Maj. Gen. William Cooley speaks during a ceremony in Dayton, Ohio, in February 2019. Cooley, the former head of the Air Force Research Laboratory, will be the first Air Force general officer to face court-martial on a sexual assault charge, officials said.

Maj. Gen. William Cooley speaks during a ceremony in Dayton, Ohio, in February 2019. Cooley, the former head of the Air Force Research Laboratory, will be the first Air Force general officer to face court-martial on a sexual assault charge, officials said. ( R.J. Oriez/U.S. Air Force)

Former Air Force Research Laboratory commander Maj. Gen. William Cooley will face a court-martial on sexual assault charges, making him the first known general officer in nearly 30 years to be prosecuted for a crime by the service.

Cooley is accused of making unwanted sexual advances by kissing and touching a civilian woman during an off-duty incident in Albuquerque, N.M., in August 2018. The woman is not a service member or Defense Department employee.

Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr., head of the Air Force Materiel Command, referred one charge against Cooley under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including three specifications of sexual assault under Article 120, the command said in a statement Wednesday.

“I can assure you this was not a decision made lightly, but I believe it was the right decision,” Bunch said in the AFMC statement. Both the research laboratory and the materiel command are headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

The court-martial of an Air Force general is unprecedented in the service’s 74-year history, Don Christensen, president of the organization Protect Our Defenders — which advocates for victims of sexual assault in the military — told the Dayton Daily News.

“I think the external pressure that has been put on the military to take sexual assault more seriously is one of the reasons, probably the sole reason, this case has gone to trial,” he said. “They knew they couldn’t just let another general walk.”

Cooley’s court-martial would be a first for the Air Force if it is adjudicated at trial. In another case, U.S. Air Forces in Europe conducted a preliminary hearing and convened the court-martial proceedings of Maj. Gen. Donald L. Kaufman in 1992.

Kaufman faced charges related to taking war trophies from the Persian Gulf War and taking unnecessary temporary duty trips to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia. But the convening authority terminated the proceedings after determining the punishments authorized by court-martial were too severe.

Kaufman was demoted to colonel through nonjudicial punishment and allowed to retire, Stars and Stripes reported in 1993.

Bunch said he informed Cooley of his decision after a “comprehensive review of all the evidence” from an Air Force Office of Special Investigations inquiry completed last year and a preliminary hearing held in February.

The Feb. 8 hearing, similar to a civilian grand jury, was presided over by a senior military judge who weighed the charges and testimony to determine if there was probable cause for the case against Cooley.

The two-star general was fired from command of the research lab in January 2020 following the accusations of misconduct. In October, Bunch appointed Lt. Gen. Gene Kirkland to independently review the evidence. Kirkland recommended the evidentiary hearing on the charge with and specifications.

Cooley’s accuser has said that he kissed her without her consent “with an intent to gratify his sexual desire,” but the general’s attorney says the kiss was consensual and there was no unwanted touching. He told the Dayton Daily News in November that the evidence against his client was too weak for a trial.

It’s not easy for victims of sexual assault to come forward, Ryan Guilds, an attorney for Cooley’s accuser said in a statement last year. But “she is strong, and in the end the truth will confirm her bravery and the righteousness of her actions.”

Cooley was commissioned in 1988 through the ROTC program. His assignments included a stint in Germany from 2000 to 2002 and a 2005 deployment to Afghanistan. As head of the Air Force Research Laboratory, he oversaw a 6,000-person workforce and a multibillion-dollar budget focused on science, technology, research and development.

Since his dismissal from command, Cooley had been serving as a special assistant to Bunch.

The Air Force trial judiciary will identify a senior military judge and set a time and place for the court-martial, the base said. The jurors or court members must be senior to Cooley, either by rank or date of rank.

If convicted, Cooley could face penalties including confinement and dismissal, which is the equivalent of a dishonorable discharge for officers. Twitter: @chadgarland

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Chad is a Marine Corps veteran who covers the U.S. military in the Middle East, Afghanistan and sometimes elsewhere for Stars and Stripes. An Illinois native who’s reported for news outlets in Washington, D.C., Arizona, Oregon and California, he’s an alumnus of the Defense Language Institute, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Arizona State University.

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