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Jury of generals finds Air Force general not guilty of sex assault in historic court-martial

Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, left, conducts an inspections with Air Force Col. Charles Schuck at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida in November 2022.
Christian Corley
U.S. Air Force
Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, left, conducts an inspections with Air Force Col. Charles Schuck at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida in November 2022.

Phillip Stewart is the first Air Force general to ever face a sexual assault jury court-martial. He was found not guilty of sexual assault, but guilty of other charges.

Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, the first Air Force general to face a sexual assault jury court-martial, has been found not guilty of sexual assault of a female officer.

Stewart, the former commander of the 19th Air Force at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, was found guilty Saturday on the other charges against him: dereliction of duty and conduct unbecoming of an officer.

Stewart showed no reaction to the findings. He opted for sentencing from the military judge instead of the jury panel, which consisted of three-star generals.

He was sentenced to a reprimand, a $60,000 forfeiture of pay over the course of six months, and restricted to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Air Force base for two months. He gets to keep his two star rank — for now.

"You've thrown a lot away," presiding judge, Col. Matthew Stoffel said. "I don't know if you could be more disappointed than your fellow general officers."

The charges stemmed from a relationship between Stewart and a subordinate female officer. The officer said she felt coerced to submit to him sexually because of his rank. While Stewart didn't deny the relationship took place, he said it was consensual.

The punishment could have been a lot worse for Stewart, who faced up to 60 years in prison.

Before the sentencing, Stewart provided a tearful unsworn statement to the court, saying he is a part of three generations of military service.

"I wanted to be a fighter pilot since I was seven," Stewart said. "Please do not dismiss me from service."

Stewart, who has served 31 years in the Air Force, said he wanted to "bounce back from this."

"I am so much more than this," Stewart said.

The subordinate officer said the events changed the trajectory of her life.

"I never wanted any of this," her statement read. "I came forward for my daughter and other airmen."

Stewart pleaded guilty to two of the lesser charges against him — dereliction of duty under Article 92 and extramarital sexual conduct under Article 134.

Eleven witnesses took the stand during the week-long trial, including the subordinate officer he was accused of sexually assaulting, her husband, and several other officers. Stewart did not testify.

In closing arguments, the prosecution's Col. Naomi Dennis called the trial "full-scale victim blaming."

“She’s not some opportunist,” Dennis said. “She’s a pilot.”

Stewart at the time was commander of the San Antonio-based 19th Air Force, a part of Air Education Training Command. Multiple witnesses testified most of his travel consisted of base visits and conferences.

Dennis presented text messages between Stewart and the woman during a Denver conference in March 2023, a month before the sexual encounter took place on Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma.

“He was just treating her like a woman,” Dennis said.

In the defense's closing statements, attorney Sherry Bunn said the texts between Stewart and the woman were out of concern for the woman's safety upon returning to her hotel.

“She’s a party girl,” Bunn said about the officer. “She makes decisions that benefit her.”

Bunn spent the majority of her time on the alleged assault. She called the woman an “avid drinker.”

“Look at how she acted on the stand,” Bunn said. “Look, members, she's all over the place.”

The defense noted when the woman was on the stand, tears went down her face only once and the rest were “melodramatics.”

“This is either a case of sexual assault or a consensual sexual encounter,” Bunn said. “You have to get this right.”

The woman said she felt she had no choice but to submit because of Stewart's power and rank, and especially due to him being her commander at the time.

During the conference in Denver, Stewart sent text messages to her inviting her to stay in his room. She said they made her feel uncomfortable.

“I’ve worked way too hard to get here,” she said. “I earned this job.”

The evidence also included some messages sent during the visit to Altus Air Force Base, where the sexual encounter happened.

Stewart invited the officer to his lodging for wine after she dropped him off following a command dinner and social event. The woman testified she tried unsuccessfully to warn Stewart of breaking the “bottle to throttle” rule of flying an aircraft within 12 hours of consuming alcohol, something he was found guilty of.

She accepted the invitation to his room. A pair of non-commissioned officers came by to socialize and testified they were expecting the woman to leave with them at the end of the night. When she didn’t follow, one of them sent her a message to check in.

The woman stayed alone with Stewart and shared stories, then he led her to the bedroom. The woman said she submitted and left his room around 3:40 a.m.

The next morning, Stewart made his flight after sleeping late, according to testimony from multiple witnesses.

Stewart had been married for seven years at the time. He has since divorced.

He was terminated from his role leading the 19th Air Force, but remains an officer at the Air Education and Training Command in San Antonio.

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