During a hearing on sexual assault in the military earlier this week, Sen. Martha McSally revealed before the Senate Armed Services Committeeby a superior officer while serving in the Air Force. The military branch has since apologized to the 26-year veteran and first female fighter pilot to fly combat missions.
In her first TV interview since the freshman Arizona Republican opened up about her painful past, she tells "CBS This Morning" co-host Norah O'Donnell about the dramatic lows she says she experienced after the assault and why she's breaking her silence now.
"Honestly, I didn't even think about reporting it. That's kind the environment we were in at the time. There's a lot of denial. There's a lot of confusion … you kind of, you know, just suck it up … it wasn't ever communicated necessarily that way," she said and added, "I felt like I didn't have any options at the time."
McSally said she didn't feel like she had any options at the time and remained silent for a long time. Eventually she did tell others in the military what happened to her.
"Well, let me just say that I love our Air Force … I am proud to have served in the military. I am proud to have been given the opportunity to break through glass ceilings for women," she said.
But McSally says she was left "disgusted" by how the Air Force handled her case. During Wednesday's hearing she described feeling like "the system was raping me all over again."
"Interrogating me about, 'What happened to you? Tell us what happened to you.' And I was mortified," McSally said. "If that's the way you are treating being alerted that somebody has been through something like this, who actually is trying to have our military succeed at dealing with it. And you bring me in and interrogate me as if I'm the perpetrator even in the tone and the approach and the just the ignorance. … They failed on the job. Big time. I got up, and I left, and I dropped a bunch of swear words, just to be frank."
She nearly left the military at that point. "I really felt like the system victimized me again."
Reports of sexual assaults are up by 50 percent at U.S. service academies and nearly 10 percent in the military overall – a sign, McSally says – that more victims may feel comfortable coming forward.
Asked if she regrets not reporting the assault initially, she said, "I always, you know, like to look forward and not back. It's very difficult to put myself back into the shoes of where I was at the time."
"So what about a young woman in the Air Force who may want to make a report. Can you say to her right now, 'Do it'?" O'Donnell asked.
"Each person has to make their own decision," McSally said. She continued, "I'm not gonna compel anybody."
O'Donnell pressed McSally on how, as a sitting U.S. senator, member of the Armed Services Committee and former fighter pilot, she could not say to young women in the Air Force "Yes, we will protect you."
"Of course, I would want them to report it. Of course, I would want the opportunity for immediately, there to be an investigation that they can then quickly find justice for that victim. Of course, that's what I want. I'm just saying I'm not gonna tell a victim what to do, just to clarify –"
"But can you say that you have confidence in the system right now?" O'Donnell asked.
"Look, we have a lot of work to do. We do. We've got to stop the next assault from happening right now," McSally said.
McSally wanted to be a doctor, but set her eyes on the sky when she was told the Air Force would not allow female fighter pilots.
"And it just pissed me off … And I said, 'That's exactly what I'm gonna do.' And I walked around saying, 'I'm gonna be the first woman fighter pilot.' … I knew nothing about flying, but I was mostly driven because they told me that I couldn't."
Nothing, not even sexual assault, was going to stop her from doing that. She said she found her strength in God.
"I really believe that … I think of a scripture in the Old Testament that talks about Joseph," she said. "He finally at one point said, 'What others intended for evil, God used for good.' And I feel like in my own life some of the worst experiences I've been through, like sexual assault, have actually propelled me on a positive path that I can fight for others. And that's what my life has been."