Lt. Gen. Susan Helms' nomination to be vice commander of Space Command has been blocked for six months by Sen. Claire McCaskill, who objects to Helms' February 2012 decision to overturn a captain's sex assault conviction. (Air Force)
For six months, a prominent Democratic lawmaker has blocked Lt. Gen. Susan Helms’ nomination to be vice commander of Space Command, making it unlikely that she will ever be confirmed.
Helms continues to serve as commander of 14th Air Force. Lt. Gen. John Hyten has already been confirmed to replace her, but the Air Force is waiting for Helms to be confirmed before moving forward, Air Force spokesman Capt. Adam Gregory said. Helms’ nomination will expire in January 2015.
Both Helms and Hyten declined to comment for this story, Gregory said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri first objected to Helms nomination in April and then reaffirmed her stance in June, citing Helms’ decision to overturn the sex assault conviction of a captain at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in February 2012.
“With her action, Lt. Gen. Helms sent a damaging message to survivors of sexual assault who are seeking justice in the military justice system: They can take the difficult and painful step of reporting the crime, they can endure the agony involved in being subjected to intense questioning often aimed at putting the blame on them, and they can experience a momentary sense of justice in knowing that they were believed when their attacker is convicted and sentenced, only to have that justice ripped away with the stroke of a pen by an individual who was never in the courtroom for the trial and who never heard the testimony,” McCaskill said in a statement submitted to the Congressional Record in June.
McCaskill’s position has not changed since then, her spokesman Drew Pusateri said.
Capt. Matthew Herrera was acquitted of assaulting a female technical sergeant but convicted of assaulting a female first lieutenant. There was no physical evidence in either case.
After carefully studying the case for five weeks, Helms, “concluded that she could not be satisfied the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt burden of proof had been met and therefore declined to approve the conviction,” Space Command spokeswoman Lt. Col. Kathleen Cook told Air Force Times in March.
Herrara, who was punished administratively, was kicked out of the Air Force in December.
For McCaskill, Helms’ decision to overturn the captain’s conviction is part of a broader problem of how the military handles sexual assault cases. McCaskill also was outraged earlier this year when a three-star general overturned the sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, the former inspector general for Aviano Air Base, Italy.
Wilkerson, will retire on Jan. 1 as a major because acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning determined he “did not serve satisfactorily in the grade of lieutenant colonel,” Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley told Air Force Times in October.
“In both instances, you had the victim testifying to one set of facts, and the accused testifying to another,” McCaskill said at a May 7 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “In both instances, juries selected by those generals said they believed the victim. And in both of those instances, the general said, ‘No, no, we believe the member of the military.’
“That is the crux of the problem here, because if a victim does not believe that the system is capable of believing her, there’s no point in risking your entire career.”
Robert Turner, who teaches national security law at the University of Virginia School of Law, argues that McCaskill is sending the wrong message to military jurors and judges by blocking Helms’ nomination.
“This message says that if you get any kind of a case that involves allegations of sexual impropriety, you had better side with the complainant,” said Turner, associate director of the Center for National Security Law, in an Oct. 24 interview with Air Force Times. “If you’ve got one member of the Senate with the power to destroy your career, there’s a horrible message here: Justice doesn’t matter; convicting people whatever the evidence is the best way to continue your career.”
Those responsible for looking into allegations of sexual misconduct should be solely concerned with discovering the truth in order to render a proper verdict, Turner said.
“There is a serious problem of sexual abuse in the military and the senator is to be commended for being concerned about that,” Turner said. “We also have a legal system based on the principle of being innocent until proven guilty and the goal is justice. The goal is not to punish every man who’s accused of improper behavior — or every woman.”
Retired Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, former Air Force deputy judge advocate general, believes Helms deserves a vote.
“Let’s see how many senators are prepared to vote against a women who is one of the most qualified officers’ on the planet for the job simply because she exercised her conscience as the law demanded her to do,” Dunlap said in an Oct. 24 email. “If people doing their job as Congress designed it are nevertheless punished like this, who is next? Judges? Defense counsel? Anyone in uniform?
“We don’t want senior leaders who simply bend to the political winds to further their career. And we need more women in the senior ranks, not fewer. The Air Force ought to be led by officers with the moral courage to do the right thing as God gives them the grace to see it, however unpopular that might be.”
Before her nomination was blocked, Helms’ career seemed to be on the fast track. She served as an astronaut from 1991 to 2002, becoming the first military woman in space when she flew aboard the shuttle Endeavor in 1993. She flew on three other shuttle missions and served aboard the International Space Station in 2001.
During her career as an astronaut, Helms logged 211 days in space, including a spacewalk of eight hours and 56 minutes, a world record, according to her official biography. She has served in her current job since January 2011.
In her Junestatement, McCaskill said Helms’ career “is to be celebrated,” but that does not override concerns about the decision to overturn the conviction.