GLENDALE – Sen. Martha McSally announced this week that the Department of Defense has agreed to establish a task force to combat sexual assault in the military. Thursday at Luke Air Force Base, she introduced some of the task force’s goals, including improving responses to sexual assault, especially the way they’re investigated and prosecuted.
The Arizona Republican, who earlier this month revealed that she had been raped by a superior officer while in the Air Force, said commanders need to be invested in the task force, more prepared and more accountable to successfully combat sexual assaults.
McSally, who spent nearly three decades in the military, also pledged to do everything she can to ensure funds from military bases in Arizona are not withdrawn.
The news conference questions and answers have been condensed and lightly edited.
McSally: I decided … that I was going to share my perspectives, not just as someone who served and not just as a commander, but also as a survivor of military sexual assault myself. That was not an easy decision, but I believe it was the right thing to do at the right time, so that I can help lead on this issue, and people can better maybe understand where I am coming from in my perspectives based on my … all of my experiences.
Since then we have sprung into action, to do whatever that needs to be done and lead on this issue, partnering and working with the Pentagon, relating to sexual assault … I asked [acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan] to create this task force that I can also participate in. It’s a little nontraditional that these different branches of the government would be at the table together, but we need to solve this together. I want to participate in that task force to bring the thought leaders and the experts together to swiftly see what other initiatives we can come up with before we mark up the defense bill and in about 60 days, we can bring to the table to address this issue.
The acting Secretary called me the next day … he agreed to establish this task force. They are already getting to work, they’re not waiting for me to get back to D.C. next week. The Air Force is already leading the charge.
Reporter: Task forces sometimes lead to talk but no action. How can you make sure changes are made, and what changes do you want to see?
McSally: Absolutely, I agree, we don’t need to be sitting around talking, we need to come up with very specific solutions of what’s not working and what we can improve related to the system. I’m very much focused right now on the post-assault report, the investigation process and the judicial process. We’ve got to address these other issues as well, as far as prevention and culture and training and education and everything that goes with that.
Reporter: You’ve mentioned that you care about the order of command and want to keep this in the command structure, while others say they want to keep sexual-assault matters out of the command because of fear (or) whatever it may be. If you keep in that command structure, do you worry that victims will be afraid to report?
McSally: I don’t agree with the premise of that question and I don’t take my position lightly here, again, as a survivor and as a former commander. Command in the military is like nothing else in society. It’s very difficult for maybe a lot of people to understand. … it is like nothing else in civilian society. It’s not like a supervisor or any CEO, because we are asking people to give their lives if needed in defense of our country. We’re asking them to go take lives and, in that regard, there is a covenant of the military unit: the commander is ultimately responsible for the mission, responsible for the people, responsible for the climate, responsible for the good order and discipline and to make sure everybody is treated with dignity and respect. That’s what command is all about.
If we want this to be solved in our military, we need commanders to be more involved, more prepared, more accountable, because if you want anything fixed in the military, the commanders have to own it. If the commander is the problem, we need to make sure that there are opportunities for people to go around the commander, to go to the command level above them, to go to outside organizations … and those relief valves are there, but we need to make sure that trust is there so that if somebody is a victim, that they understand who they could go to … they understand what the process is going to be, that the investigation is done swiftly and thoroughly.
Reporter: When dealt with reports of sexual assault as a member of command, how did you approach them and what did you learn from handling them?
McSally: A lot of things have changed over the years. When I was the squadron commander of the 354 Fighter Squadron, I had no cases reported to me. Previous to that, I was an acting commander when I was an operations officer and there was an incident that happened. We immediately went to the investigators, immediately started the criminal investigation and went through the process of the investigation and the decisions to prosecute and justice related to that. I had both the alleged victim and alleged perpetrator in the unit, and I saw some of the real challenges that you face in circumstances like this.
Things are not the same now as they were then as far as the types of initiatives that have happened. In my conversations with commanders today, I was asking them very specifically, “Hey did this improve, did this improve?” These are based on some of the things that I saw that was going on at that time.
We’ve done some really important initiatives in the military that don’t exist in civil society. For example, the Special Victims Counsel. This is a new initiative, again, directed by Congress. In all of these cases now, the victim actually has their own lawyer who represents them, not just the JAG (judge advocate general counsel) who represents the prosecutor. Often times, the victim said “I’m like a witness in my own, I’m only a witness in this case of which I’m the victim,” and so we now have a lawyer in the room who is actually representing the best interest of the victim, which is something that doesn’t even exist in civil society. This is pretty important, and we’ve heard from a lot of victims how this is really been crucial for them. We didn’t have those types of things back then, like the special victims advocates at every base, so ensuring that those programs where you have specialized people who are there to support the victim so that they get the care they need, they get the support they need, they feel like their voice is heard in the justice process. All this stuff that needs to be continued to be strengthened didn’t exist then.
Reporter: The Trump administration is trying to draw funds from military bases in Arizona to build a wall on the southern border. Do you think this is going to affect the military bases in Arizona?
McSally: I don’t agree with the premise of your question. We do need to secure our border and we do need to fund our military. I think it’s our responsibility to do both. In this case, the National Emergencies Act allows the president to declare an emergency and to use over a hundred different authorities that Congress has given presidents to then tap into for any emergency that they declare.
There are about 30 emergencies, by the way, that are still ongoing on a variety of different issues. In this case, I very much have been focused in on the 10 U.S.C. 2808 authorities, which is related to military construction funding and military construction projects. I’ve had several conversations with Pentagon leadership and with White House leadership related to this. The misinformation that’s been put out recently is actually just that, misinformation. They were asked to give a list of all unobligated military projects, no matter what their status was, and there were six items on the list in Arizona. Four of them were fiscal year 2019 projects that were authorized and appropriated: two here at Luke, one at Davis-Monthan, one in Camp Navajo. The fiscal year 2019 authorized projects and appropriated projects that are awarded before September 30 are never going to be impacted. Any of those other projects, of which there is one other, that is going to be awarded before September 30th is not going to be impacted.
There is one potential project that was recently brought to our attention at Fort Huachuca that it has the potential to be impacted, should they get to that stage of their sequential funding. I’ve made my position very clear on this: That cannot happen. I had that conversation at very high levels and we’re going to make sure we backfield any projects, but it doesn’t mean that project is going to be impacted because it’s in a large pool of potential projects of which a subset could potentially be impacted, if not backfield.
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