McSally draws on history, calls on colleges to stop sexual assaults

Since revealing her own assault at the hands of a superior officer, Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, said it’s been important for her to be visible on the issue, so other victims can see someone else has gone through it. (Photo by Alyssa Klink/Cronkite News)

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, heads to a U.S. Naval Academy workshop on sexual assault on college campuses and the service academies. McSally revealed last month that she had been assaulted while in the Air Force. (Photo by Andrew Howard/Cronkite News)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – In a different year, Sen. Martha McSally might not have been on a stage at the U.S. Naval Academy telling college officials that they need to step up and do their part to end sexual assaults on their campuses.

That was before this year, when the Arizona Republican shared a secret she had kept for years, the fact that she was raped by a superior officer while serving in the Air Force.

After making that announcement last month during a hearing on sexual assault in the military, McSally has worked hard for solutions to the problem – successfully pushing for a Pentagon task force to study the problem, and addressing Thursday’s summit of college and military academy officials.

“I didn’t plan on doing this, but I didn’t plan on getting raped either,” McSally said to an audience of about 100 officials from campuses across the country who gathered in Annapolis for two-days of talks about the problem of assaults on campus.

McSally said she speaks out now because it’s important for victims to be able to see someone else who has gone what they’re going through. And during a 45-minute keynote address, she challenged university and service academy leaders to take a new look at sexual assault at their institutions, focusing specifically on how the culture contributes to the problem.

“Tomorrow is Friday night,” McSally said. “It’s your responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen at your university this weekend.”

Military officials and university leaders echoed the call for a change in campus culture. Army Secretary Mark Esper said there is “absolutely no room for sexual harassment or assault in America’s institutions of higher learning.”

“We can and we must do better,” said Esper, calling for an environment “free of fear and retaliation” for those who come forward.

Esper called on the university officials to join him and the other service secretaries in a statement of commitment that would have them share data, discuss “environmental factors” that contribute to harassment and assault, and create a network to communicate on the subject.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said that he was happy the event was being held, but not “happy to be here.”

“I’m frustrated to be here,” Spencer said. “I’m concerned about the ongoing scores of sexual assault and sexual harassment. We have to do something about this, and we have to something now.”

-Video by Alyssa Klink/Cronkite News

While there is still much to be done, McSally said she has been pleased with the military’s response since she came forward last month with the story of her rape.

“These guys have sprung into action,” she said of the task force that was appointed shortly after she wrote to Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan about the issue. “The Pentagon often doesn’t move fast because they are a big bureaucracy, but on this issue, they have been extremely responsive.”

The letter followed the March 6 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on sexual assaults in the military where McSally told her story of being raped by a superior officer while in the Air Force.

Pausing briefly to compose herself at that hearing, she said she did not come forward because she was not confident the Air Force would handle her case. When she did report the incident, she was “horrified” at the way it was handled, saying she felt like “the system was raping me all over again.” The attack and follow-up almost drove her out of the Air Force, she said.

Despite that, McSally said at the time that she believes investigations of assaults within the ranks should stay within the chain of command, opposing suggestions by some senators that an independent investigation should take place.

Her defense of the military is not total, however: McSally called on the service academies to look at their policies, which may cause problems in the schools that could spread to the military as a whole.

She said the service academies “put these teenagers in a pressure cooker,” and then put 20-year-olds in charge of younger students. She said that “maybe you have got to do something different” to ensure there is the right culture and oversight.

“Why not take a fresh look at it?” she asked after the event. “I know there’s a lot of people focused on tradition because that’s the way we’ve always done it, but let’s set them up for success.”

She said after the event Thursday that the Pentagon task force is already making progress, but she will keep the pressure on. She added that “they’ve brought together a high-level group” and she will be meeting with them next week.

McSally said she plans to stay at the forefront of the battle because she wants leaders to “put a human face” on what their goals are going forward.

“It’s to do everything you can,” she said. “Every single day to make sure that there isn’t another young man or young woman who has a sexual assault happen to them at your university or at your military.”