By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The first woman from the U.S. military to go into space has decided to retire after her promotion to a top Space Command job was blocked in the Senate due to her decision to overturn a sexual assault conviction.
Former space shuttle astronaut Lieutenant General Susan Helms has told the Air Force she plans to retire after more than 30 years of service, an Air Force spokesman said on Friday. The Senate Armed Services Committee confirmed that her nomination as vice commander of Air Force Space Command had been withdrawn.
Helms' nomination for the post ran into trouble due to concerns about her decision last year to overturn a conviction of an Air Force captain for aggravated sexual assault.
The officer had been accused of assaulting one woman in his bedroom after a night of drinking in 2010 and another in the back seat of a car in 2009.
Helms reviewed the evidence and decided to throw out the jury verdict.
A memo she wrote for her personal files said she found the captain's testimony more credible than that of the victims, said the Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the document. Instead of sexual assault, Helms found him guilty of the lesser offense of committing an indecent act.
Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, put Helms' nomination on hold in April citing "deep concerns" about the general's decision to reverse the jury decision, which she said would erode confidence in the justice system.
In a statement on Friday, McCaskill praised Helms' career and her achievement in becoming the first female member of the U.S. forces in space, but said her decision to overturn the verdict, against the advice of her staff judge advocate, sent a "damaging message" to sexual assault victims.
"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.
JUMP IN SEXUAL ASSAULT CASES
The U.S. military has been struggling to deal with the problem of sexual assault and a surge in cases has embarrassed the military and increased congressional scrutiny of the problem. An Pentagon report in May found that estimated cases of unwanted sexual contact jumped 37 percent in 2012 to 26,000 versus 19,000 the previous year.
The head sexual assault prevention in the Air Force was arrested the weekend before the release of that report and accused of groping a woman while drunk in a parking lot not far from the Pentagon.
In a case similar to that involving Helms, a general in Europe overturned the sexual assault conviction of a fighter pilot in February, releasing him from prison and reinstating him to duty. The pilot was later made to retire.
Outrage over the problem of sexual assault in the military has prompted lawmakers to look for ways to address the issue and for the military to initiate a more vigorous response.
A panel established by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the behest of Congress held a hearing this week.
New figures released at the hearing showed a 46 percent year-on-year jump in reports of sexual assault in the first nine months of the 2013 fiscal year, to 3,553 compared with 2,434. The 2013 fiscal year began October 1, 2012.
Officials said the increase in reporting was a sign victims were beginning to have more confidence that the military was seriously attempting to address the problem.
The issue has divided lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, launched a push with several colleagues this week to win support for legislation that would remove sexual assault prosecutions from the military chain of command, a move opposed by the top military officers.
McCaskill has opposed that measure, as has Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Helms, 55, became a NASA astronaut in 1991 and flew aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in 1993 to become the first woman from the U.S. military in space. She currently commands two space related units at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by David Brunnstrom)