During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on sexual assault in the military on Wednesday, Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, a decorated Air Force officer and the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, said she was raped by a senior officer while she was on active duty.
The crime caused her to lose faith in the Air Force, and she "almost separated at 18 years of service over my despair," she told stunned committee members, advocates for survivors of sexual assault and former military personnel present at the hearing to testify on the topic.
"The perpetrators use their positions of power in profound ways. And in one case, I was preyed upon and raped by a superior officer," McSally said during her opening statement.
She added that she never reported the event but, when scandals over sexual assault and harassment began surfacing, she discussed her own assault with others but wasn't taken seriously.
"Like many victims, I felt the system was raping me all over again," she said.
McSally was appointed to the U.S. Senate in December as a permanent replacement for Sen. John McCain. In the Air Force, she flew the A-10 Thunderbolt and went on to command the 354th Fighter Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, the first woman to command a fighter squadron.
During her campaign for Sen. Jeff Flake's Senate seat last year, McSally said she had been abused by a high school track coach when she was a teenager. Her admission on Wednesday was the first public statement regarding her military sexual assault.
During her statement, McSally spoke against proposals to remove military commanders from the decision-making process when adjudicating cases of sexual assault in their units. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, has pressed for years to remove the chain of command from the legal proceedings, replacing their oversight with legal officers.
According to a Pentagon report released last April, 5,277 service members said they had been sexually assaulted in 2017, an increase of nearly 10 percent over the previous year.
McSally said that changes in the past three decades in the U.S. military have improved sexual-assault reporting and prosecution, and she thanked survivors who have stepped forward and made "significant change happen."
But, she added, it is a commander's obligation to provide a "climate of integrity and excellence" within their units and they should remain in the decision-making and prosecution process.
"We must allow them to live up to the moral responsibilities that come with being a commander," she said.
Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Carrie Volpe said Wednesday that the crime against McSally "violates every part of what it means to be an airman."
"We are appalled and deeply sorry for what Senator McSally experienced, and we stand behind her and all victims of sexual assault," Volpe said.
In January, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she was sexually assaulted while in college. Ernst served in the Iowa National Guard as an officer.