GOP senator says she was raped by superior officer while serving in military

Arizona Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyArizona Democratic Party will hold vote to censure Sinema Democrats seize Senate floor to protest gun inaction: 'Put up or shut up' The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation MORE (R) on Wednesday revealed in an emotional speech that she was raped by a superior while serving in the Air Force. She called for reforms to how the military handles sexual assault.

“Like you, I am also a military sexual assault survivor,” McSally said during a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing on prevention of and response to sexual assault 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. I blamed myself. I was ashamed and confused, and I thought I was strong but felt powerless.”

McSally, who revealed last year that she was sexually abused by a coach during her senior year of high school, said there were numerous incidents of sexual assault while in the Air Force.

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“The perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways, and in one case I was preyed upon and then raped by a superior officer,” she said.

She did not name her attacker, or when or where the assault happened.

The former A-10 squadron commander said she stayed silent for many years, but later in her 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. I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences were handled.”

She added that her experience almost led her to quit the service after 18 years.

“Like many victims, I felt the system was raping me all over again," she said.

Pausing briefly during her speech as she was overcome with emotion, McSally continued, demanding that military commanders “stay at the center of the solution and live up to moral and legal responsibilities that come with being a commander.” 

The Air Force, in a statement, said it was "appalled" and "deeply sorry" for McSally's reported experience. 

“The criminal actions reported today by Senator McSally 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," the service wrote.

"We are steadfast in our commitment to eliminate this reprehensible behavior and breach of trust in our ranks.”

McSally, 52, was in the Air Force from 1988 to 2010, when she retired as a colonel. When she entered the Air Force Academy in the 1980s, she said she was part of the ninth class that included women, and “sexual harassment and assault were prevalent,” while the victims “mostly suffered in silence.”

“My drive to fight against sexual assault in the ranks is not from the outside looking in and it is deeply personal,” she said. “During my 26 years in uniform I witnessed so many weaknesses in the processes involving sexual assault prevention, investigation and adjudication."

McSally's testimony marks the second time this year a female GOP senator has opened up about past experiences with sexual assault. 

Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay Ernst'Mike Pounce' trends on Twitter after Trump slip at GOP retreat Overnight Energy: Trump administration to repeal waterway protections| House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge| Administration takes key step to open Alaskan refuge to drilling by end of year Trump administration to repeal waterway protections MORE (R-Iowa), another veteran, alleged in a January interview with Bloomberg News that had been attacked by her ex-husband and a boyfriend in college at Iowa State University.

Ernst told Bloomberg that her unnamed boyfriend in college was "physically and sexually abusive," alleging that he raped her one night before threatening to kill himself if she broke up with him.

She also alleged that her ex-husband, Gail Ernst, attacked her physically when the two were married.

“I didn’t want to share it with anybody, and in the era of hashtag-MeToo survivors, I always believed that every person is different and they will confront their demons when they’re ready,” Ernst told Bloomberg. “And I was not ready.”

McSally's powerful remarks also come on the heels of a January report from the Defense Department that showed a 50 percent spike in unwanted sexual contact among students at U.S. military academies.

The anonymous survey found that during the 2017–2018 academic year roughly 747 students experienced unwanted sexual contact ranging from groping to rape. That number is up from 507 in the 2015–2016 academic year, despite Defense Department efforts to stamp out the issue.

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The military has attempted to combat sexual assault and harassment with numerous initiatives over the past several years, but has continued to struggle with the problem.

Defense officials argue that the matter can’t be tackled simply by increasing funding and requires a multifaceted approach.

During a House Armed Services subpanel hearing last month, the heads of the service academies said holding more cadets accountable for misconduct was likely the only way to stem the apparent rise of sexual assault in the military.

“I don't know that I need to ask for more resources or more capability in terms of us owning it, which is what we need to do,” said Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Walter Carter.

“I think we can't educate our way out or train our way out. The accountability is going to move the needle on this.”

U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, have passed laws meant to improve how the military handles sexual assault cases.

McSally, drawing from her experience in the Air Force, urged the military to "ensure all commanders are trained and empowered to take legal action, prosecute fairly and rid perpetrators from our ranks.”

If it is the commander that is the problem or fails in his or her duties, “they must be removed and held harshly accountable,” she said.

McSally received an outpouring of support following her comments, including from fellow veteran Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthDemocrats ignore Asian American and Pacific Islander voters at their peril Republicans grumble over Trump shifting military funds to wall Lawmakers mark anniversary of Martin Luther King 'I have a dream' speech MORE (D-Ill.) who attended the hearing. 

“I am in awe of the bravery shown today by the survivors who are testifying before the Senate and from my colleague, Senator McSally,” the former Army lieutenant colonel said Wednesday.

“I agree that the military has utterly failed at handling sexual assault through the Uniform Code of Military Justice process and I will push for meaningful reforms," she added.

McSally, in closing remarks, said meaningful change cannot come from "the outside alone," urging the military to effect change "from within."

“We cannot command change from the outside alone, it must be deployed from within," she said. "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.”

She is set to appear in an interview on CBS on the topic Thursday morning.

Updated at 5:37 p.m.