This time the general is a former astronaut who has served as a role model for other female officers as she climbed into the upper ranks of the Air Force.
Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms, who as a crew member of the space shuttle Endeavour became the first U.S. military woman to travel in space in 1993, was poised to make another ascent in her career in March when the White House nominated her to become vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command.
But her nomination has been blocked by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, who wants to examine Helms’s previously unpublicized decision to overturn the conviction, on charges of aggravated sexual assault, of a captain at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Helms’s action mirrors another case that has drawn angry attention from Congress and prompted legislators to propose landmark changes in military law. In that instance, victims’ advocates called for the firing of Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force in Europe, after he tossed out the sexual-assault conviction of a star fighter pilot in February.
In both cases, the generals ignored the recommendations of their legal advisers and overruled a jury’s findings — without publicly revealing why. Neither general was a judge and neither observed the trials, but they intervened to grant clemency before the convictions could be heard by an appeals court.
Helms explained in an internal memo that surfaced only recently that she reversed the jury after reviewing the evidence and finding the captain’s testimony more credible.
Drew Pusateri, a spokesman for McCaskill, said the senator is blocking Helms’s nomination until she receives more information about the general’s decision.
“As the senator works to change the military justice system to better protect survivors of sexual assault and hold perpetrators accountable, she wants to ensure that cases in which commanders overturned jury verdicts . . . are given the appropriate scrutiny,” Pusateri said.
A string of abuse scandals
The Air Force has been rattled by a string of sexual-abuse scandals over the past year, including the rape and assault of dozens of recruits by basic-training instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
The latest embarrassment struck Sunday, when Arlington County police arrested the chief of the Air Force’s sexual-assault prevention branch and charged him with sexual battery. Police said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski was drunk when he approached a woman in a Crystal City parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks. Maj. Mary Danner-Jones, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said Krusinski was “removed from his position immediately” when the Air Force learned of his arrest.