Historic Court-Martial Of Air Force General Could Be Sign Of Things To Come

air force court martial
Defense Visual Information Distribution Service: NARA

Saturday, Major General William T. Cooley was found guilty of abusive sexual contact for forcibly kissing his sister-in-law in 2018.

While it may sound minor or even innocuous, it was an historic event: the first-ever conviction of an Air Force general in a court-martial. And that’s not the only historic thing about it.

This week will start the sentencing process where Major General Cooley could face anything from dismissal to seven years in prison. By way of a little background, Cooley was the commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory and was relieved of his duties early in 2020, pending the investigation. His sister-in-law said in a statement:

“While this process has been incredibly invasive, not only for me, but also my immediate family and closest friends, I know there are countless other people who have been silenced forever, like Vanessa.”

The reference is to Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen who was murdered in April of 2020 at Fort Hood after disappearing. Shortly before her disappearance, Vanessa had contacted her mother to tell her a supervisor had sexually harassed her. Later it became clear that her command had been aware but did nothing, culminating in her murder and dismemberment.


Vanessa’s murder sparked a grassroots social media movement initiated by her family. Service members shared their stories of sexual harassment and assault on social media using the handle #IamVanessaGuillen, which forced a conversation on how the military handles sexual harassment and assault.

The Department of Defense estimated that 135,000 active-duty members had been sexually assaulted in the last 11 years, and 509,000 have experienced sexual harassment. Clearly, something was very, very wrong in our nation’s last trusted institution.

Former Judge Advocate Rachel VanLandingham said of this weekend’s historic court-martial:

“This case strongly demonstrates that rank in the Air Force is no longer a shield for criminality and that there will no longer be impunity for General Officer misconduct – and not just sexual assault but any type of misconduct.”

So besides the court-martial itself, the other monumental change came with the current National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in December of 2021 – the annual defense appropriations and policy bill – which has sparked hope for military sexual assault survivors.

The monumental change in the NDAA ensures cases of sexual assault, murder, kidnapping, and other serious crimes are taken out of the victim and alleged perpetrator’s chain of command. In other words, perpetrators will no longer be in charge of investigating and prosecuting themselves.

It also created a new, independent Special Trial Counsels of military prosecutors taking effect December 27, 2023. These prosecutors will have the power to decide whether to prosecute cases, taking them out of the commander’s hands.

Further – the NDAA also made a change to allow sexual harassment to be considered a stand-alone offense in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It may surprise those without prior military background to know that up until this recent NDAA, sexual harassment was not a crime in the military.

Still More Work To Do

Not everyone is thrilled with the NDAA, and most agree that more needs to be done. Senator Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., voted against the NDAA because it didn’t go far enough in the direction of prosecutorial independence.

Don Christensen, President of Protect our Defenders, a group that advocates for military sexual assault survivors, explained:

“Because commanders retain convening authority, they will still wield influence over the process by selecting court members, approving or denying immunity requests, and the hiring of expert witnesses and consultants.”

“These commanders can also stop any prosecution simply by allowing the accused to separate from the service rather than face a court-martial.”

Christensen goes on to say that the NDAA is “the most transformative military justice reform in our nation’s history.”

Vanessa Guillen’s family has pushed relentlessly for military justice reforms since her death. As a result, four provisions in the NDAA are taken directly from the I am Vanessa Guillen Act.

  • When military personnel are missing or absent without leave, their commanders must immediately share information with local and federal agencies
  • Sexual harassment complaints must be handled through independent investigations
  • The Secretary of Defense must assess on-base living quarters and take measures “to prevent crime, including sexual assault” such as ensuring sleeping areas have locking doors and windows
  • The Department of Defense will track “allegations of retaliation by victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment”

While this recent historic case was tried in a military court versus a civilian court, it provides hope that the military has received the message loud and clear from the #IamVanessaGuillen movement.

There is still much work that needs to be done, but it is clear that Vanessa’s life and death have positively impacted the lives of victims and survivors.

USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts... More about Kathleen J. Anderson

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