Sen. Martha McSally, the first female fighter pilot in combat, says she was raped in the military

“I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences were handled. ​I almost separated from the Air Force"
March 6, 2019, 9:03pm
Sen. Martha McSally, the first female fighter pilot in combat, says she was raped in the military

In a steady, clear voice, Sen. Martha McSally revealed Wednesday that she had been sexually assaulted by a superior officer during her time in the Air Force, during a congressional hearing on military sexual assault.

The Arizona Republican, who was the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, gave few details about the assault. But as she read from prepared remarks at the hearing for the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, she said that she kept it secret for years.

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“Like so many women and men, I didn’t trust the system at the time,” said McSally, 52. “I blamed myself. I was ashamed and confused. I thought I was strong but felt powerless.”

“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 went on. “I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences were handled. I almost separated from the Air Force, at 18 years of service, over my despair. Like many victims, I felt the system was raping me all over again.”

McSally ended up spending 26 years in the military, and retired in 2010 as an Air Force colonel.

Last year, while still a U.S. representative, McSally told the Wall Street Journal that she had been sexually abused as a 17-year-old, by her running coach. The coach denied that he had ever abused her.

In talking about her experiences, McSally has become one of the highest-profile women in her party, and on Capitol Hill, to identify herself as a sexual abuse survivor since the start of the #MeToo movement. In January, Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst said in an interview with Bloomberg News that she had been raped in college. Ernst also said her now-former husband had physically assaulted her.

“We cannot command change from the outside alone,” McSally said at the Wednesday hearing, as she spoke to survivors of military sexual assault who were testifying. “It must be deployed from within. It must be built and 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.”

Last year, the Department of Defense said it received 6,769 reports of sexual assault involving service members during fiscal year 2017. That’s nearly a 10 percent spike in reports from 2016, though studies indicate that rates of sexual assault within the military have generally fallen over the past decade.

Cover: In this Dec. 18, 2018 file photo, then Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., waits to speak during a news conference at the Capitol in Phoenix. McSally, the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, says she was raped in the Air Force by a superior officer. (AP Photo/Matt York)