WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Martha McSally, who shook the U.S. Senate with an unprecedented statement describing her rape by a senior Air Force officer, took an unconventional path to what is sometimes known as the nation’s “most exclusive club.”
The Republican senator from Arizona lost her race for the Senate in November, but ended up taking a seat there anyway after being named to replace the late John McCain.
On Wednesday, she joined another exclusive group, albeit one that no one would want to belong to, when she became only the second sitting U.S. senator to describe publicly her own sexual assault, surprising fellow members as she detailed how she had been raped while serving in the U.S. military.
“I was preyed upon and then raped by a superior officer,” McSally, 52, said during a Senate hearing on sexual assault in the military.
She did not name the officer. The Air Force was “appalled and deeply sorry” for McSally’s experience, a spokeswoman said.
Fellow Republican Senator Joni Ernst, also a military veteran, disclosed in a January interview that she was raped while a college student. McSally made history by giving the first such statement as a senator in a congressional hearing.
Ernst, along with Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, have become vocal critics of how the military handles sexual assault within its ranks. McSally now joins their fight in the Senate.
McSally spent 26 years in the U.S. Air Force, was the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat and command a fighter squadron in combat.
She first came to public attention when she filed a lawsuit in 2001 against the U.S. Department of Defense to end the policy requiring female service members stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear clothes covering the whole body, be accompanied by a man and not drive cars when off base. Ultimately, the military changed the rules.
She retired from the Air Force in 2010 as a full colonel and in 2014 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
For a moment last fall, it looked like her political career could come to an end. Six days after the November 2018 election, McSally conceded defeat to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in the race for the U.S. Senate. She had lost by about 2 percentage points.
But weeks later another opportunity emerged. The second Senate seat from Arizona had been vacated earlier that year by the death of McCain. The seat was filled temporarily by former Senator Jon Kyl, who served only a few months before stepping down.
A month after her defeat, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey appointed McSally to the vacant seat. McSally faces an election in November 2020 if she wants to retain her seat.
“All her life, Martha has put service first — leading in the toughest of fights and at the toughest of times,” Ducey said as he appointed her.
Reporting by Ginger Gibson; editing by Mary Milliken and Bill Rigby