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Sen. McSally says she was raped in the Air Force. Here’s why it matters to military women like me.

And why it could be a turning point.

Sen. Martha McSally speaks in the Capitol in February 2018.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

“You have only three choices. You’re either a dyke, a bitch, or a ho.”

I would learn later that the last option was considered the worst, and that this lecture was common for young women training to become Marines in either boot camp or Officer Candidates School.

I remember my lecture; in a quiet squad bay as our platoon of female candidates got ready to sleep for far too short a time, we listened to our sergeant instructor (a drill instructor for officers) tell us about the way Marine Corps culture would look at us as women if we ever graduated training. We would be a minority in a conservative place, and we needed to keep our reputations free of anything X-rated. It was fine to be thought of as unfriendly, but never as sexual or sexually available. The instructor training us was a woman with a long career under her belt; she thought she was doing us all a favor with her words.

Warnings aside, I would go on to active duty in the Marine Corps for six years, stationed on both coasts and in Iraq. I’d occasionally run into women Marines who’d been with me in that squad bay, and we’d remark with wry humor on the prescient words.

I didn’t have the foresight at the time to think about what this might mean if I were to experience sexual assault or harassment (I eventually did) and how reporting that to a superior might go. The idea was to conform and to avoid scandal at all costs. If association with sexual assault questions or accusations could be a career killer, what ambitious military woman would want to publicly accuse a colleague?

Last week during a Senate subcommittee meeting, Arizona Sen. Martha McSally disclosed that she had been assaulted while serving on active duty in the Air Force. She didn’t report it at the time, and explained in an interview with CBS that she had never even seen that as an option. “That’s kind of the environment that we were in at the time,” she told CBS, adding that she loved serving in the Air Force. “There’s a lot of denial. There’s a lot of confusion. … You kind of, you know, just suck it up.”

Her words have potential to be a turning point in the conversation about sexual assault in the military. McSally is a respected veteran, a conservative woman senator, and a reliably party-line Republican. By taking a stand against assault and misogyny in the military, she adds her unique voice to those typically raised by more left-leaning leaders in Congress who have previously called out rape culture in the military.

McSally’s description of a cultural prohibition against reporting in the military ring true to me. No servicewoman wants her name associated with an investigation — it feels far too close to the realm of scandal, and we know the bias dilemma. We’re already battling stereotype threat in an environment that at times can’t be called anything but misogynistic. Beyond the social compulsion in the military to stay silent, command handling of reports creates a damning structural problem. McSally eventually reported her assault. That experience left her feeling “horrified” — she recalls leaving one inquiry in a flurry of expletives after being grilled like a perpetrator.

Presently, when a servicewoman reports an assault, her complaint is investigated by her commanding officer and adjudication is decided on by a command authority who is also in the chain of command. Consequences for offenders might be legal, but they can also be administrative, even involving an administrative separation from the service. Commanders with incentive to keep their units moving forward and looking beyond reproach make the call, leading many prosecutions and punishments to happen behind closed doors rather than in a formal disciplinary proceeding that would be public, such as a court-martial. As a result, the military has both a case prosecution and a perception problem. Victims often do not trust the system because they have seen past complaints “swept under the rug.”

That’s why it’s so important to support the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) put forward by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The MJIA would take harassment and assault reporting away from commanders and introduce prosecutorial expertise by routing reports to professional prosecutors outside the chain of command.

McSally has told a personal story with which many military women identify. Within conservative military culture, association with anything untoward only serves to affirm the negative beliefs about servicewomen that many already hold. We’re taught this from entry level, and it kept McSally quiet when she should’ve been able to seek justice.

The Defense Department’s own reporting indicates that six in 10 victims who report harassment or assault also report some form of retaliation. Only 20 percent of victims who make a report are satisfied with the way the command handled it. The problems are cultural, but they go beyond into the very structure of the military’s methods for handling reports. McSally has already broken ground on this issue. She could go further by advocating for the MJIA, and she has the credibility she earned over an impressive Air Force career to back up what she could say.

We’re more than three destructive labels, and the senator has a chance to make change. I hope she’ll stand for the women who come after us and support the MJIA.

Kate Hendricks Thomas, PhD, is a Marine Corps veteran and military health researcher. She is the author of Brave, Strong, True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle for Balance and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Invisible Veterans: What Happens When Military Women Become Civilians Again.


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