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Ex-Wright-Patt Maj. Gen. Cooley loses rank after abusive sexual misconduct conviction

Major General William Cooley stands in uniform at a podium with a logo that says Air Force Research Laboratory. Behind him are aircraft.
Michelle Gigante
U.S. Air Force
Maj. Gen. William Cooley, a two-star general and former commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, was convicted of abusive sexual contact in April 2022.

A former major general at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base who was convicted of abusive sexual contact will lose two stars and retire as a colonel, the secretary of the Air Force said Tuesday.

William T. Cooley was convicted during an April 2022 general court-martial for abusive sexual contact against his brother’s wife. His trial was historic — he was the first Air Force general to have his case adjudicated by a court-martial.

Josh Kastenberg, a former judge in the U.S. Air Force and law professor at the University of New Mexico, said in an interview with WYSO that Cooley's lowered rank further signals a change in how the U.S. military deals with misconduct from high-ranking officials moving forward.

“It sets a precedent,” Kastenberg said. “It says to the next secretary of the Air Force or the next secretary of Defense or the commanding generals and admirals: ‘Look, you can't let people get away with this. If you get a credible allegation, you must move forward.’”

Cooley is also expected to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement income because of his lowered rank. He can still draw from his pension, receive VA health benefits, and wear his uniform at special events.

Rachel VanLandingham, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and current law professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, said even though Cooley did not receive the maximum punishment — seven years of jail time and a complete dismissal from the military — for his conviction, his sentencing and lowered rank send a message.

"Any time that there's just accountability for misconduct, especially misconduct in the sexual assault and sexual harassment realm, in which the military has failed abysmally for years in grappling with, I think any kind of accountability does improve the culture," VanLandingham said.

Ryan Guilds, the attorney for the victim in Cooley's case, said his client is grateful the Air Force stripped Cooley of his major general rank. Still, he said they both believe more work needs to be done to deal with what he called “epidemic levels of sexual assault and harassment in the military.”

"This is an ongoing problem that we have to keep our eye on the prize — and that prize is ultimately to have a military free of sexual assault and harassment so the women and men who serve our country, who put their lives on their line, are respected and safe in that environment, Guilds said.

The Air Force said in a statement about Cooley’s lowered rank that it expects its leaders to embody its core values and that it holds leaders accountable if they fall short of those expectations.

Cooley is appealing his conviction. His attorney, Terri Zimmermann, sent the following statement to WYSO:

“General Cooley steadfastly maintains his innocence and we will vigorously contest the conviction and sentence during the course of the appeal pending at the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals. While the military justice system is more fair than many civilian criminal justice systems in our country, it is not perfect; our job is to conduct a thorough factual and legal review to ensure that the trial was fair. We intend to do just that.”

Chris Welter is a reporter and corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

Chris Welter is the Managing Editor at The Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Chris got his start in radio in 2017 when he completed a six-month training at the Center for Community Voices. Most recently, he worked as a substitute host and the Environment Reporter at WYSO.