Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says Lt. Gen. Susan Helms is qualified for the next Joint Chiefs of Staff opening. (Jamie Rose/Getty Images)
The seven officers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff have different backgrounds and experiences, but they have one thing in common: they are all men. Even though women make up 16 percent of the armed forces, no woman has ever been appointed to the JCS. The question is: When will this change?
Many of those defending the all-male status contend that there has not yet been a female candidate qualified to become a JCS member, that the military’s women do not yet have the background or experience to join the nation’s highest military body.
How about an officer who graduated from a service academy 34 years ago, holds a master’s degree in aeronautics from Stanford, is a flight test engineer who has flown in 30 different types of U.S. and Canadian aircraft, has been a wing and Air Force commander, and was responsible for developing the nation’s strategic war plan? What if this person had also been an astronaut, served as a crew member on five space shuttle missions, lived on the International Space Station for five months, and held the record for the longest spacewalk? That sterling resume would seem to qualify such an officer for an appointment to the JCS.
Unfortunately, that person, Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, will not get the chance. On Nov. 8, a spokesman for the general announced that she would retire after her appointment to become vice commander of Air Force Space Command was withdrawn.
Helms’ promotion was blocked because of her February 2012 decision to downgrade a conviction of aggravated sexual assault against an Air Force captain to the lesser charge of committing an indecent act, which includes dismissal from the Air Force. In her role as the general court-martial convening authority in a case she referred to trial, and with the advice of her counsel, she made this decision because she did not believe the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim did not consent.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., placed a hold on Helms’ nomination because, according to the senator, Helms’ actions “sent a damaging message to survivors of sexual assault who are seeking justice in the military justice system.”
There is no doubt that the U.S. military has had a major sexual assault problem, and that the problem is, if anything, getting worse. The system for handling these crimes is so flawed that, to fix the problem, the issue needs to be removed from the chain of command.
But Helms was unfairly made into a scapegoat for a problem that is bigger than any one decision she has made. Even if Helms erred in downgrading the sentence, McCaskill’s hold did nothing to address the thousands of officers who discouraged service members who were assaulted from bringing charges to bear, or those who retaliated against victims who did press charges.
The great irony is that forcing Helms out of the service will make it more difficult for servicewomen in the service to get the respect they deserve and will not help to mitigate what President Obama has called a scourge in the U.S. military. Punishing a highly qualified female candidate for working within the bounds of a flawed system ignores the larger problem and scapegoats a potential advocate and role model for women in the armed forces.
The defense secretary should not accept Helms’ resignation, and the president should renominate her to Air Force Space Command and keep her in mind for the next JCS opening.
Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He was assistant defense secretary under President Reagan.