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Air Force general pleads guilty to two lesser charges; sex assault court-martial continues

Maj. General Phillip Stewart
Courtesy photo
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U.S. Air Force
Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart

FORT SAM HOUSTON — Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart pleaded guilty to two of the lesser charges against him before Monday's opening statements at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston in his court-martial for the alleged sexual assault of a subordinate officer.

The charges were dereliction of duty under Article 92 and extramarital sexual conduct under Article 134.

The presiding military judge, Col. Matthew Stoffel, questioned Stewart about the relationship between him and the alleged victim.

Stewart pleaded not guilty to two counts of sexual assault under Article 120 and one count of conduct unbecoming of an officer under Article 133.

The general also remains accused of flying an aircraft within 12 hours after drinking alcohol at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma — a violation of Air Force training regulations.

“I am guilty of pursuing an inappropriate relationship,” Stewart said to the judge. “I was aware not to have an unprofessional relationship.”

He spoke about the night he spent in Oklahoma with the alleged victim, his executive officer at the time. Although there are sexual assault charges against him, he holds the stance that the relationship was consensual.

Stewart maintained that he was aware that he should not have engaged in an unprofessional relationship with a subordinate officer. Stoffel asked three times if Stewart understood his duties to maintain a professional relationship. Stewart responded "yes" each time.

“I knew what we were doing was wrong,” he said. “I knew there was regulation against it…I did it anyway.”

Article 134, regarding extramarital sexual conduct, was underscored by Stewart as an offense that negatively affects the Air Force image.

“I knew I was married to someone else, and I knew she was married to someone else,” Stewart said. “She kissed me, and that pursued further into consensual sex.”

Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart is being charged with alleged sexual assault of a female subordinate in his command. He is only the second general officer to be court-martialed in Air Force history. He pleaded not guilty in March.

The alleged assault took place at the Altus Air Force Base lodging in Oklahoma, and Stewart said he made the decision freely. Stewart had been married for seven years at the time; he has since divorced.

Stewart said his command team was negatively affected upon their return from Altus. He said his team knew something was off, and once it was revealed what happened he was relieved of command.

“It drove a wedge,” he said. “It disrupted the inner harmony of the team.”

Notably, this is the first time a general’s trial is being heard by a jury and only the second time an Air Force general faces a court-martial.

The previous court-martial of an Air Force two-star general charged for sexual assault was back in 2022. Former Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley avoided jail time, was stripped of his rank and retired as a colonel. He opted for a military judge and decided against a jury trial.

Previously, two general officers who were demoted and retired did not face a court-martial.

Patricia Olivares, director of government relations at Service Women’s Action Network, said she feels the generals that make up the eight-member jury will want to protect their own.

“He's a two-star,” Olivares said about Stewart. “He's not going to get in trouble. “They're going to take care of them. He's gonna retire, he's gonna get his full benefits.”

Olivares worked closely with the Vanessa Guillen family during their battle with passing the Vanessa Guillen Act, and said she wants service women everywhere to feel trust in the justice system.

Late Saturday, the last officer was seated on the eight-member panel required for the court-martial of a general. Two of the panelists are women.

The trial counsel presented the maximum penalties for the guilty plea — 18 months of confinement, dismissal of service, and total forfeiture of pay and, possibly, fines.

Stewart's court-martial continued Monday on the remaining charges.

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Gabriella Alcorta-Solorio is a reporter for Texas Public Radio. She recently graduated from Texas State University with a major in journalism, minoring in women’s studies. She has previously worked as a photojournalist with The Ranger and has reported on Alzheimer’s and dementia using public health data. She plans to focus her career in journalism on women’s rights and human rights.