Sen. Martha McSally says she was raped while serving in US Air Force

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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What You Need to Know: Martha McSally

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, disclosed Wednesday that she was sexually assaulted by a superior officer during her 26-year career in the military.

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The Arizona Republican said Wednesday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that she didn’t report the assault when it happened because she didn’t trust the system and because she blamed herself.

“I was ashamed and confused,” she said. “I thought I was strong but felt powerless. The perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways.”

McSally did not disclose when the assault took place or identify her attacker.

She said that years later, as the military grappled with its response to reports of sexual assault within its ranks, she broke her silence, but, “Like many victims, I felt like the system was raping me all over again.”

“I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences was handled,” she said.

McSally told CBS News on Thursday that sharing her assault brought back "the very real memories and realities of it," but she added that she was glad she'd shared her story in a public forum. Wednesday's Senate hearing was about the military's efforts to prevent sexual assaults and improve the response when they occur.

"I don't want people to think, like, well maybe it's just all these problems we have now that there are women in the military," McSally told CBS News. "Think about it – if you have a predator, if you have a rapist who is serving in uniform, you don't deal with it by keeping a woman out of their unit. Because that predator is going to go assault someone else."

During the last fiscal year, more than 6,700 sexual assaults were reported in the U.S. military, The Washington Post reported, citing a report issued in April by the Pentagon. The Post noted that most people who reported being assaulted said they faced backlash in their units afterward.

McSally said Wednesday that when she joined the Air Force Academy in the 1980s as part of the ninth class to include women, “sexual harassment and assault were prevalent, but victims mostly suffered in silence.”

Citing the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, the Military Times reported the number of service academy cadets who reported unwanted sexual encounters has increased almost 50 percent over the last three years.

In a statement released Wednesday, an Air Force spokeswoman said the branch was appalled at and “deeply sorry” about what McSally had experienced.

"The criminal actions reported today by Senator McSally violate every part of what it means to be an Airman," Capt. Carrie Volpe said in a statement. "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 Associated Press contributed to this report.