‘I, Too, Was a Survivor’: Senator McSally Ends Years of Silence

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Martha McSally at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Tex., in 1993.CreditCreditAssociated Press

‘I, Too, Was a Survivor’: Senator McSally Ends Years of Silence

Martha McSally became the first American woman to fly in combat. But years before, she had been attacked by one of her own.

Martha McSally at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Tex., in 1993.CreditCreditAssociated Press

WASHINGTON — The Air Force of three decades ago was a challenging place for women, especially those ambitious few with aspirations of becoming fighter pilots.

There were lewd singalongs among the airmen. Pornography was strewn around. Sexual harassment, and worse, was rampant.

So when a promising young military servicewoman named Martha McSally was raped by a male superior officer on her journey to enter that distinct boys club, it was hardly surprising that she did not report the allegation up the chain of command.

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The first woman to pilot an American warplane into combat, Ms. McSally was known for her outspoken ways. She hectored her superiors to waive the height requirement that stood in her way, sued the Bush administration for making her wear an abaya while on duty in Saudi Arabia, and wore a men’s flight cap to her promotion ceremony in defiance of regulations.

But calling out colleagues for sexual assault was considered career ending for women back then, say people who served in the Air Force with her. And Ms. McSally has said that the negative response she received when she brought up, in general terms, what had happened to her traumatized her all over again.

Ms. McSally did eventually raise her rape in public earlier this month. Now a Republican senator from Arizona, she revealed the attack during a subcommittee hearing on sexual assault in the military. In remarks that she would later say were agonizing to prepare, she told other assault victims that she knew of their suffering.

The public announcement comes as Ms. McSally, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is fighting for her political life. Last month, Mark Kelly, an astronaut who is married to Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who survived a gunshot wound to the head, announced a bid to unseat Ms. McSally.

Senator Martha Elizabeth McSally has long been a complicated and contradictory figure. She was renowned for her historic first in the cockpit of an A-10 Warthog (known as a “gun with an airplane attached”); she was also mocked for once taking off with little fuel in her jet.

But never was her complexity more on display than on March 6, when she reported her rape to official Washington.

“Later in my 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,” Ms. McSally said. “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 like the system was raping me all over again,” she went on. “But I didn’t quit. I decided to stay and continue to serve and fight and lead.”

And then, the woman who said she was raped by the system said that the same system should continue to handle cases such as hers. She said that she was opposed to Senate legislation to take the prosecution of sexual assault cases out of the hands of the military chain of command, endangering the bill’s prospects and confounding other sexual assault victims.

At a news conference on Thursday outside Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, she told reporters that she would press defense officials to come up with reforms for dealing with sexual assaults within the ranks and would herself sit on a new Pentagon task force on the issue.

Friends of Ms. McSally’s describe how she learned to mask all vulnerability in order to survive an aggressively masculine military culture in which women were barely seen as equals, let alone capable of leading. That she achieved all that she did, they say, is testament to a fierce will.

When Ms. McSally arrived at the Air Force Academy in 1984 at the age of 18, sexual assault at the school was almost entirely unreported. Cases were not formally tracked. Between 1976 and 1992, the first 16 years that women attended the academy, the number of sexual assault reports at the academy was zero, according to the 2003 congressional testimony of the secretary of the Air Force at the time, James G. Roche.

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Ms. McSally during a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing last month on sexual harassment in the military.CreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

Enter Ms. McSally, an avid swimmer who used to get airsick as a child. As a first-year cadet, the diminutive Ms. McSally informed her flight instructor that she planned to be a fighter pilot. The flight instructor just laughed, she later told Air Force Print News.

Not only were women not allowed to fly fighters at the time, but at 5 feet 3 inches tall, Ms. McSally was an inch too short to fly any plane at all.

That didn’t stop her. She pressured commanders to grant a waiver. She hung upside down to try to stretch herself out, and she even got a fellow officer to knock her on the head, hoping the ensuing lump would help her reach the height requirement, according to two of her peers.

Ms. McSally has not disclosed who raped or assaulted her. But when she was a junior officer in the Air Force, she had told friends that by the time she arrived at the academy, she had already been sexually assaulted in high school by a coach.

She hasn’t given details about the superior officer who raped her once she joined the military, but a friend, Rich Robinson, said she confided in him more than two decades ago about the assaults.

“It’s almost like you’re a wounded sheep in the field, and they sniff you out,” Mr. Robinson said of predatory officers in the military. “As you’re learning the situation, they gain your trust and then they violate that, and that’s when the abuse takes place. The betrayal is when you totally believe in someone, and then they took advantage of you for their own benefit.”

Many women of that era simply dropped out. During the early years of women at the academy, one in four left before graduating, an attrition rate at least double that of West Point and the Naval Academy.

One victim was Lynn Hall, who said she was raped in December 2001 while in her first year at the Air Force Academy. Already a civilian pilot when she entered the academy, Ms. Hall had been introduced to a senior upperclassman, who would go on to rape her on one of the upper floors of the academy’s library.

Ms. Hall contracted herpes from the assault, which led to a meningitis and encephalitis infection. A doctor asked her whether she was sexually active, but fearing what would happen if she reported the rape, she said no. As a result, she said, she never received the right diagnosis or treatment. “It cascaded into all sorts of medical problems, and I didn’t get the medical care I needed,” she said.

She tried to stick it out, but left the academy in 2004 with a medical discharge.

Ms. McSally, during her senior year at the academy, finally got the height waiver she was seeking. It was the first such waiver in seven years.

In 1994, at the stick of an A-10 Warthog over the deserts of Iraq, she became the first American woman to fly in combat.

But even as she was making history, Ms. McSally was also making enemies.

In 2014, in the heat of Ms. McSally’s campaign for Congress, two pilots criticized her publicly, including Lt. Col. Thomas Norris. He told an Arizona radio host that as a pilot, Ms. McSally displayed “incredible ineptness in the air” and was “under the highest level of supervision starting back in 1995, because she had severe lack of knowledge and credibility.”

Two other pilots said in recent interviews that Ms. McSally once took off with not enough fuel in her jet. And yet, they complained, she was often promoted ahead of her peers, despite what they described as middling pilot skills.

Ms. McSally’s allies say that much of the criticism about her stemmed from professional jealousy and an anti-female bias in the hyper-macho fighter pilot culture.

“She got extra attention, and that’s not right. But it wasn’t her fault,” said Don Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general who served with her at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. “You’ve got a senator flying in, and they’d say ‘We want to see Martha McSally.’ If you’re a commander, you’ve got to protect someone like that. I don’t know that all of them did.”

Mr. Bacon, now a Republican congressman from Nebraska, remembered her as an effective leader. “I thought she was very competent as a commander and in how she treated people,” he said.

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Ms. McSally in Eagle, Colo., in 1997, when she was serving as an A-10 pilot.CreditKevork Djansezian/Associated Press

The grumbling grew steadily every time Ms. McSally was promoted, and every time she challenged the status quo.

And challenge it she did — again and again. In 2001, as a lieutenant colonel flying missions out of Saudi Arabia, she was required to wear the black head covering and long black robe known as an abaya whenever she went off base. She filed suit in federal court, saying the requirements were discriminatory.

Ms. McSally showed the same defiance in 2004 when she became the first woman to command a fighter squadron, the pilots said. The Air Force had just issued a regulation barring women from wearing men’s flight caps, which many women preferred over the women’s version. At the ceremony where she took command, she wore the men’s cap.

Female former officers who served in the same time frame said that it was almost inconceivable that an officer with any ambition would have reported a sexual assault by another officer.

Not only would it have been clear from the outset that there was almost no chance of anything happening or any charges being pursued, but blowing the whistle on another officer — or even just reacting negatively to the routinely bawdy banter of pilots — would get you ostracized and harm your career prospects.

Ms. McSally alluded to this retribution in a paper she wrote in 2007 while at the Air War College. “Blame must be placed appropriately,” she wrote. “The assaulter is the one who degraded cohesion of the team, not the victim.”

The youngest pilots were often tasked with carrying around the squadron’s box of pornography. Squadron members sang group songs that included lyrics about raping women, ejaculating, and mutilation of women, and female officers and airmen were expected to tolerate it, if not sing along, said Jennifer Jones, who enlisted in the Air Force at 17, became an officer and then went to law school and rose to be a major in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

Women described laughing at bawdy jokes knowing that if they were not viewed as part of the team, they would not advance in their careers. And the quickest way to kill your military careers, they said, was to report.

This retaliation against sexual assault claimants has long been military-wide.

Stacey Thompson was a young Marine lance corporal in Okinawa in 1998, when she said she was drugged and raped by her sergeant. She reported it immediately to the military chain of command that also, incidentally, included her sergeant.

During the investigation, the military discharged Ms. Thompson’s sergeant. But they discharged Ms. Thompson as well, effectively ending her career in the military.

Nine years later, halfway around the world, after commanding a squadron, Ms. McSally graduated first in her class from the Air War College in 2007, and was in line to become a group commander. But she was passed over and eventually retired from active duty in 2010.

She had survived 26 years in the aggressively masculine culture of fighter pilots in the Air Force. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2012, and then won in 2014. When Jeff Flake announced he was leaving the Senate, she ran unsuccessfully for his seat, losing to Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, in November. And then, Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona put her in John McCain’s vacant seat, and in the sights of Mr. Kelly, the popular astronaut.

On Feb. 28, Ms. Thompson, the former Marine and sexual assault survivor, went to Ms. McSally’s Senate offices to try to get her to sign on to the congressional legislation that would take such cases out of the hands of the military. During a private meeting with other survivors, Ms. McSally disclosed that she, too, had been raped and mistreated by the military.

But Ms. McSally said that despite what happened to her, she still believed that the handling of such cases should be left in the hands of the military command structure.

Ms. McSally said that taking rape cases away would be letting commanders off the hook. She said that military commanders needed to know that they would be fired if they did not prosecute such cases. Critics of that logic say it ignores the tremendous influence male commanders have among their male colleagues.

“She kept saying, ‘We’re on the same side on this,’” Ms. Thompson recalled.

She said she left the meeting thinking about the contradictory nature of Ms. McSally. “Yeah, we’re both survivors,” she said. “But we are not on the same side.”

Helene Cooper reported from Washington, Dave Philipps from Colorado Springs and Richard A. Oppel Jr. from New York. Steve Friess contributed reporting from Battle Creek, Mich. Kitty Bennett and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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