSally, who served in the Air Force until 2010 and retired with the rank of colonel, said she kept quiet about the assault for many years.
“But later in my career, as the military grappled with scandals and their wholly inadequate responses, I felt the need to let some people know – I too was a survivor,” she said.
“I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences was handled,” she added. She almost left the Air Force after 18 years.
“Like many victims, I felt like the system was raping me all over again.”
Suffered in silence
She was in the ninth class at the Air Force Academy, and said sexual harassment and assault were prevalent. Survivors mostly suffered in silence, she said.
She did not say whether her assaults happened at the academy or during active duty. She didn’t name any names.
Legislators also heard from other service members who spoke of being sexually assaulted and humiliated while serving their country.
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. Reporting for 2018 is not yet available. Reports of sexual assaults were also up at the military academies, most at West Point.
McSally’s revelation comes not long after Senator Joni Ernst, who served in the Iowa Army National Guard, detailed her own abuse and assault. Her comments also come at a time of increased awareness over the problem of harassment and assault in the armed forces and the larger #MeToo movement that roiled Hollywood and major corporations.
An under-reported crime
McSally said she shares in the disgust of the failures of the military system and many commanders who haven’t addressed the problems of sexual misconduct.
She said the public must demand that higher-ranking officials be part of the solution, setting the tone for their officers.
“We have come a long way to stop military sexual assault but we still have a long way to go,” the senator said. “It took many years and too many lives ruined.”
Her colleagues on the committee lauded her for coming forward.
“I’m deeply affected by that testimony,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
An Air Force spokeswoman said the Air Force is “deeply sorry”, and that the criminal actions reported by McSally “violate every part of what it means to be an airman”.
Carrie Volpe added that the Air Force stands behind McSally and all survivors of sexual assault and that the Air Force is committed to eliminating “reprehensible behaviour” and “breach of trust”.
McSally served in the Air Force from 1988 until 2010 and rose to the rank of colonel before entering politics.
Defence officials have argued that an increase in reported assaults reflects a greater willingness to report attacks, rather than indicating assaults are rising.
Sexual assaults are a highly under-reported crime, both in the military and across society as a whole.
Greater reporting, they argue, shows there is more confidence in the reporting system and greater comfort with the support for survivors.