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McSally: 'I was raped' while in Air Force

GOP senator: 'I also am a military sexual assault survivor'

U.S. Sen. Martha McSally said Wednesday that she was "preyed upon and raped" by a superior officer while serving in the Air Force.

McSally disclosed her experience while making a statement during a U.S. Senate hearing on sexual assaults in the military.

"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," she said. "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," she said.

McSally, at a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing on sexual assault in the military, praised the victims who came to testify but said she did not come forward immediately to report her rape because she “didn’t trust the system at the time” to handle it.

When she did try to share it years later, she said, she was “horrified” at the way her attempts to “generally share my experience were handled” by the Air Force.

“Like many victims, I felt the system was raping me all over again,” McSally said, pausing briefly to collect herself while reading from a prepared statement.

“But I didn’t quit,” she said. “I decided to stay and continue to serve and fight and lead, to be a voice from within the ranks for women and then in the House and now the Senate.”

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"I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences was handled," she read during her six-minute statement. "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."

The Republican senator, who was appointed to office in January, was the first woman to fly a fighter jet in combat for the United States. The 52-year-old served 22 years in the Air Force, retiring from active duty in 2010.

McSally did not identify the officer she said raped her.

She did not discuss any details of the incident, which, if it took place at the 18-year mark in her military service, would have occurred in 2006.

McSally had not publicly discussed a sexual assault during her service before Wednesday, but had previously mentioned sexual harassment she said took place during her time in the military.

She said Wednesday that she had been too "ashamed and confused" to report the rape when it happened. McSally, speaking at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on sexual assault in the military, praised the victims who came to testify and said she "didn't trust the system at the time" to handle her case.

McSally alleged abuse by track coach

Last spring, she said that she was sexually abused by a track coach while she was a 17-year-old high school student.

The former Air Force pilot, who has previously publicly discussed being sexually harassed in her quarter-century career in the service, had not disclosed her alleged teenaged experiences before, except to family and friends a decade later, the Wall Street Journal reported last April.

"It took a while for me to come to a place where I understood what the hell I had been through," McSally told the Journal. "At the time, I was so afraid. I now understand—like many girls and boys who are abused by people in authority over them—there's a lot of fear and manipulation and shame."

The coach denied the accusations and told the Journal that McSally is "scheming" and "nuts."

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Just more than a month ago, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, publicly said she was a survivor of sexual assault.

Reports of sexual assaults in the military increased by 10 percent in 2017, the same year that the Pentagon was shaken by the "Marines United" scandal over troops sharing revenge porn. Despite a crackdown and new criminal laws, that practice remains widespread, a recent news report said.

Sexual assault groups and other members of the Senate praised McSally for her bravery in coming forward with her “deeply personal” statement.

“I am in awe of the bravery shown today by the survivors who are testifying before the Senate and from my colleague, Sen. McSally,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, in a statement after the hearing.

A spokeswoman for the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence called McSally “very brave” and expressed hope that her willingness to come forward can help other survivors.

“When someone who has social or political power comes forward, it encourages survivors with similar experiences to speak up,” said Lindsay Ashworth, sexual violence response manager for the coalition.

The Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault praised McSally for her “courageous action.”

“Her words of fear and betrayal ring true for many survivors we work with,” said a statement from the center. “Her personal, professional and political advocacy gives a loud voice to thousands of survivors and is hopefully one that can influence policy for individuals going forward.”

In a statement from the Air Force, Capt. Carrie Volpe said the actions McSally described “violate every part of what it means to be an Airman.”

“We are appalled and deeply sorry for what Sen. McSally experienced and we stand behind her and all victims of sexual assault,” Volpe’s statement said. “We are steadfast in our commitment to eliminate this reprehensible behavior and breach of trust in our ranks.”

The remarks came during a subcommittee hearing on sexual assault in the armed services, a problem that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, said “is still pervasive” after years of trying to deal with the problem.

“The military is not attacking the problem with any of the focus or intensity that it would with any other problem,” said Gillibrand, who added that there is a “very alarming rate of retaliation by those in command against victims of sexual assault.”

Gillibrand preferred solution would take investigation of sexual assault claims out of the military chain of command and turn them over to independent investigators.

But McSally, calling on her own experience as a combat pilot and squadron commander, said that taking the issue out of the hands of military commanders is the wrong solution.

“We must allow, 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,” she said.

McSally said commanders need to be properly trained to recognize and fairly prosecute sexual assault in the ranks, but if the commander “is the problem … they must be removed and be held harshly accountable.” She rejected suggestions that it was a choice between victims and the chain of command.

Duckworth, who is also a combat veteran, said she will “push for meaningful reforms.” That means not only prosecuting wrongdoers, she said, but ensuring the survivors “have what they need to heal and be able to resume the careers they dreamt about from the time they entered the military.”

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The hearing featured military assault victims and their advocates as well as lawyers representing the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

In his prepared testimony, retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, the president of Protect Our Defenders, said the number of reported sexual assaults in the military has ranged from 26,000 in 2012 to 15,000 in 2016. But he said the rate of assaults on military women over that period has remained virtually unchanged at 4.4 to 4.3 percent.

McSally's statement

The complete text of Sen. McSally's statement Wednesday, as released by her office:

Thank you Chairman Tillis.

I too want to thank Senator Gillibrand for her advocacy for women in uniform and her passion for stopping the crime of sexual assault in our military.

This is also a passion of mine for many reasons, and I think I bring a unique and important perspective. My drive to fight against sexual assault in the ranks is not from the outside looking in. It is deeply personal.

First, for two years, I was honored to be a fighter squadron commander in the United States Air Force. Command is the most impactful duty one can have directly on the lives of servicemen and women—and their families. I was greatly privileged to prepare and then lead my amazing Airmen in combat, which is the apex responsibility of any warrior leader.

Military commanders are placed in a position of authority and responsibility like none other in civilian life. They are not like CEOs, managers, or any other supervisor.

Commanders have a moral responsibility to ensure readiness of their units, which, yes, includes warfighting skills, but demands the commander cultivates and protects and enriches a culture of teamwork, respect, and honor.

Conduct—any conduct--that degrades this readiness doesn’t just harm individuals in the ranks, it harms the mission and places at risk the security of our country. Commanders also have a covenant with the men and women under their command—the one percent who volunteer to serve in uniform. They are asked to follow lawful orders that could risk their lives for the mission. In return, it is the commander’s responsibility to surround their people with a climate of integrity, discipline, and excellence.

During my 26-years in uniform, I witnessed so many weaknesses in the processes involving sexual assault prevention, investigation, and adjudication. It motivated me to make recommendations to Air Force leaders, shaped my approach as a commander, and informed my advocacy for change while I remained in the military and since I have been in Congress.

We have come a long way to stop military sexual assault but we still have a long way to go. When I first entered the Air Force Academy in the 9th class with women, sexual harassment and assault were prevalent but victims mostly suffered in silence. It took many years and too many lives ruined, but thanks to the bravery of some survivors like those on our first panel today, significant change has happened.

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I am so inspired by the many survivors who found the strength to share their stories, report their assaults, and demand accountability, justice, and change. It is because of you that a light has been shined on this silent epidemic and so many improvements have been made—including more than 100 legislative actions over the last decade—on all aspects of military sexual 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. 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.

But I didn’t quit. I decided to stay and continue to serve and fight and lead. To be a voice from within the ranks for women--and then in the House and now the Senate.

So, this is personal for me too—but it’s personal from two perspectives--as a commander who led my Airmen into combat and as a survivor of rape and betrayal.

I share the disgust of the failures of the military system and many commanders who failed in their responsibilities. But it is for this very reason that we must allow--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.

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.

I don't take this position lightly. It has been framed often that some people are advocating for the victims while others are advocating for the command chain or military establishment. This is clearly a false choice. There are many commanders who would welcome taking this responsibility off their plate—those are the very commanders we don't want leading our troops.

We cannot command 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.

To that end, I very strongly believe that the commander must not be removed from the decision making responsibility of preventing, detecting, and prosecuting military sexual assault.

We are survivors together, and I am honored to be here and use my voice and unique experience to work on this mission to stop military sexual assault for good.

Cronkite News reporter Andrew Howard contributed to this story.


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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

McSally announcing her Senate run in Tucson, Jan. 12, 2018.