Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart leaves the courthouse following his arraignment at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, on Jan. 18, 2024. 

Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart leaves the courthouse following his arraignment at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, on Jan. 18, 2024.  (Rose L. Thayer/Stars and Stripes )

A request from Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart to retire from the Air Force instead of facing a court-martial for sexually assaulting a subordinate officer has been denied by service Secretary Frank Kendall, according to the general’s legal team.

Stewart pleaded not guilty during a March hearing where the secretary’s decision, which was made a month earlier, was not discussed.

“The Air Force had a very difficult call to make here — take a man to trial for sexual assault after a seasoned Air Force judge at [a preliminary hearing] found all the evidence points to a consensual encounter or allow him to retire and take appropriate administrative action as a part of that process,” said Sherilyn Bunn, lead attorney for Stewart. “The Air Force leadership chose poorly, and we’ll demonstrate that in court.”

A jury trial will begin June 17 and take about 10 days at Joint Base San Antonio in Texas, according to the Air Force court docket.

Stewart 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.

The Air Force declined to comment on Kendall’s decision.

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 Stewart’s previous legal team. Instead, Thompson recommended the sexual assault charge be dropped and the other minor offenses be handled with administrative punishment.

Evidence presented during a preliminary hearing described a sexual encounter between Stewart and a subordinate officer that occurred during travel to Altus AFB. 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 on 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 last year at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. He was sentenced to a reprimand and a forfeiture of nearly $55,000.

At the time of the allegations, Stewart commanded the 19th Air Force, which is headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Air Force Base in Texas and responsible for the service’s pilot training.

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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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