WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Air Force's top civilian on Thursday said she has a greater respect for Arizona lawmaker and former Air Force combat pilot Sen. Martha McSally after the senator this week disclosed she was raped by a senior officer while she was on active duty.
"Martha McSally and I have been friends for close to 20 years, and I have a greater respect for her today than I did two days ago [for] being a very strong and wonderful leader," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters at the National Air and Space Museum before a screening of "Captain Marvel."
"And I think she has handled this situation with a kind of steely grace that typifies Martha McSally," Wilson added.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on sexual assault in the military on Wednesday, McSally said understood why victims of sexual assault may have lost faith in the system, because she too was hesitant to report her own assault.
"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.
When other sexual assault and harassment scandals within the service began coming to light, she discussed her own assault with others, but said she wasn't taken seriously. She said in the end, she never formally reported the incident.
"Like many victims, I felt the system was raping me all over again," she said.
Following McSally's testimony, the Air Force issued a statement saying the "actions [McSally described] violate what it means to be an airman."
"The criminal actions reported today by Senator McSally violate every part of what it means to be an airman," Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Carrie Volpe said. "We are 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."
On Thursday, McSally tweeted, "Thank you for the outpouring of support. It means a lot for all who have reached out."
In the Air Force, McSally 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 any combat aviation squadron, to include fighters and bombers.
She is the Air Force's first female pilot to fly in combat.
McSally retired as a colonel in 2010. She was appointed to the U.S. Senate in December as a permanent replacement for Sen. John McCain.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.