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Senator Martha McSally’s Responsibility to Survivors of Military Sexual Assault

By Lynn K. Hall

Senator Martha McSally
Senator Martha McSally. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Last week, Senator Martha McSally made headlines by publicly speaking out about having been raped while she served in the Air Force. Her testimony during the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee hearing on military sexual assault shocked many. In 1991, McSally became the first American woman to fly in combat, and later the first woman to command an Air Force fighter squadron.

“I blamed myself. I was ashamed and confused. I thought I was strong but felt powerless,” McSally said during the hearing.

Every time a survivor tells their story—whether they are a successful combat aviator or not—it is a step forward for the movement. We are working to erase decades of shame placed on survivors and the expectation that we heal in secrecy. The more we encourage others to also be vocal, the faster this culture within the military will change. I applaud McSally for sharing her story and helping to end the stigma. I thank her for articulating what thousands of us have felt. Yet, I worry about headlines which speculate that this is a turning point for the movement.

McSally does not currently support the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), a proposal put forth by Senator Gillibrand, which would take legal decision-making power in criminal cases away from commanders and place it with appropriately trained military attorneys. This legislation is critical. Far too often, investigators recommend sending a case to a court martial and commanders do not. Or perpetrators are found guilty and commanders give them the most lenient sentences they can. Protect Our Defenders writes, “Despite decades of promising ‘zero tolerance,’ assailants are not being prosecuted. In 2013, 39% of cases sent to commanders for action resulted in charges being initiated; however, the percentage dropped sharply to 22% in 2017.” Per a recent Pentagon report, of the cases last year in which a survivor made an official (what they call “unrestricted”) report, 3.2% resulted in a criminal conviction.

The military has been grappling with the problem of sexual violence for nearly two decades, and yet they are still failing to hold perpetrators criminally responsible. Bias within command structure remains an obstacle.

I ask myself why Senator McSally’s disclosure has sparked so much dialogue and optimism. Is it because we find her story coming from a decorated veteran more credible or somehow more powerful than coming from someone who did not serve with such distinction? I’m afraid this is partly the case. In an email exchange, a leader within this movement wrote to me, “If McSally can be raped, anyone can be.” Yes, that’s the whole point. The fact that we need McSally’s disclosure illustrates perfectly why so many respond to sexual violence with shame, and in turn, silence. The truth is anyone can be raped, whether he or she is a praised warrior or not. If ours was less of a rape culture, we wouldn’t privilege one disclosure over another’s; we would be equally troubled and moved to action.

It also gives me pause that the reason Senator McSally’s personal testimony has led to so much hope is because she is a senator, in a position to offer guidance and lead change. I wonder what aspect of her résumé gives her the authority to weigh in on legislation like the MJIA with more credibility than another senator. Is it, again, her combat history? Her command experiences? Or is it because we now know she is a survivor herself? I caution against giving her opinion more weight because of the latter.

In the days before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee hearing, a handful of veteran-survivors met with McSally to discuss MJIA. These survivors have decades of experience working with fellow veterans and lobbying on Capitol Hill, and they have a wealth of insight to offer above and beyond their own stories. I applaud McSally for extending an invitation to these leaders, but I question if she truly heard them.

In a CBS interview with Norah O’Donnell the morning following the hearing, McSally gave the following advice to survivors within the military: “Don’t let your assaulter rob you of your future. Don’t do it.” This comment alone tells me that McSally has more listening to do and how naïve she may be about what is happening to those who report. Nearly two-thirds of survivors who report sexual assault experience retaliation. One-third of survivors who report are discharged, typically within seven months. These survivors are losing their careers against their wills while their perpetrators are more often than not retaining theirs.

Because McSally didn’t speak up about her rape, she went on to have what is considered to be one of the most successful careers a woman has ever had in the Air Force. She doesn’t see that her silence allowed for her success, and those of us who followed after her paid the price. She doesn’t see that her reluctance to support the MJIA or to stand up to those Republics in politics who uphold rape culture is a failure of survivors everywhere.

The problem with using our own personal histories to form opinion about public policy is that we often fail to see how others’ experiences differ from our own. For all of us who have used our stories to spring board into activism—whether within the military or in the larger #MeToo movement as a whole—we must take care to understand how our own experiences either reflect or differ from the wider trends. It takes work to move from the personal to the political, to go from survivor to activist, or survivor to leader. We must do our own healing, and then we must engage with the issue adequately to better understand beyond a personal myopic perspective. Otherwise it’s possible for victims of a system of oppression to later become complicit in that same system.

If McSally had done that work during her time as a commander or now in public service, she would understand that survivors are not choosing to let their perpetrators rob them of their futures. She would understand that command bias, malfeasance, and misfeasance are ongoing problems which must corrected through legislation like the MJIA.

Senator McSally has a responsibility to offer more than her personal story. Her authority on military sexual assault cannot merely come from her status as a survivor. It isn’t acceptable for her to reject the MJIA while offering no other plan. I hope she invites many more of us to her office to discuss military sexual assault, that she listens with an open mind despite political differences, and that together we can find a pathway forward on what ought to be a bi-partisan issue.


About the Author 

Lynn K. Hall is the author of Caged Eyes: An Air Force Cadet’s Story of Rape and Resilience. She lives in Leadville, Colorado. Follow her on Twitter at @LynnKHall and visit her website.