Air Force general responds to rape allegations

Sig Christenson
San Antonio Express-News

Attorneys for Air Force Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, who is accused of raping a female officer on an air base in the spring, insisted Tuesday that the encounter was consensual.

Military prosecutors countered that given Stewart’s rank and power, the woman had no choice but to submit to his advances.

Stewart led the San Antonio-based 19th Air Force, the service’s pilot training arm, until early May, when he was removed “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to lead.”

He is accused of sexually assaulting the woman at or near Altus AFB in southwestern Oklahoma on April 13 and again the following day.

On Tuesday, the charges were the subject of an Article 32 evidentiary hearing, the equivalent of a grand jury proceeding, at Randolph AFB.

If Stewart is ordered to stand trial for violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, he would be only the second general officer in Air Force history to face a court-martial.

‘She calls him boss’

In a small, crowded courtroom in Randolph’s ornate administration building, known as the Taj Mahal, prosecutors and attorneys squared off in a bid to convince Col. Brian Thompson, the hearing examiner, to either refer the rape charge to trial or dismiss it. No witnesses testified. Instead, lawyers made arguments and submitted documents.

Much of the back-and-forth centered on whether the woman made clear to Stewart that she did not want to have sex — and whether that should even matter.

Thompson will make a recommendation to Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson, head of the Air Education and Training Command, which includes the 19th Air Force. Robinson will decide whether Stewart must stand trial on the rape allegation, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years upon conviction.

During the hearing, prosecutors said the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) found evidence that Stewart forced his will on the woman, and that comments she made before, during and after their encounter suggested she was uncomfortable.

Defense lawyers said the woman joked with Stewart, and kissed and hugged him as well. But Lt. Col. Pete Havern, special trial counsel for the Air Force, told the hearing examiner that Stewart was a two-star general and the commander of a numbered Air Force, a large and powerful organization.

Havern said Stewart “should not have put himself in the position” of having sexual relations with a subordinate.

“I get your argument on the power differential,” Thompson said, and asked whether the woman at some point told Stewart she did not consent.

Havern replied that she tried to deflect Stewart’s advances by saying her husband would be angry if he found out.

Thompson wondered if the woman offered “more specific” resistance.

“No, sir,” Havern replied.

‘Holds no water’

Keith Scherer, a lawyer for Stewart, urged the hearing examiner to toss the rape allegation, arguing that the woman never said no to Stewart.

When OSI agents interviewed the woman, “she calls him boss,” Havern said. “I lost count in that interview. That speaks volumes.”

Scherer contended that a review of OSI’s interview with the woman shows that investigators engaged in “a lot of prompting and coaching.

“As they walk her through it, she’s telling the story of a consensual” encounter, he said. “It’s not sexual assault.”

Scherer maintained that the women felt guilty about having intimate relations with Stewart and told investigators, “I’m about to have a long road trip with (my husband), and I’ve never kept anything from him.” Soon after, according to Scherer, the woman said: “I told him I had never been unfaithful before, and I don’t know what to do with this.”

Another defense lawyer, Jeffrey Addicott, said afterward: “In my opinion, she consented to the act.” He said the prosecution’s case “holds no water.”

Addicott is a law professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law and director of its Warrior Defense Project, which offers free legal assistance to service members accused of on-duty misconduct.

Stewart, in dress uniform, sat stoically through the hearing. Afterward, he declined to comment on the advice of his lawyers. The women he allegedly assaulted was not in the courtroom.

The rape allegation is the most serious of the charges against Stewart. He also is charged with conduct unbecoming an officer, dereliction of duty and extramarital sexual conduct. In addition, the Air Force has accused him of taking “control of an aircraft after consuming alcohol within 12 hours prior to takeoff” on April 14.

The defense wants the rape charge dismissed and the others handled through administrative discipline. Prosecutors want Stewart to face a court-martial on all the charges.

Combat pilot, then commander

The 19th Air Force is responsible for all flight training operations within AETC, most of which are in the southern United States. The command leads cadet flight orientation at the U.S. Air Force Academy and trains entry-level and advanced fighter pilots, as well as drone pilots, combat systems officers, and air mobility and special operations combat crews. It also trains maintenance specialists and provides survival, evasion, resistance and escape instruction.

As head of the 19th, Stewart oversaw 32,000 employees and 1,530 aircraft assigned to 17 wings across the United States.

Stewart was a command pilot with more than 2,600 hours in the air, including more than 600 hours in combat. He flew nearly a dozen types of aircraft, including the F-15C, a twin-engine tactical fighter; the U-2, a high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance plane; the T-37, a twin-engine jet trainer; and the T-38C, a supersonic trainer.

Among other assignments, he served a stint as commander of the 362nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron at Balad Air Base in Iraq and was commanding general of the NATO Train Advise Assist Command-Air in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The only Air Force general officer ever to face a court-martial was Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley, who commanded the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio.

Cooley was convicted in April 2022 of one specification of abusive sexual conduct and reduced to the rank of colonel. He retired in June.


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