With promotion still blocked, Air Force officer’s eligibility extended

by Vern Evans

The officer whose promotion continues to be the last to remain blocked by the Senate now has another year to see if he’ll be made brigadier general.

The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness approved a one-year extension of Col. Ben Jonsson’s promotion eligibility period, a defense official said Tuesday. The eligibility window was set to expire Wednesday and will now end May 1, 2025. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin requested the extension, the defense official said.

Without the extension, Jonsson was expected to either end his military career or serve as a colonel until he reached mandatory retirement.

Jonsson, who has served in the Air Force for 25 years, was nominated in January 2023 to brigadier general, a one-star position that less than one-half of 1% of officers reach. The Defense Department assigned him 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.

Just one month later, Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville paused the promotions of Jonsson and hundreds of other officers to protest the Pentagon’s abortion access policies. Tuberville lifted his hold Dec. 6, 2023, and in subsequent months the promotions cleared the Senate. Jonsson’s is the last to remain blocked.

Shortly after Tuberville lifted his hold, Missouri Republican Sen. Eric Schmitt placed another block on Jonsson’s promotion, citing the colonel’s support for the military’s diversity, equity and inclusion policies. In a statement shortly after Schmitt announced his hold, Will O’Grady, Schmitt’s press secretary, said the senator has “long been an advocate for eradicating these DEI programs,” which he described as divisive among service members.

Jonsson received criticism last year from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, about a commentary he wrote for Air Force Times following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. In the piece, Jonsson 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.”

Since Schmitt put a hold on the promotion, several of Jonsson’s Air Force supervisors have reached out to the senator to urge him to drop the blockade. Other current and former Air Force leaders have spoken out in support of Jonsson and warned about potential consequences the hold could have on military retention and how Congress handles future promotions.

“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,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright. “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.”

Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor and author of a book on civil-military relations, argued 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.

“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.”

It remains uncertain whether Schmitt will lift his hold sometime in the next year. Schmitt hasn’t elaborated on his reasons for the blockade, and the senator’s office has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

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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