Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, the Air Force’s former pilot training boss, will face court-martial for an alleged sexual assault and multiple other crimes under military law, the service confirmed Tuesday.
Stewart is accused of touching an unnamed woman’s genitalia without her consent during a work trip to Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, in April. The two-star general also faces allegations that he tried to fly a plane after drinking during the Altus visit, and of pursuing at least one unprofessional, extramarital relationship in the spring.
Stewart plans to plead not guilty to all charges, said Keith Scherer, a defense lawyer with the firm Gagne, Scherer & Associates, who is representing the airman in the case.
Air Education and Training Command boss Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson green-lit the military trial after reviewing evidence from a preliminary hearing that began Oct. 24 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, Air Force spokesperson Capt. Scarlett Trujillo said in an email.
The decision marks a rare prosecution of a high-level officer in the U.S. armed forces, and the Air Force’s second court-martial of a general officer in the past three years.
Stewart faces two counts of sexual assault under Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice; two counts of dereliction of duty under Article 92; one count of conduct unbecoming of an officer under Article 133; and one count of extramarital sexual conduct under Article 134. The Air Force has not announced when court proceedings will begin.
Scherer told Air Force Times that Stewart’s affair with another Air Force officer was consensual.
The defense lawyer also said he believes Robinson is trying to protect the female officer and that the service lacks enough evidence to convict the two-star of sexual assault. He claimed Col. Brian Thompson, the military judge who presided over the preliminary Article 32 hearing, recommended Robinson not pursue a court-martial in favor of administrative discipline.
“This is a dereliction of the leadership’s responsibility to ensure the military justice process is fair, and isn’t weaponized as an excuse for defamation and secret agendas,” Scherer said Monday.
The Air Force declined to respond to the allegations or provide a copy of the preliminary hearing report, which includes the judge’s recommendations.
Scherer declined to comment on the other accusations, including that the two-star may have flown while drunk.
The charges, levied in September, center on a string of purported malfeasance earlier this year, according to a partially redacted charge sheet obtained by Air Force Times.
Stewart allegedly penetrated a woman’s vulva with his mouth and penis without her consent on multiple occasions while visiting Altus in mid-April, the charge sheet said.
During the same trip, Stewart allegedly violated Air Force rules by piloting an unnamed aircraft less than 12 hours after consuming alcohol. Altus is a training hub for pilots, refueling boom operators, maintainers and other aircrew across the mobility enterprise.
Stewart is also accused of inviting someone to spend the night alone with him in his private hotel room while on official travel to Colorado in March, having sex with someone other than his spouse in Oklahoma in April and pursuing an unprofessional relationship from March 6 to May 9 — the same day he was fired from his job as 19th Air Force commander amid an investigation into his misconduct.
He was reassigned to a lower-level staff role at Air Education and Training Command headquarters in San Antonio.
Stewart could incur a minimum sentence of dismissal or dishonorable discharge, or up to 66 years in confinement and forfeiture of pay.
“Just as in civilian proceedings, the accused is presumed innocent unless proven otherwise by competent legal authority,” Trujillo said.
The two-star plans to seek a jury trial, rather than opting to be tried by the military judge alone, Scherer said.
That would prompt the Air Force to assemble a panel of Stewart’s peers — three- and four-star generals, as well as two-star officers who have held the rank longer than the accused.
Selecting a jury of such high-level airmen can prove tricky because only 200 or so generals, lieutenant generals and major generals serve in the Air Force. They must be willing to spend several days away from busy jobs as the service’s most senior decision makers and deemed fair arbiters of a fellow general officer’s case.
“Seems like a phenomenal waste of time, when you’ve got a judge saying, ‘Don’t even take this case to court martial,’ and the sexual assault charge is essentially dead on arrival,” Scherer said.
General officers are rarely prosecuted through the military legal system. Stewart is the third general officer in the Air Force’s 76-year history — and the second in the past three years — to face court-martial. It’s also the second time an Air Force general will be tried in military court for a sex crime.
Maj. Gen. Donald Kaufman was arraigned as part of a court-martial in 1992, but his case was dismissed and never went to a jury. Kaufman, who faced allegations of taking enemy AK-47 assault rifles as trophies from the Gulf War, was demoted to the rank of colonel and retired.
Thirty years passed before the second Air Force general officer to face court-martial, Maj. Gen. Bill Cooley, was convicted of abusive sexual contact in 2022. He retired as a colonel in June and is appealing his case.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.