The Air Force Investigated Martha McSally for Seeking Advice After Sexual Assaults

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U.S. Senator Martha McSally delivers the keynote address at a conference on sexual assault at college campuses.
FILE -- In this file photo from April 4, 2019, U.S. Senator Martha McSally, from Arizona, delivers the keynote address for day one of the National Discussion on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at America’s Colleges, Universities and Service Academies. (Sarah Villegas/U.S. Navy)

While serving in the U.S. Air Force, Martha McSally experienced multiple incidents of sexual abuse and assault. But when she sought advice about how to talk publicly about experiences she'd had with the abusive culture of the Air Force, the service decided to look into her behavior instead of that of the alleged offenders.

Those are just some of the difficult experiences that McSally, a retired colonel and former A-10 Warthog pilot, describes in her first book, "Dare to Fly: Simple Lessons in Never Giving Up."

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McSally, now a Republican senator from Arizona, writes about multiple incidents of sexual abuse -- one by a high school coach; another by an upperclassman at the Air Force Academy; and the third by a superior officer who preyed on her early in her career.

McSally, who graduated from the academy in 1988, didn't trust the military judicial system or anyone "in the chain of command to believe [women] or do anything about it. We endured it," she writes.

While at the academy, the upperclassman, whom she admired, took her into a room where they kissed. But as he began to take off her shirt, his friends -- who McSally thought of as her friends, too -- came in and snapped a photo, only to laugh off the whole encounter.

"I felt violated and betrayed," she said.

Later, in the Air Force, when she decided to confront the senior officer who had been pressuring and harassing her, "His response was to hold me down and rape me," she revealed. "I told one friend, but never considered reporting the crime."

The incidents would come back to haunt her.

In 2003, McSally was selected to become a group commander and mentor for the academy -- something she felt was merely a public relations move to show off the academy's successes.

She reached out to a friend, a JAG officer, to talk through how best to reveal what had happened to her while also helping "the Air Force that we both served in and loved."

Complicating the issue, she ran into the same upperclassman who violated her at the academy. Instead of apologizing, he taunted her. It enraged her.

"I came up with a plan," she said. "I decided to confront the former upperclassman, enter information about all of my experiences on the anonymous military assault survey sent to all women in the Air Force, and be ready to honestly answer any media questions, acknowledging in general that I was also an assault survivor without kicking off fruitless investigations."

She conveyed her plan to her JAG officer friend in an email, using the words "rape" and "sexual assault/abuse."

She also approached the upperclassman, who asked for her forgiveness.

But soon after, McSally and her JAG friend would be questioned by Air Force officials about McSally’s disclosure.

"Months later, after I was selected to be an A-10 squadron commander (and consequently was not sent to the academy), I was asked to speak with the Air Force Inspector General's office regarding an ongoing, unrelated investigation in which I was a witness. … Instead, the investigators produced a copy of the email I had sent my JAG friend and demanded that I explain the details of my sexual assaults," she writes. "All I could think was, 'Is this the way the Air Force treats sexual assault victims?' They spoke to me as if I were the criminal."

Feeling "disgusted," she declined to answer their questions. She received an email from her friend months later while deployed to Afghanistan saying that the investigation had been completed.

Officials had ruled that the friend was not the authority to offer her advice and instead should have "referred [McSally] to defense counsel regarding the 'possible' crimes that [McSally] had committed."

"The Air Force investigator also concluded that, as a subordinate, it was MY responsibility to maintain 'professional relationships' with my superiors, and I had behaved 'unprofessionally,'" McSally writes.

The IG reached its determination "all without speaking" to McSally about why she reached out to her friend, she said.

Once again enraged, she sent another email -- this time to the Air Force secretary and Chief of Staff of the Air Force General T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, whom she knew from his days as the head of U.S. Central Command Air Forces.

The subject line: "Being raped all over again."

Moseley looked into the investigation for her.

"I received a full letter from him stating that he had reviewed the report and concluded that I had done nothing wrong," she writes in the book. "The 'charges' against my JAG friend were dropped. The report was closed."

"I just felt it was important for me to be an example to others, because this has happened to so many people in and out of the military," McSally told Military.com in a recent interview. "I think we've come a long way. And despite the painful experiences that I share in my book, I really shared them to provide hope to others who have been through it."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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