Rose L. Thayer/Stars and Stripes

Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, right, and his defense attorney Capt. Jordan Grande exit a courthouse following Stewart’s arraignment on Jan. 18, 2024, at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas. (Rose L. Thayer/Stars and Stripes)

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas — Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart on Thursday afternoon pleaded not guilty to charges that he sexually assaulted a subordinate officer during a business trip and requested a jury of officers at a court-martial scheduled later this year.

Stewart entered the plea before military judge Col. Matthew Stoffel during a hearing at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph – the base where he once commanded the 19th Air Force, which trains all aircrews for the service.

A previous request filed by Stewart to retire in lieu of court-martial was not addressed, as his chain of command has not made any movement on it, Stoffel said. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall will have final approval on the retirement request, and attorneys at Air Force headquarters have determined the court-martial process will proceed while he makes the decision.

Instead, lawyers for the Air Force and for Stewart argued for roughly three hours over what evidence can be admitted at trial, including the records of discipline Stewart doled out to soldiers under his command for the same actions he is charged with. Other evidence debated included text messages, images and conversations Stewart had with the alleged victim, her husband and another general officer.

The two-star general is charged with two counts of sexual assault for actions that occurred April 14, 2023, at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, according to Air Education Training Command and court documents. He also faces charges of dereliction of duty, conduct unbecoming an officer and adultery.

Col. Brian Thompson, the military judge who presided over a preliminary hearing in October, recommended the sexual assault charge not be referred to a court-martial because of a lack of evidence from Air Force prosecutors, according to Jeffrey Addicott, an attorney for Stewart. Instead, Thompson recommended the sexual assault charge be dropped, and the other minor offenses be handled with administrative punishment.

Evidence presented at October’s preliminary hearing described a sexual encounter between Stewart and a subordinate officer that occurred during travel to Altus Air Force Base. Stewart, the alleged victim and two other military personnel were drinking alcohol on April 13-14. Once Stewart and the woman were alone, they had sex. Prosecutors argued the woman used “social cues” and tried to “politely discourage” Stewart because he was her senior officer and had power over her. Defense attorneys have argued the encounter was consensual.

Later April 14, Stewart participated in a training flight and sent a photo of himself in the aircraft to the woman. The flight occurred within 12 hours of drinking alcoholic beverages, which is not permitted, and what led to the charge of dereliction of duty.

Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson, convening authority and commander of Air Education Training Command, chose to move forward with formal changes against Stewart in December after reviewing Thompson’s report.

Stewart, a career fighter pilot who served in Afghanistan, is only the second general officer in the service’s history to face a court-martial, according to the Air Force. Maj. Gen. William Cooley was convicted of abusive sexual contact in a court-martial in 2022 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. He was sentenced to a reprimand and a forfeiture of nearly $55,000.

Stewart took command of the 19th Air Force in August 2022, according to his online biography. He was fired from the position last May as the Air Force investigated the allegations.

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Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.

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