President Biden: Please honor this Army hero
In today’s American political scene, a haunting question keeps coming to mind: “Is this really who we are?”
It arose last week after an AR15-toting assailant invaded the FBI’s Cincinnati office. It arose this week after Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) suffered election defeat because she stood for country over party.
President Joe Biden now has a chance to offer a different answer to a different American who, like Cheney, is a profile in courage: Army Col. Yevgeny “Eugene” Vindman, who — along with his twin brother Alex — blew an important whistle on former president Donald Trump’s infamous July 25, 2019, phone call to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. His Army fate since has not been kind.
How a government treats whistleblowers like Vindman reveals a lot about who we are. Are we a country that protects those who follow the rule of law or a country where those who dare to challenge strongmen get battered?
Biden can offer a redemptive answer, one that honors Americans — like Eugene Vindman — who speak truth to corrupt power. Biden can grant Vindman the honor of retiring as a full colonel, through a waiver for “extraordinary circumstances,” though he has not served the full three years required to retire at rank.
The honor is purely that. Retiring as a full colonel has no effect on his Army pension for a 25-year career. It’s an honor easily bestowed in recognition of his extraordinary act of courage and service to country.
Recall that his twin, Alex, was on Trump’s (not) “perfect” call to Zelensky. That call got Trump impeached (the first time) for abusing presidential power by trying to strong-arm a foreign leader to serve Trump’s personal wishes for re-election.
Immediately after the call, Alex went to his twin, Eugene, who was a national security expert and ethics counsel on the NSC. Following military protocol, they then spoke to their NSC superiors and reported their concerns about Trump’s apparent violation of national security and the law.
For adhering to their oaths to support and defend the constitution, the Vindmans were frog-marched out of the White House on Feb. 7, 2020, two days after Senate Republicans acquitted Trump.
Both men returned to the Army where their promotions to colonel were delayed. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Alex retired in 2020.
Meanwhile, Eugene received a devastating performance evaluation from his NSC superiors, the kind that stops careers in their tracks. Curiously, that review was the polar opposite of the previous year’s evaluation where the same reviewer found that Eugene Vindman was “the best [lt. colonel] with whom I have ever served.”
He filed an August 2020 whistleblower complaint over the negative review. In March 2021, the Army announced that his delayed promotion to colonel would occur that spring. In May 2022, an Inspector General’s investigation found that Trump’s NSC had improperly retaliated against him.
But quietly, the Army posted him to a national security expert’s Siberia — as a legal adviser at the Aberdeen Proving Ground where his national security training, skills and experience were of no use to the nation.
The Army was sending a message: If you want to continue rising, keep your head down and your mouth shut. The Army IG Report described Vindman’s fate: “The retaliatory actions taken [against Vindman] could prove to be detrimental to [him] for the remainder of his career.”
In the world of military officers, if you are not moving up, you’re getting passed up.
Eugene Vindman reluctantly faced the music and announced his retirement effective Aug. 31, 2022. All he had wanted was to contribute to the country by serving in a position that made use of his experience and expertise.
Indeed, Vindman would not have requested retirement if he could have served in such a position. For example, he could have been billeted to the State Department to help investigate Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
In an Aug. 16 letter to Vindman, the Army Secretary denied his request to the president via the chain of command for a waiver that would allow him the honor of retiring as a full colonel. In fact, it is not the Army but only the president who can issue the waiver for an officer in Vindman’s position.
Vindman’s heroism and mistreatment are “extraordinary circumstances.”
The president should send all military officers, indeed all government officials, his own message: Those who do the right thing for the country at personal risk shall be honored.
That is who we are.
Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.