Lt. Gen. Susan Helms (Air Force)
For most of her career, Lt. Gen. Susan Helms has defied gravity, rising from astronaut to one of only three female lieutenant generals in the Air Force. But her decision to overturn a sex assault conviction may bring an end to her heretofore meteoric trajectory.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., recently renewed her efforts to block Helms’ nomination as vice commander of Space Command. In a statement submitted for the congressional record, McCaskill said Helms “supplanted her opinion for that of a jury” that convicted a captain of sexual assault.
“At a time when the military is facing a crisis of sexual assault, making a decision that sends a message which dissuades reporting of sexual assaults, supplants the finding of a jury, contradicts the advice of counsel and further victimizes a survivor of sexual assault is unacceptable,” McCaskill said in the statement.
Helms declined to comment for this story through an Air Force spokesman.
Ironically, her career may be over just as advocates are calling for more women to serve in senior leadership positions to stem sexual assault in the military.
If Congress wants to prevent sexual assault in the military, ending Helms’ career is not the way to do it, said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap, former deputy judge advocate general
“What message does it send when a strong, accomplished woman exercises her leadership and is punished for it?” Dunlap said in an email. “We need more women in the senior ranks, not fewer.”
In the case in question, the captain was acquitted on the charge of assaulting a female technical sergeant but convicted of assaulting a female first lieutenant. There was no physical evidence in either case.
Helms “concluded that she could not be satisfied that 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.
Instead, Helms decided to punish the captain administratively. He was kicked out of the service in December.
Until McCaskill’s hold on her nomination is lifted, Helms cannot be confirmed by the Senate,said Lawrence Korb, a defense official in the Reagan administration, who wrote a July 2011 article for Armed Forces Journal naming Helms as a top female contender to become a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“To me, I understand where Sen. McCaskill is coming from, but you ought to allow her the opportunity to testify, and if you don’t like her, vote against her,” Korb said. “I think she ought to let her testify and explain why she made the decision that she did.”
However, even if Helms is confirmed, the negative publicity surrounding her decision to overturn the sexual assault conviction may limit her opportunities, he said.
“Is she going to be the woman you want to put on the Joint Chiefs of Staff to send the message that ‘We’re not going to put up with this nonsense anymore’?” Korb said.
Helms’ nomination would not have come with a fourth star, but as the most senior of the Air Force’s female lieutenant generals, she seemed the most likely candidate to become the Air Force’s second female four-star.
Helms was part of the first class of women admitted to the Air Force Academy and was part of the “’80s Ladies,” the first group to graduate in 1980. The Air Force’s only female four-star general, Janet Wolfenbarger, was also part of the class.
Sandra Magnus, a fellow astronaut and executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, met Helms in Russia in 1996. Magnus was the prime communicator in mission control when Helms was a resident on the International Space Station.
“She was sort of like a double-door breaker,” she said of Helms’ astronaut and military career.
Becoming an astronaut requires “focus, passion, determination and a little bit of luck,” Magnus said. “One thing you can say about everybody who works in the space program and the space industry is they are very passionate people who believe in what they’re doing and dedicate a lot of time to it. You really need the ability to learn.”
Helms fit the bill, she said. “She is very friendly and outgoing. She pays attention to detail and makes sure she gets the job done. The Air Force, of course, got her back after her career at NASA, and I think they probably benefited from her experience and will continue to do so.
“I know her as a person,” Magnus said, “and I have faith in her judgment.”