Senator Martha McSally shared a deeply personal and traumatic story before the Senate Armed Services Committee last Wednesday.
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She said she was raped by a superior officer when she served in the Air Force. Likely a difficult moment for her to relive, it was also stunning testimony for the military community to hear from a sitting senator.
McSally, a 26-year veteran, did not report her abuser and has not revealed his name. She said she felt ashamed, and didn’t have enough confidence in the system to come forward at the time -- a problem the Department of Defense has acknowledged and tried to address for several years.
Aside from reporting for ABC News, I’m also in the Army Reserve, and have been for 16 years. I’ve reached the rank of major. To hear McSally say that as a young fighter pilot decades ago she wasn’t able to rely on her leadership and chain of command is personally heartbreaking. It’s also something that the military needs to hear.
During the many trainings one attends when joining the military, one acronym tossed around repeatedly is LDRSHIP which stands for Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage. In a community that emphasizes these qualities so relentlessly, how was McSally failed by the military so miserably? How was her confidence in her comrades and superiors ripped away from her?
Sexual assault against female service members is an issue the military has been trying to fix across all branches for years, and I’ve seen the way the Department of Defense has worked to better the environment for women.
The moment I joined the military in 2002, I knew what programs and specialists were in place to deal with such matters. For instance the Army has SHARP, the Sexual Harassment Assault Response Program.
Every unit I’ve been a part of has had this program, as well as an individual assigned to handle cases of sexual assault. This person is tasked with responding to a victim when they come forward, and is responsible for advising and educating the entire unit about what behavior won’t accepted, and where to go if they need help.
It is drilled into every service member that LDRSHIP are qualities he or she must possess. But it doesn't stick with everyone.
When I deployed to Baghdad in 2008, I was startled to hear some people tell me to be on the lookout for instances of sexual assault – specifically during the window of time in which a service member stays in Kuwait before flying to Iraq.
I was told to travel with a battle buddy at all times, and check my surroundings when walking to the shower or porta johns. “Female soldiers are being assaulted," I was warned over and over.
Every spring, the Department of Defense releases a report documenting cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault. In 2017 the number of incidents of sexual assaults reported reached a record high -- 6,769. Pentagon officials say the number is high because there is more awareness across the military that this is a problem, and victims have more faith in the system.
Hopefully, Senator McSally’s brave testimony will urge lawmakers and the Pentagon to come up with more ways to curb sexual assault and prosecute perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law.
As of January of this year, women account for about 220,270 of 1,316,090 million active-duty personnel, according to the Department of Defense. As barriers to women serving in the military continue to fall, addressing sexual assault must continue to be a major focus for all service branches.
Stephanie Ramos is a correspondent for ABC News.