Sen. Martha McSally’s stunning rape revelation shocks Capitol Hill, prompts calls for military justice reform

Senators express shock, sadness, admiration for McSally after rape revelation.

March 7, 2019, 6:00 PM

Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill expressed hope Thursday that some good would come from their colleague Sen. Martha McSally's startling revelation that she was raped by a superior when she served in the Air Force.

"I was surprised, moved, and hopefully her pain can help somebody else to avoid a situation like this. Hopefully, her coming forward will make the desire to fix the problem greater," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told ABC News Thursday.

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told ABC News: "This bombshell revelation ought to renew and reinvigorate our effort to protect all of our military men and women from this outrageous assault and violence that occurs. We made progress but nowhere near have enough, and I hoped this courageous and strong revelation by one of my colleagues will renew and give added energy to efforts to reform the military system of criminal justice."

McSally, the nation's first female fighter pilot to serve in combat, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday during an emotional congressional hearing on sexual assault in the military that she was "preyed upon and raped by a superior officer."

"I also am a military sexual assault survivor, but unlike so many brave survivors, I didn’t report being sexually assaulted," McSally said. "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."

An aide to the senator told ABC News Thursday that McSally is not asking the Department of Defense to investigate her allegations.

"She also doesn’t want an investigation at this point," the aide said. "She thinks there is a statute of limitations."

Typically, allegations are investigated only after a victim steps forward or a military service receives information about an incident and the same would be needed in McSally's case.

McSally made the decision to reveal her story late Monday night, and she wrote the speech herself, an aide told ABC News.

"She probably did more good and helped us make more progress in those five minutes to eradicate this problem in our armed services than a million hours' worth of hearings," Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said.

"It took a lot of courage to do that. Nobody likes to talk about their private business, particularly something like that. I had respect for the senator before, I have even more respect and admiration now," he said.

New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is running for president, has made sexual assault the focus of her political career. For years, she has been raising the alarm over sexual assault in the military and at college campuses.

"I think it took great courage for Senator McSally to tell her personal story. And for every survivor that comes forward and is willing to tell that story, to speak her truth or his truth, is very important," Gillibrand told ABC News. "It is terrible that men and woman who are serving in the military today do not have faith in the system, in the military justice system to find their perpetrators, to hold them accountable and to get justice."

Gillibrand’s proposed legislation, the Military Justice Improvement Act, would change the way the military prosecutes crimes like sexual assault.

The lawmaker said her legislation “basically takes the decision-making out of the chain of command, gives it to trained military prosecutors, which will professionalize the system.”

On Wednesday, McSally called for commanders to remain central to investigating sexual assault cases, instead of being removed from the process as Gillibrand has proposed.

PHOTO: Lt. Col. Martha McSally stands with her A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft in this undated file photo.
Lt. Col. Martha McSally stands with her A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft in this undated file photo. The colonel is the first female pilot in the Air Force to fly in combat and to serve as a squadron commander of a combat aviation squadron.
U.S. Air Force

"We cannot command change from the outside alone — it must be deployed within — it must be built, 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," McSally said.

"To that end, I very strongly believe that the commander must not be removed from the decision-making responsibility of preventing, detecting, and prosecuting military sexual assault," she said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled Wednesday that new policy to address sexual assault in the military could be considered.

"This is obviously a big problem and if we can find a further way to address it, we should," McConnell told reporters Wednesday.

An Air Force spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday that the service is "appalled and deeply sorry for what Senator McSally experienced and we stand behind her and all victims of sexual assault. We are steadfast in our commitment to eliminate this reprehensible behavior and breach of trust in our ranks."

The Pentagon's annual report on sexual assault in the military will be released later this spring.

According to last year's report, there were 6,769 reports of sexual assault, a 10 percent increase over the previous year.

In January, the Pentagon released its report on sexual assault in military service academies, finding a nearly 50 percent spike in the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact at the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Air Force Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy.

Pentagon officials were concerned about the significant increase, as well as the fact that the number of incidents reported directly to authorities remained relatively unchanged.

ABC News' Trish Turner and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.

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