Does blocking this Air Force colonel’s promotion set a precedent?

by Vern Evans

In 2017, Kris Bauman, a retired Air Force colonel and freshly appointed member of former President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, had a job to fill. He needed someone to work on Jordanian affairs for the NSC, and he immediately thought of Ben Jonsson, an Air Force officer he met nearly 20 years earlier.

Jonsson was fluent in Arabic. He had graduated from the University of Jordan with a master’s degree in conflict resolution. He was a “right-hand person” during the Arab Spring, Bauman said, having served as the Egypt and Jordan adviser for senior Pentagon leaders when the series of pro-democracy uprisings began.

“He really knew the Middle East perspective on things instead of just the American perspective,” Bauman said.

Bauman and Jonsson met when Jonsson became a C-17A pilot and took his first post after graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy. They kept in touch when Jonsson went to Jordan, and then when he became commander of the 384th Refueling Squadron at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas. After overseeing Jonsson with the NSC, Bauman watched as he went on to become a vice wing commander in Qatar, and later the base commander of the 6th Air Refueling Wing at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

Bauman described Jonsson as an outstanding and understanding leader. Like other Air Force officers, he was surprised when Jonsson’s trajectory suddenly halted.

The Defense Department nominated Jonsson in January 2023 to brigadier general, a one-star position that less than one half of 1% of officers reach. He was assigned to Air Mobility Command as the chief of staff, a one-star billet to work directly for Gen. Mike Minihan and provide staff support to 107,000 airmen.

But the promotions of Jonsson and hundreds of others were put on hold throughout 2023 because of Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who paused the nominations in protest of the Pentagon’s abortion access policies.

Tuberville lifted his hold Dec. 6, 2023, and in subsequent months the promotions cleared the Senate — all of them but Jonsson’s.

As soon as Tuberville’s hold was lifted, Republican Sen. Eric Schmitt from Missouri stepped in, blocking Jonsson’s promotion because of a commentary he wrote for Air Force Times in 2020, in which he urged his fellow white colonels to acknowledge racial disparities in the service.

“Dear white colonel, you and I set the culture, drive the calendar, and create the policies at most of our installations around the Air Force,” Jonsson wrote. “If we do not take the time to learn, to show humility, to address our blind spots around race, and to agree that we are not as objective as we think and our system is not as fair as we think, then our Air Force will not rise above George Floyd’s murder.”

Schmitt didn’t elaborate on his reasons for the hold, and the senator’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. Jonsson also declined to speak to Military Times.

The nomination was extended into the new congressional session at the start of 2024 and will expire if the Senate doesn’t approve his promotion by May 1. Then, Jonsson could either end his 25-year military career or serve as a colonel until he reaches mandatory retirement.

“If he has to get out, it would definitely be a loss for us,” Bauman said. “It’s a rare kind of leader who really understands the international system, how it works and how the United States is perceived around the world, all of which absolutely matters in making foreign policy and providing the best military advice for senior leaders. It’s a perspective that they’re just not going to have.”

Now, current and former Air Force leaders are speaking out in support of Jonsson and warning about potential consequences the hold could have on military retention and how Congress handles future promotions.

Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor and author of a book on civil-military relations, argued Schmitt’s hold strays from the norm. While holds have been placed historically to give time for a senator to mount evidence against a particular candidate, that’s not the case here — and so far Schmitt is not relenting, Feaver said.

“This will be seen by many, many military officers as excessive. It will be seen by them as politicizing, and as dragging them into a partisan political war,” Feaver said. “It’s going to make Democratic partisans think the same, and it’s going to whet their appetite to exact revenge.”

Commentary matched ‘tone and tenor’ of senior leaders

At the time when Jonsson penned the opinion piece, he was deployed in Qatar, leading airmen as the vice wing commander for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing at Al Udeid Air Base. It was the summer of 2020, and racial tensions were crescendoing in the United States after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.

In response to Floyd’s death, retired Gen. David L. Goldfein, then the Air Force chief of staff, sent a message across the force, in which he described the death as a national tragedy and acknowledged the presence of “racial prejudice, systemic discrimination and unconscious bias” across the Air Force, which he claimed leaders would confront head on.

An Air Force general officer and former supervisor of Jonsson’s, who requested anonymity due to potential reprisal, said Jonsson’s piece was “very much in the same tone and tenor” as what Goldfein and other senior leaders were saying publicly.

“It was a perspective from a colonel speaking to other colonels at the time, in that context, which is very different than today’s,” the general officer said. “It seemed like he was doing exactly what our senior leaders were asking us to do: to engage and to share our thoughts and perspectives and backgrounds.”

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright, then the 18th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, also spoke out about racial disparities in the service. Wright said Jonsson’s commentary was complementary to his own and delivered at a time when airmen were looking to their leaders for guidance, he told Military Times.

In his piece, Jonsson relayed specific instances in which white colonels were unwilling to discuss problems of racism, discrimination and inequality. He urged his peers to “take the time to learn, to show humility, to address our blind spots around race.”

“He said things that I think everybody knows are true, but not many people are willing to speak out on,” Wright said. “I thought it was courageous of him to point out not just some of the challenges but some of the solutions and some of the things that male, white colonels, as he addressed, could be thinking about.”

Jonsson shared a draft of the piece with his chain of command and received approval before submitting it to Air Force Times, an Air Force spokesperson said. More than three years after it published, the article ignited controversy when the Heritage Foundation wrote a post in August 2023 claiming the commentary should disqualify Jonsson from serving as a general officer. The conservative think tank argued Jonsson espoused “woke” views that run counter to “traditional American values.”

“Jonsson used his Air Force Times commentary not to address the military readiness or warfighting capabilities but instead as an opportunity to lecture ‘white people’ about racism,” the Heritage Foundation’s post reads. The post also quotes William Thibeau, who works for the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank.

“Col. Jonsson exhibited a toxic embrace of DEI policies that have no place in the U.S. military,” Thibeau said. “His public characterization of ‘white colonels’’ blindness is inherently divisive and sends shockwaves through his command.”

Feaver said he thinks Schmitt seized on the opinion piece to further a recent conservative movement that seeks to do away with the military’s diversity, equity and inclusion policies, which some lawmakers view as excessive. The issue of Jonsson’s hold likely resonates with the Republican base and is useful for fundraising, he said.

While some of the language Jonsson used in the article should’ve been toned down, Feaver argued, he doesn’t think the commentary is a valid reason to reject Jonsson’s promotion.

“Often, a hold buys time for a senator to dig up more dirt, and then it becomes clear that where there was smoke, there was fire. In this case, that’s not happening. The evidence is not mounting,” Feaver said. “It appears to be just this one [op-ed], where he’s making a point that’s a valid one but using some turns of phrase that could have been more adroitly delivered. That feels excessive to hold up his career over.”

Since Schmitt placed the hold, several of Jonsson’s Air Force supervisors have reached out to the senator to urge him to drop the blockade. In a statement Thursday, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said the holds on military promotions undermined military readiness.

“We urge the Senate to confirm all of our qualified nominees, who were selected because of their experience and strategic expertise they bring as the department works to support Ukraine, defend our interests in the Middle East, and address the pacing challenge of the [People’s Republic of China],” Singh said.

Jonsson’s peers fear future blocks

Wing commanders talk, and when Jonsson’s promotion was blocked for the second time at the end of 2023, it was a topic of conversation, said a current wing commander who spoke to Military Times anonymously out of concern for reprisal. The situation has been raised in discussions about the next steps in their military careers and the potential effects facing their families, the wing commander said.

The blockade is keeping Jonsson’s family in limbo, not knowing what their future will be after May, said Wright, who’s spoken to Jonsson several times since the hold was announced in December.

“Everybody has kids that are at a different point in their lives. Everybody has aging parents by the time you get to this point in your career. And so, there are a lot of factors that weigh on your mind as you’re determining, ‘Is this the next step? Is it good for my family?’” the wing commander said. “There are a lot of factors that go into this, and I’ll just say that this is now absolutely one.”

Jonsson got “pulled into somebody else’s political game,” the wing commander added, and his peers don’t think he’ll be the last of them to experience it.

“He’s an exceptionally talented individual, and when I see him being put in that position, I ask myself, ‘Do I want to put my family through this?’” the wing commander said. “None of us think this is the last time we’re going to see this, and I don’t know who would want to sign up for that. This time it was an op-ed, what’s it going to be next time?”

Feaver agrees that Schmitt’s hold is likely setting a precedent. An extended block on Jonsson’s promotion could prompt other senators to implement holds of their own, he argued.

As a result, the situation is also likely to have a “chilling effect” among other officers, Feaver said. He argued the possibility that public speeches — like those used to mark Women’s History Month or Black History Month — could be used against future nominees.

Wright agreed the hold is sending a message to Air Force leaders “that speaking truth to power is not necessarily advantageous to your career.”

“What I fear is that now, when leaders need to speak out about tough issues, they’ll think twice when they look at what’s happening to him,” Wright said. “I think it’s a travesty. Senior leaders at all levels should feel free to speak out about tough issues, whether it be race or something else.”

The general officer who once supervised Jonsson and supports his promotion thinks it’s too early to tell what the long-term implications of the block could be. The officer knows leaders are having conversations about the potential consequences, but the ramifications will depend on what decisions are made before May, the officer argued.

“I’m nonpartisan, apolitical and I fully respect the purview of our Congress as one of the three branches of our government,” the general officer said. “I’ll say that I fully respect [the senator’s] right to have an opinion. That’s the system we live in, and the one I swore to uphold.”

All of the former and current Air Force officers who spoke to Military Times about Jonsson regarded him highly, describing him as a “phenomenal and collaborative leader” who took the time as a commander to learn about his airmen as individuals.

Bauman, who mentored Jonsson for decades, hired him, watched his career trajectory, and then witnessed this latest pause, also described him as conservative, a Christian and someone he expected Republican senators would support.

“He’s exactly who that group would normally want,” Bauman said. “But because he spoke out about racism being a real thing, he’s being held up. That’s the deep irony.”

This story was produced in partnership with Military Veterans in Journalism. Please send tips to MVJ-Tips@militarytimes.com.

Nikki Wentling covers disinformation and extremism for Military Times. She’s reported on veterans and military communities for eight years and has also covered technology, politics, health care and crime. Her work has earned multiple honors from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and others.

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