After sex assaults inside military, women are victims again of legal system
Elle Helmer, with her husband, Jonathan Woods, was attacked in 2006 by a major who eluded punishment, and was promoted. She was dismissed from the Marines for unacceptable conduct.
By Karisa King, Houston Chronicle, May 20, 2013
Marine 2nd Lt. Elle Helmer woke up on a cold floor, lost and surrounded by darkness. Her body screamed with pain, her underwear had been removed and she tasted blood in her mouth. She could hear someone else in the room with her, breathing slowly.
Memories from the past few hours flashed through her mind as she crawled toward a doorway for light. On orders from her command on March 16, 2006, Helmer had joined her fellow officers for a St. Patrick’s Day pub run, a night of bar-hopping that ended across the street from the prestigious Marine Barracks Washington, where she was in charge of public affairs.
A major followed Helmer out of the last bar and summoned the 25-year-old to his office. As soon as they entered the office, he shut the door and kissed her. She pushed him away and made it halfway out the door when he caught her arm and yanked her back into the room so hard she tripped and went flying forward.
The last thing she remembered was her head slamming into his desk.
Part 1: Sexual-assault victims in military unjustly stigmatized, booted out
Emerging from the darkened office hours later, she noticed she was wearing the major’s green running shorts. She padded barefoot down a hallway to her office, where she found herself locked out. Two Marine guards found her outside the door, crying and shaking. She was certain she’d been raped.
“Call an ambulance,” she kept telling them, a plea she repeated to a captain and a colonel who arrived later.
Instead, the colonel warned that if she went to a hospital, she would be prohibited from making a sworn accusation of rape because she’d been drinking. She would be charged with public intoxication and conduct unbecoming an officer, he told her.
“Dust yourself off. You’re tough. You’re from Colorado,” he said. “Whatever happened, it’s because boys and girls and alcohol don’t mix.”
It was her introduction to a military criminal justice system that frequently grants impunity to offenders and punishes victims — the outcome of a fiercely guarded power of commanders who wield broad discretion over the handling of sex crimes in their ranks, according to a San Antonio Express-News investigation.
Many drugged first
From the accounts of sexual assault survivors in every branch of the military, a stark panorama emerges: Many victims were drugged or forced to drink and were raped, attacked as they slept, beaten unconscious and coerced into sex by their superiors. They were strongly discouraged from disclosing the crimes, or forced to report assaults to commanders who are closely connected to the accused.
Few suspects face criminal punishment. Of 3,374 reports of sexual assault last year involving 2,900 accused offenders, only 302 went to courts-martial and 238 were convicted, the Defense Department says.
Meanwhile, 286 offenders received nonjudicial or administrative punishment or discharges, allowing them to dodge a criminal mark on their record. In 70 cases, suspects slated for possible courts-martial were allowed to quit their jobs to avoid charges.
Prison sentences are rare. Only 177 perpetrators were sentenced to confinement. But the most jarring statistic: about half of all convicted sex offenders were not automatically expelled from the armed services.
The military had only recommended discharge for convicted offenders, but lawmakers cracked down this year and made expulsions mandatory.
Mishandling of case
For Helmer, the immediate response from her chain of command foretold the mishandling of her case.
On the night she reported that she’d been raped, the colonel at Marine Barracks Washington refused to grant her medical help until she argued that her head injury demanded immediate attention. He agreed to let her go, but only after arranging for her to see a doctor he knew at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
“Don’t say anything else and come straight back,” he told her.
She was put into a car with a captain who was supposed to drive her there. But she insisted he take her to a different hospital at Andrews Air Force Base, where no one connected to the colonel would be awaiting her arrival.
The attack in the major’s office was a betrayal by a superior she had trusted. But she eventually would regard the response from her chain of command and the military justice system as the biggest betrayal of all.
For all the public outrage sparked by sexual abuses at the Navy Tailhook convention in 1991, the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1996 and the Air Force Academy in 2003, the military criminal justice system has failed to stem an epidemic of sexual assaults, reaching an estimated 26,000 last year.
Basic training assaults
Against that backdrop last year came explosive details of young recruits who were sexually assaulted by their basic training instructors at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. So far, the Air Force has identified 33 instructors suspected of illicit conduct with 63 trainees.
An Air Force general’s decision to throw out a jury conviction of aggravated sexual assault ignited an uproar on Capitol Hill. Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was sentenced in November by a jury of officers to dismissal and a year in jail for sexually assaulting a party guest as she slept in a spare bedroom of his house.
But in February, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, Wilkerson’s former commander, concluded the evidence was insufficient. Against the recommendation of his staff attorney, Franklin overturned the conviction, vacated the jury’s sentence and reinstated Wilkerson to full duty.
The case underscores the unchecked legal power of commanders. Although they typically have no background or training in the law and may not be impartial arbiters, senior officers like Franklin who are endowed with “convening authority” determine which cases go to trial, and they have the ability to overturn verdicts and vacate sentences before cases enter the appeals process.
No reason at all
According to military law, commanders can dismiss verdicts for any reason, or no reason at all.
For Kimberly Hanks, who testified she woke up as Wilkerson was assaulting her, it was a lesson in the conflicts of interest posed by the military justice system. Hanks, a 49-year-old physician assistant from California, was a civilian contractor at Aviano when she told military authorities she’d been assaulted.
After the verdict, she discovered that Franklin and Wilkerson had once flown together in Iraq and shared friends.
Even so, Franklin’s decision to throw out the conviction shocked her.
“I think the message is loud and clear. I think it tells victims: Don’t bother (to report),” Hanks said.
Air Force officials said only five verdicts have been overturned in sexual assault cases in the past five years.
In response to the case, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in April proposed that commanders be stripped of their ability to toss out trial convictions. But Hagel and military brass oppose efforts to remove authority over sex crimes from commanders. At the Senate hearing in March, top military attorneys argued that sexual assault cases must remain within the chain of command, and nothing less than the military’s ability to wage battle is at stake.
Kelly Smith had seen enough in her first three years in the Army to know that soldiers who can’t tough out physical pain and personal difficulties — no matter how agonizing — are viewed not only as troublemakers but as a danger to the safety and cohesion of the unit.
That’s why she had no intention of telling anyone in February 2003 after she woke up in her bed at Fort Lewis, Wash., as a man attempted to rape her. But Smith, whose screams drove off her attacker, said she was forced to report it to military authorities because Army guards identified the man as he ran from her room.
Although her assailant admitted the attack, the case was dropped without explanation, she said. She was sent to a psychiatric unit for therapy. Days later, she was dismayed to discover Army counselors sent her assailant to join the same therapy group. She protested, but was told she was being unreasonable.
“I sat next to him in group therapy for a week,” Smith said. “At that point, I shut down.”
While the soldier who assaulted her was allowed to retire, Smith, who was a Korean code breaker, soon was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a pre-existing mental illness that prompted the Army to kick her out.
“I knew it would be the end of my career, and it was,” Smith said.
For Elle Helmer, even those assigned to help her seemed to have had other priorities.
She met the victim advocate assigned to her case at Malcolm Grow Hospital at Andrews Air Force Base. The advocate arrived with instructions to drive Helmer back to the Marine Barracks because the colonel and executive officer wanted a word with her.
Helmer was adamant that she wanted to make a statement at Naval Criminal Investigative Services, which had jurisdiction over crimes at the barracks. The advocate warned against it.
“These cases never go anywhere,” she told Helmer.
“And she’s the sexual response coordinator!” Helmer now says. “It felt like walking backward in time.”
Eventually the advocate reluctantly took Helmer to NCIS to make a statement.
Up all night
It was roughly 8 a.m. and Helmer had been up all night. She entered the NCIS offices, about two blocks from the barracks, and learned the colonel and executive officer were there waiting to speak with her. Again, Helmer refused. She tried not to make eye contact with them as she walked past the office where they waited.
She spent the morning in a conference room with five investigators who questioned her credibility. In what seemed like an endless cycle, she wrote out her statement, they questioned her, and then asked her to rewrite the statement. They decided to open an investigation but said they couldn’t accept her statement because she had been drinking the previous night.
It wasn’t until that afternoon that investigators arrived at the barracks to collect evidence from the major’s office. By that time, the major had been left alone at the scene for hours. Eyewitness statements show he was spotted making trips back and forth from the office carrying cleaning supplies and towels.
Helmer was taken back to the barracks to be interviewed by the colonel. When she returned to work the following Monday, he informed her that the Marine command had opened an investigation against her for public intoxication and conduct unbecoming an officer.
The NCIS investigation lasted three days. Investigators closed Helmer’s case on the grounds she could not recall any sexual assault.
“Her statements did not constitute an allegation of criminal activity,” the NCIS report stated.
Investigators held out the possibility of reopening the case, depending on the results of the rape kit.
Military records show the major told a commander at the barracks that he had no sexual contact with Helmer. He said she came into the office, laid down on the floor and vomited. He left the room to retrieve cleaning supplies, and when he came back, she was gone.
Eyewitness statements contradict his account. Two Marines who saw the major wearing green shorts and cleaning up vomit had peeked through the partly open office door and reported seeing a woman’s bare leg sprawled on the floor.
“This looks bad but I’ll take care of the lieutenant,” he told them.
It wasn’t until about two hours later that guards encountered Helmer locked out of her office and wearing the major’s green shorts. The captain who took Helmer to the hospital told investigators he went into the major’s office to retrieve Helmer’s ID card and found the major asleep on the couch, “wearing a Saint Patrick’s Day t-shirt and nothing else.”
No rape kit results
Helmer waited four months with no results from the rape kit.
Frustrated by inaction, she told her command that she was speaking to a reporter in Washington about her case. Although nothing was published, she was fired from her job and charged with conduct unbecoming an officer and fraternization.
She was dismissed from the Marines for unacceptable conduct in January 2007 with a “general under honorable conditions” discharge.
While she waited for her final dismissal papers, military authorities told her the rape kit had been lost.
Ultimately, the major faced no criminal or administrative punishment. He was allowed to remain in the Marines and later received a promotion.
“All they did was give him expertise in how the legal system works,” she said. “Now he knows he can get away with it.”
Staff Writer Sig Christenson contributed to this report.