U.S. Senator Martha McSally, a freshman Republican from Arizona, wasn’t always a lawmaker. Prior to 2010, she was a war-fighter, completing combat deployments at the stick of the close-air support legend A-10 Thunderbolt II, before going on to command a combat aviation squadron that included both fighter and bomber elements. In both circumstances, McSally made history, initially as the first female pilot to fly in combat, and second, as the first female commander of such a squadron. No one could contend McSally is a stranger to difficult circumstances.
“On my last rocket pass, my heads-up display failed with all of our computerized weapons sights,” McSally recounted in 2006 about one particular engagement. “I had to rely on the very archaic backup called ‘standby pipper,’ which was a hard sight. I needed to quickly get ready to shoot the gun manually, where I had to be at an exact dive angle, airspeed, and altitude when opening fire in order to be accurate.”
“We destroyed the enemy on several passes. We train for this type of malfunction, but I never would have imagined shooting the gun in standby pipper in combat like this.”
This week, McSally made history again. During a hearing held by a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the topic of sexual assault in the military, McSally chose to reveal that she too was a victim of sexual assault during her time in uniform.
“So like you, I am also a military sexual assault survivor,” she told a witness speaking at the hearing, “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.”
The number of sexual assaults reported force-wide in the U.S. military climbed by nearly 10% in fiscal year 2017, with a total of 6,769 reports of sexual assault involving service members as either victims or the subjects of criminal investigations relating to sexual assault. Of that total figure, 5,864 cases involved a service member victim. That increase, however, may actually be indicative of more service members coming forward, rather than a spike in the overall number of assaults, based on Department of Defense “prevalence” data, but such an assertion can be seen as an informed extrapolation at best.
McSally, who filled the late Senator John McCain’s seat, drew from her experience as both a sexual assault survivor and a colonel in the United States Air Force in her statements.
“During my 26 years in uniform, I witnessed so many weaknesses in the processes involving sexual assault prevention, investigation, and adjudication,” she said.
“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.”
The revelation that McSally, a decorated combat veteran, was a victim of sexual assault shines a light on how this issue can affect any service member, regardless of gender, rank, or background. It’s a sentiment McSally championed on active duty when she was asked what it was like to be a role model for young women who aspire to be military aviators.
“I hope I’m a role model to both men and women because we are a fighting force and should not be concerned with differences between us,” Colonel McSally said at the time.
In Tuesday’s hearing, she again closed with an important statement about the state of the United States military.
“We have come a long way to stop military sexual assault,” McSally opined, “but we still have a long way to go.”