5 takeaways from Sen. Martha McSally's new memoir, 'Dare to Fly' (2024)

5 takeaways from Sen. Martha McSally's new memoir, 'Dare to Fly' (1)

U.S. Sen. Martha McSally's new memoir describes a life forged by pain, from losing her father as a child to rising to become the nation's first female combat pilot, and dealing with sexual assault along the way.

In “Dare to Fly: Simple Lessons in Never Giving Up,” the Arizona Republican opens up more than she previously has to acknowledge attempted suicide, repeated slights in the Air Force and her roller-coaster political career.

The book, published Tuesday, ends with McSally in the political race of her life as she seeks to leave a legacy of service. It is an up-close account from a politician who has previously kept the media and the public at a distance.

The book makes plain that McSally views her father’s death when she was 12 years old as the end of her childhood and the opening of a string of hardships that she fought to overcome.

McSally, who served two terms in the House of Representatives before her appointment to the Senate, began writing the book years ago.

The book arrives as McSally is facing her toughest election yet, with polls showing her trailing her Democratic opponent, Mark Kelly, a retired NASA astronaut and Navy combat pilot in the race to retain her seat in the U.S. Senate.

Here are five takeaways from “Dare to Fly.”

Sexual assault

McSally previously has said she had multiple sexually abusive incidents in her life, one by a high school coach and several assaults in the Air Force, including a rape by a superior officer.

McSally’s previous accounts have bothered her critics, who noted that she didn’t identify her alleged assailants then or now, making it more difficult to assess her credibility and making it impossible for anyone to be held accountable.

Her book offers more detail about the matters, along with her explanation of why she didn’t seek justice at the time.

McSally said she did not report the Air Force assaults at the time because she did not trust leaders would hold her alleged attackers accountable.She describes an off-campus party while she was in the Air Force in which she went to a room with an upperclassman who kissed her and began undressing her.

During that moment, their friends rushed into the room and took a photo of her topless. She said the photo was shared with men in the squadron “who taunted me relentlessly.”

Later, a senior officer preyed upon her, much like the abusive behavior she alleged against her former high school track coach.

Years after what she only describes as an “experience,” McSally decided to confront the officer, in private, while at another base.

“It was after work, on a Friday night. His response was to hold me down and rape me,” she wrote in the book.

In shock, she spent the weekend curled up in the fetal position. She told one friend, but they did not consider reporting the crime.

“On Monday morning, I showed up to work on my base and even took a phone call from my rapist, where he acknowledged that he had raped me and apologized,” she wrote. “I hung up the phone, walked to the tarmac, and flew my next mission, completely numb and emotionally dead.”

She said she later found too much time had gone by for criminal charges against her former coach. McSally said shefelt the Air Force brass treated her as the perpetrator when she began raising the issue of what she might be able to do about her own experiences with sexual assaults in the military. She did so with a friend who was a senior lawyer with the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General.

“They spoke to me as if I were the criminal, trying to pressure me to confess the details of the crimes I had been a victim of, so they could fully investigate them,” she wrote. “I was horrified. ... they spoke in a bullying tone, as if I had done something wrong, trying to pressure me to ‘do your duty as an officer’ and disclose the crimes committed against me.”

She refused and then berated them for their handling of the situation. She and her attorney friend were ensnared in an investigation into his offering her private advice. Ultimately, after she threatened to go public with the Air Force’s handling of the situation, officials determined she had done nothing wrong and the case against herfriend wasdropped.

A short time later, McSally was promoted to colonel and accepted to attend the Air Force’s war college.

Shaped by loss

McSally speaks frequently of losing her 49-year-old father when she was 12, a traumatic event that permanently altered the course of her life.

She recalls, with emotion and vivid detail, summers at their family beach house 45 minutes from their home in Warwick, Rhode Island. Therethey spent lazy days swimming, digging for clams and collecting mussels.

After one day at the beach, her father suffered a heart attack. He summoned his family to the hospital, sensing he would not survive. During their final conversation, he told McSally, “Make me proud.”

Not long after, she also lost her dog, Casey.

For the teenageMcSally, the grief was unbearable.

“When you have not gone through all the healthy steps of grieving, other losses can produce a disproportionate experience,” she wrote. “I wanted my dad to be with me and hold me as I wept over the loss of my faithful dog. If he couldn’t be here on earth, then maybe I should go to be with him and Casey instead.”

In what she called “an impulsive moment of despair,” she swallowed multiple pills and needed her stomach pumped at a hospital.

“It was,” she wrote, “a cry for help.”

Breaking barriers

McSally describes her life as bouncing back after that.

She earned straight-A gradesin high school.

She wanted to become a fighter pilot, but she was a half-inch too short. The book traces her exhaustive efforts to win over allies to score a medical waiver.

She got it and became the nation’s first woman to fly a fighter jet in combat, and was also the first to command a fighter squadron.

McSally acknowledges that her rise angered some of her colleagues.

In 1997, for example, she was chosen to be a full-time A-10 instructor pilot, becoming the first woman to do so. She was promoted to the rank of major, two years early.

Back then, fighter pilot squadrons kept books where pilots made fun of each other, dubbed “Hog logs.” After they were banned at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, she wrote that a log was still kept in the control tower.

When she did her tours in the tower, she would read the disparaging words written about her. Men at the base put up denigrating photos and comments about her in the bathrooms, she wrote. She got hate mail.

One day, she came home to a voicemail left for her by the wife of an A-10 pilot. The woman said she didn’t deserve to be a fighter pilot or an instructor pilot.The woman told her she must have slept her way to the top and that she only got her promotion because she was a woman.

“She finished by asking how I could live with myself and look myself in the mirror after being given such an easy road with unearned rewards.”

The next day, McSally marched into her commander’s office and played the voicemail.

“Then I left the machine on his desk and told him this was no longer my problem, it was his problem. I said I was going home. When he cleaned up the climate and created a professional environment for me to serve, he should give me a call and I would come back.”

The environment, McSally wrote, shifted.


Before her marriage in 1997 to Donald Henry, McSally was struggling with the loss of two friends who died in separate plane crashes.

She wrote that Henry was professional and kind, and like her, was a person of faith. They served together in the music ministry at the base chapel and when they were deployed to Kuwait, they worked out at the gym.

She was having doubts about getting married.

“I had a feeling in my gut that I was making a mistake but wasn’t sure if my reluctance was due to grief or something else,” she wrote.

They married at a resort on the north side of Tucson at a sunrise ceremony. Two and a half years later, after counseling and separation, they decided to part ways. The marriage was annulled.

“Friends who knew us both well said we probably had hung on too long, because neither of us liked to quit at anything, especially when we had taken a vow before God,” she wrote. “I know that he did marry again, and I wish only good things for him and his wife. I am still praying for the man God has for me.”

Political loss

In many ways, McSally writes, her travails in the Air Force prepared her for the treatment she would get on the campaign trail in Arizona.

McSally lost her 2012 bid for Arizona’s Tucson-based 2nd Congressional District by 2,454 votes. She won that seat in 2014 by just 167.

She won a second term in 2016, but lost her first Senate race in 2018.

“I didn’t realize it when I entered, but all the denigration that I had faced as a woman in the military prepared me well for being attacked, lied about, and smeared on TV, in partisan mailers, on social media, and all the other venues opponents use to try to discredit you.”

McSally said she had prepared herself mentally for another loss in 2014, and hasn’t looked back since.

“When Sunday arrived, I was already thinking about the upside of losing,” she wrote. “I would get my life back. I could spend more time with family, friends, and (her dog) Boomer. I would have time to date. I was ready to move on.”

During one conference call, her campaign strategist jokingly said, “The only person on this line who is now disappointed by the likelihood of victory is Martha.”

She won by less than .01 percent, after a mandatory recount.

Four years later, after narrowly losing to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in the race for Arizona’s open Senate seat, McSally acknowledged she was mentally spent.

“I was exhausted, physically and mentally, and a little in shock. Even though I had known the challenges of the race, I hadn’t spent one minute contemplating losing,” she wrote. “This isn’t delusional, it is simply a better way to approach a battle. It is not helpful to ride an emotional roller coaster, where you focus on polls and attack ads and constantly wonder what the outcome might be. It would be paralyzing to fly into combat thinking only about the possibility of being shot down or to start a marathon thinking only about not finishing. Much the same is true of the mental experience of a campaign.”

Have news to share about Arizona's U.S. senators or national politics?Reach the reporter on Twitter and Facebook. Contact her at yvonne.wingett@arizonarepublic.com and 602-444-4712.

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5 takeaways from Sen. Martha McSally's new memoir, 'Dare to Fly' (2024)


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