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GOP Sen. Martha McSally Says She Was Raped While Serving In The Military


Something extraordinary happened yesterday at a Senate hearing on sexual assault in the military. One of the survivors who spoke out was a senator.


MARTHA MCSALLY: I was preyed upon and then raped by a superior officer.

SHAPIRO: That was Senator Martha McSally. As NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, McSally is pushing military leaders to change a culture that has struggled with this problem for years.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Arizona Republican Martha McSally has been called an Air Force legend - first woman to fly in combat, first woman to command a combat squadron, and then a voice in Congress promoting women in uniform. She stunned a panel of witnesses, including rape survivors, when she told her own story.


MCSALLY: So, like you, I am also 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.

LAWRENCE: McSally referred to more than one assailant during her 26 years in the military. When she did approach her command many years later, she was re-traumatized.


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

LAWRENCE: Studies show the rate of sexual assault in the military, especially for women, hasn't significantly improved since McSally left the Air Force in 2010. Some are pushing for a change in the Military Code of Justice to take rape cases away from commanding officers. But McSally says she wants commanders held responsible.


MCSALLY: 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.

LAWRENCE: That raises a question whether commanders will be any better now than when she was in the Air Force. Former Army Colonel Ellen Haring with the Service Women's Action Network had this exchange with McSally.


ELLEN HARING: Removing commanders from the decision-making process sends the signal that there are some crimes that are so severe that commanders have no place in deciding if, when or how they are prosecuted. So that's why I think that it's important to move commanders who - I don't have the same confidence in their skills or abilities as you do.

MCSALLY: Thanks, Colonel. I mean, I - again, I appreciate the perspectives of everybody on this panel. I respectfully disagree.

LAWRENCE: But McSally's Democratic colleague, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, has pushed for years to remove rape cases from the chain of command.


KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: If you don't believe your commander is going to have your back because they're the assailant, then you don't necessarily believe his boss, or his boss, is going to have your back because of that chain. So from a survivor perspective, we've heard over and over again that the reason you take it out the chain of command is because you want someone who is actually trained to make the decision, a technical decision.

LAWRENCE: McSally pointed to improvements that have been made. The military now has a Special Victims Counsel who represents sexual assault victims' interests in court - something that is lacking in many civilian courts. But she says the change has to be in American culture.


MCSALLY: How do we ensure that that culture is one of respect and honor and dignity to include everyone - men and women not being assaulted, not being retaliated against, not being harassed and everything on the continuum of harm?

LAWRENCE: McSally's story brought a hush to the Senate committee and thanks from the victims and their advocates at the hearing, like former Navy Captain Lori Manning. But Manning disagrees with McSally.


LORI MANNING: If she can't get a chain of command to pay attention to a rape - if she can't do that, if she thinks they won't take her seriously, that means they won't take anybody seriously.

LAWRENCE: Reached by phone after the hearing, Manning said McSally's story made her even more convinced that the military justice code has to change. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.