Senator Martha McSally’s Revelation of Assault May Reopen Debate

“She said, ‘I’m a survivor of military sexual trauma,’” said Stacey Thompson, who was sexually assaulted in the Marines and later founded #MetooMilitary, a victims’ rights group. “And she said she was just appalled at the way it was received” when she finally confided it to people inside the military, Ms. Thompson said.

Noting that Ms. McSally retired as a colonel and was one of the most well-known officers in the Air Force as the branch’s first female pilot to fly in combat, Ms. Thompson added: “If it happens at that level, imagine how often it happens at the E-1, E-2 or E-3 level,” referring to the lowest enlisted ranks. “If they didn’t take her seriously, and they did not do anything about it at her level, why would we think they would have done anything about it at lower-ranking levels?”

Ms. Thompson said she and several others in the meeting did not press for details: “As a survivor, I don’t think anyone in the room felt the need to ask more.”

Don Christensen, a retired colonel who served as a prosecutor, defense counsel and military judge in the Air Force for 23 years, said that word of Ms. McSally’s rape never circulated among the Air Force’s military justice community.

The Air Force tries very hard to stifle accusations against senior officers, and if the accusation was never disclosed outside Ms. McSally’s chain of command, then it could have easily been suppressed, said Mr. Christensen, who served as the Air Force’s chief prosecutor from 2010 to 2014 but left the military after an Air Force general threw out a conviction he had won against a pilot over sexual assault.

Had the accusation ever been shared with members of the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps — the lawyers who serve as legal advisers, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges — it would have been difficult to stamp out, given her prominence at the time and given how small the corps was, said Mr. Christensen, who is now the president of Protect Our Defenders, a military victims’ rights group.

“Everybody knew who McSally was,” he said. “She’s kind of an icon in the military. I just don’t think it ever got to the legal world.”