“Like you, I am also a military sexual assault survivor,” McSally said, addressing several witnesses set to testify at the hearing about their own assaults while serving in the military. “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.”
McSally told the panel that she blamed herself, was “ashamed and confused,” and felt powerless about what happened to her.
“The perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways,” she said. “In one case, I was preyed upon and raped by a superior officer.”
McSally, who served in the Air Force for 26 years, was appointed to the Senate in December to the seat once held by John McCain (R-Ariz.). She previously represented Arizona’s 2nd District in the House for four years.
In a statement, the Air Force voiced support for McSally and said the “criminal actions” she described “violate every part of what it means to be an airman.”
“We are appalled and deeply sorry for what Senator McSally experienced and we stand behind her and all victims of sexual assault,” said Capt. Carrie Volpe, an Air Force spokeswoman. “We are steadfast in our commitment to eliminate this reprehensible behavior and breach of trust in our ranks.”
Wednesday’s hearing of the Armed Services subcommittee on personnel was not the first time that McSally had spoken out about her own experience of sexual assault. Last year, while running for Senate, McSally revealed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that she had been pressured by her high school athletic coach into having sex with him when she was 17.
McSally said Wednesday that she stayed silent about her experience for many years but later felt the need to let some people know that she was a survivor, prompted by the military’s “wholly inadequate responses” to other cases.
“I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences was handled,” she said. “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.”
A total of 6,769 sexual assaults were reported in the U.S. military during the last fiscal year, the Pentagon said in a report in April. The figure represents a 10 percent increase from the previous year.
Those who report their assaults frequently face retaliation. According to the Pentagon, 58 percent of those who reported assaults in 2017 — including two-thirds of women — said they faced some sort of backlash in their unit.
McSally said at Wednesday’s hearing that she “witnessed so many weaknesses” in the system during her more than two decades in the military, urging those present that “we must fix those distortions in the culture of our military that permit sexual harm.”
She argued that commanding officers must not be removed from decision-making responsibility in handling sexual assault allegations.
“There are many commanders who would welcome taking this responsibility off their plate,” she said. “Those are the very commanders we don’t want leading our troops.”
The question of whether sexual assault cases should be kept within the military justice system is one that has been hotly debated in recent years.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a 2020 presidential candidate and the ranking Democrat on the personnel subcommittee, has spearheaded an effort to move the authority to prosecute such cases outside the chain of command — a point she reiterated at Wednesday’s hearing.
“To say that we are making commanders less involved is a false statement,” she said.
Among the lawmakers applauding McSally for sharing her story was Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a fellow veteran and member of the Armed Services personnel subcommittee, who said she was “in awe of the bravery shown today” by McSally and the other survivors who testified.
Duckworth said in a statement that she agrees that the military “has utterly failed” at handling sexual assault through its current process.
“As a former commander of an assault helicopter company, I want to know what else can be done beyond successful prosecutions that bring perpetrators to justice to make the lives of survivors better and ensure they have what they need to heal and be able to resume the careers they dreamt about from the time they entered the military,” she said.
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.