|Lt Gen Susan J. Helms, USAF (Ret)
Lt Gen Susan J. Helms, USAF (Ret) recently gave an interview on being named to the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame. Here's what she had to say about her role as a commander in the administration of military justice:
As a senior officer, I often had responsibilities to lead sexual assault training for the troops. Of course, through the process of executing the training, you learn a lot about the impact on people who have suffered the crime. It was constantly devastating to hear about the stories of victims and what they were put through.
The #MeToo revolution of today has exposed very publicly how the powerful have preyed on the vulnerable, but the phenomenon of sexual predation was something I learned about years ago though my military experience. It became a crusade to figure out how to identify predators in the ranks and root them out. Prevention of the crime through bystander intervention also had tremendous focus.
Later, as a senior Commander, I was very tough on sexual assault within the military court system. I usually elevated every legitimate complaint to a court-martial. It was my strong belief that we needed the full testimony of both the accuser and the accused under oath to understand what happened, and short of a court martial, you often don't get all of the information available. Even though it was always very difficult for all involved, because courts martial are public affairs within the military culture, these types of cases had such a destructive power on people's lives that they were worth the full scrutiny of the law.
In the military justice system, Commanders, not juries, disposition the outcomes of a military trial. A Commander cannot overturn a finding of 'not guilty' but a Commander can reduce the punishment of a 'guilty’ finding or award clemency. In one famous sexual assault case that I had referred to trial, the accused was found guilty in spite of a lack of required judicial evidence. I deliberated for five long weeks, reading every word of the trial record, and ultimately decided not to concur with the guilty finding and levied a lesser charge of ‘Indecent Conduct’ on the accused that carried a lower standard of evidence. It was a searing reminder that our military justice system has to be fair to both the victims and the accused.