The promotion of an astronaut considered a role model for women in the military has been scrapped in a career-ending move over her action in overruling a conviction in a sexual assault case.
Air Force officials would not confirm that President Obama had withdrawn the nomination of Lt. Gen. Susan Helms to be vice commander of the Air Force’ Space Command, but the officials said that “she has put in for retirement.”
The nomination of Helms, who flew on five space shuttle missions and jointly holds the record for the longest space walk, had been put on “permanent hold” by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who cited Helms’ action as commander of the 14th Air Force in overturning the sex assault conviction of a captain at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in February 2012.
In a statement to the Congressional Record in June, McCaskill said that “With her action, Lt. Gen. Helms sent a damaging message to survivors of sexual assault who are seeking justice in the military justice system."
McCaskill charged that Helms had sent the message to survivors that “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.”
The case in question involved Capt. Matthew Herrera, who was acquitted of assaulting a female technical sergeant but convicted of assaulting a female first lieutenant. There was no physical evidence in either case.
In a statement to the Air Force Times in March, Lt. Col. Kathleen Cook, a spokeswoman for the Space Command, said that Helms had reviewed the Herrera case for five weeks and “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.”
Helms’ defenders have also pointed out that she issued non-judicial punishment to Herrera under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that ultimately led to Herrera’s resignation from the Air Force.
The Helms nomination has become a flash point in the ongoing debate in Congress on whether sexual assault cases in the military should be taken out of the chain of command.
A vote could come as early as next week on legislation proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would strip commanders of their current authority to refer cases to courts-martial and overrule verdicts. Under Gillibrand’s proposal, the authority would go to independent lawyers from the Judge Advocate General’s corps.
Helms, 55, spent a total of 211 days in space, including five months aboard the International Space Station. While on the Space Stationin 2001, she and astronaut Jim Voss conducted the longest space walk – eight hours and 56 minutes.