A few months ago, she said, it “wouldn’t have been in the cards," to speak at an event at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., focused on sexual assault and harassment at colleges, universities and service academies.
"I didn’t plan on being here,” said McSally, a former Air Force pilot and Arizona Republican.
McSally revealed at a congressional hearing last month that she was raped by a senior officer during her time in the Air Force.
“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," McSally told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. "I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences was handled.”
On Thursday, the senator said that her decision to share her story happened on a Monday night, ahead of the Wednesday hearing. She said that she hoped her testimony would be a source of inspiration and hope for other survivors.
McSally appealed to military and higher education leaders gathered for the Thursday event, telling them that their responsibility is to ensure that sexual assault does not happen to the students at their institutions.
“These are the formative years of their life,” McSally said. "These people show up as teenagers."
The nation’s first female fighter pilot to serve in combat, McSally served for 26 years in the Air Force.
Earlier this year, an anonymous survey of the 12,000 cadets and midshipmen at the three military service academies found 747 reports of unwanted sexual conduct during the last academic year. The survey, conducted by the Pentagon, defines unwanted sexual contact as ranging from unwanted touching to rape.
McSally also referred to sexual abuse she said she experienced before she entered the Air Force, adding that it was part of her decision to leave home and go to the academy.
McSally told the Wall Street Journal last year that she was sexually abused by a coach while she was in high school. He denied the allegations.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., spoke at the event Thursday evening, telling the audience that if she could convey one message it would be to believe the victim.
“We somehow have allowed either misinformation or commentary to allow us to think that maybe they’re lying,” the congresswoman said, in a system where already the vast majority of people don’t come forward.
Speier has pushed for legislation that the House of Representatives approved Thursday, which would renew the Violence Against Women Act.