A Promising Air Force Officer Took a Stand Against Racism. Now, His Career Is in Political Jeopardy.

by Braxton Taylor

Col. Ben Jonsson was accompanying then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on a trip through the Middle East as one of her military assistants in 2017.

It was the height of the war against ISIS and, after a swing through Iraq, the delegation stopped in Jordan to discuss the fight with one of the leading U.S. partners in the anti-ISIS coalition.

As Wilson’s meeting with the head of Jordan’s air force was getting ready to start, Jonsson strode up to the air chief and greeted him in Arabic. At first, the general was taken aback, but he was quickly disarmed by Jonsson meeting him at his level.

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“The tenor of the meeting changed because Ben was there,” Wilson, who served as Air Force secretary from 2017 to 2019 in the Trump administration, recalled in a recent interview with Military.com. “I saw a side of him that was different than just a staff officer. I saw tremendous potential as a leader, engaging our allies in ways that could deepen our partnership and build alliances that are absolutely vital.”

If she were still Air Force secretary, she added, she “would have enthusiastically put his name forward for promotion.”

Jonsson was nominated to receive a promotion to brigadier general by the Biden administration more than a year ago, in January 2023. But that promotion is now in jeopardy as Jonsson becomes the latest casualty of Republicans’ war on “wokeness” in the military because of an op-ed he wrote in 2020 on institutional racism in the military.

Jonsson was one of hundreds of military officers caught in last year’s blockade of general and admiral promotions by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. Tuberville was protesting the Pentagon’s abortion access policy but eventually dropped his hold entirely in December. The Senate’s process of quickly confirming military nominees in batches has returned to normal — mostly.

The exception is Jonsson, whom Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., placed on a hold shortly after Tuberville ended his blanket hold.

A hold cannot prevent a nominee from being confirmed, but it means the Senate must take a roll call vote rather than approving the nominee in a voice vote as it typically does for military officers. Senate Democratic leaders have largely resisted roll call votes for military officers with holds on them, arguing that doing so risks irreparably politicizing the military promotions process.

Schmitt, who originally said he would hold up six officers before quickly relenting on the other five, has not specifically cited Jonsson’s op-ed in public statements about his hold, nor has he publicly stated any specific actions that would convince him to drop his hold.

In a December statement, Schmitt’s office said he was placing a hold on a handful of officers in a fight to “eradicate” diversity, equity and inclusion programs he labeled “divisive.”

Schmitt’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

But conservative media and advocacy groups have zeroed in on Jonsson’s op-ed, pointing to it as proof that left-leaning politics have infiltrated the officer corps in place of a warfighting mentality and that Jonsson is emblematic of the problem. Schmitt, those conservative groups say, is a champion for taking up the fight against “woke” officers after Tuberville relented.

Jonsson’s “reign as an Air Force officer typifies an extreme commitment to race-based leadership that is now institutionalized in military policy,” Will Thibeau of the right-wing Claremont Institute told the Daily Signal, which is published by conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, in an article touting Schmitt’s hold.

Jonsson’s friends and supporters say the portrait of Jonsson that has emerged in conservative circles is all wrong. He’s a man of deep Christian faith and a dedicated officer, they say, who has a unique personal perspective on race and was only following the direction what senior Air Force leaders were saying at the time he wrote the op-ed now at issue.

Caught in the middle is the military’s reputation as a trusted apolitical institution, a reputation that polls in recent years have shown has taken a hit as Republicans have attacked efforts to diversify the force as unacceptable political distractions from preparing for war.

Peter Feaver, a civil-military relations expert at Duke University who was a White House adviser to former President George W. Bush, argued that Schmitt’s hold on Jonsson is not as damaging as Tuberville’s blanket hold was.

That’s because, unlike Tuberville’s hold that indiscriminately jammed promotions over an administration policy that military officers had no control over, placing a hold on an individual nominee over an action the nominee took as Schmitt has done is more in line with the Senate’s traditional “advise and consent” role, Feaver said.

Still, Feaver added, Schmitt’s hold isn’t “completely harmless” because it pulls an officer into what is essentially a political fight.

“It violates the norm I’m trying to promote, which is we don’t make the military combatants in the culture war,” Feaver said. “We don’t target them for culture war purposes. And it feels like that’s what’s happening to them in this case.”

Jonsson, who has served as chief of staff for Air Mobility Command since this past summer, commissioned into the Air Force in 1999 after graduating from the Air Force Academy.

His resume includes more than 900 combat flight hours over Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, seven air medals, and time as the vice wing commander in Qatar and wing commander at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

He was also an Air Force Olmsted Scholar, a program for officers to receive graduate degrees from overseas universities to learn a language and gain regional cultural knowledge. It was through that program he studied at the University of Jordan, learning the fluent Arabic that smoothed the meeting with the Jordanian air force chief nearly a decade later.

The cultural awareness Jonsson gained as an Olmsted Scholar was also invaluable as he worked on the Egypt desk at the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Egypt’s 2013 coup, said Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, the current superintendent of the Air Force Academy who was the defense attache in Egypt at the time. Clark recalled Jonsson staying “cool and calm” throughout the crisis.

“Even as a young major, he was a strategic thinker,” Clark said. “He has that sort of emotional intelligence about him that he can frame [senior leaders’ guidance] in a way that we can execute. So, he was a very mature officer from early on and has only grown since then.”

It was that maturity that Clark said led him to later hiring Jonsson as his vice superintendent at the academy in 2022.

Clark credited Jonsson with leading the academy’s efforts to change the culture around sexual harassment and sexual violence after Pentagon reports found consistently and troublingly high rates of sexual assault at the service academies. Jonsson worked to coordinate everyone from the dean of faculty to the athletic director to the commandant of cadets to “help us to move toward turning the tide” on sexual assault and harassment, Clark said.

Former Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright first crossed paths with Jonsson when they both worked at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas in the early 2010s. Wright was the command chief master sergeant, and Jonsson was a squadron commander.

What stood out to Wright the most about Jonsson, Wright said, was Jonsson’s ability to connect with the young people who served under him.

“Whenever I would visit his unit or interact with the people that worked in his unit, that worked directly for him, they all spoke highly of him,” Wright said. “He knew people’s first names. He asked about their family so he could talk to me about their families or what they might have going on in their careers and things like that. Honestly, not all senior leaders, especially in the military, have that ability.”

But it’s the 2020 op-ed that’s now become the centerpiece in public discussions about Jonsson.

At the time, the U.S. was being roiled by mass protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died when a police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes. Military leaders up and down the chain of command were offering messages to reassure their troops they were listening to the pain of Black Americans and grappling with how to root out systemic racism.

“We have been presented a crisis. We can no longer walk by this problem,” then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein wrote in a memo to the force in June 2020. “We must look inward at our Air Force, and at every echelon of command, so we emerge stronger as a profession of arms.”

Jonsson was the vice wing commander for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar at the time. In writing the op-ed, his supporters maintain, he was heeding Goldfein’s call for commanders to have tough conversations with their troops and ensure that airmen of all races felt heard.

“As white colonels, you and I are the biggest barriers to change if we do not personally address racial injustice in our Air Force,” Jonsson wrote in the op-ed, which was published in Air Force Times in July 2020. “Defensiveness is a predictable response by white people to any discussion of racial injustice. White colonels are no exception. We are largely blind to institutional racism, and we take offense to any suggestion that our system advantaged us at the expense of others.”

Prior to the op-ed publishing, Jonsson sent it to several mentors and confidants to check whether it was in line with Goldfein’s guidance, said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, a former service spokesperson and former recruiting commander who was one of the people Jonsson asked to read his article.

When he first read the draft, Thomas said he thought it was “bold” but ultimately “eminently reasonable.”

“What he was trying to do is bring his perspective as a white officer … to help others not have blind spots, to bring attention to areas that we as leaders need to be aware of and sensitive of as we’re leading a force that represents all of America,” Thomas said. “Sometimes, well, often, people are just limited by their own experiences. He was simply trying to help broaden the perspective of other officers.”

Several people Military.com spoke with also offered a potential personal motivation Jonsson had for speaking out against racism: Two of his five children are adopted from Ethiopia.

Jonsson’s supporters don’t necessarily agree with everything in the op-ed. Wilson, for example, said she wouldn’t have recommended the book he did in the piece, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” a 2018 New York Times bestseller that has garnered both staunch praise and fierce criticism.

But, they argued, writing the op-ed displayed a courage that should be encouraged in military leaders.

“It’s not often that when an issue of race comes up in the military that anyone addresses it as directly as he did,” said Wright, who is Black and penned his own emotional reflections on what Floyd’s death meant to him while still serving as the Air Force’s top enlisted leader. “So, I was impressed at how candid and straightforward he was. I understand why people might have taken offense to it, but I don’t believe he did it in a way that was offensive in nature.”

Jonsson’s supporters said they have held several private meetings with Schmitt and his staff to try to unlock his promotion, to no avail.

Time is running down. By law, officers whose promotions are subject to Senate confirmation must be approved within 18 months or else their promotion is withdrawn, though the president can choose to extend the nomination for another 12 months. For Jonsson, the 18-month mark will come in May.

In the meantime, Jonsson’s supporters said he continues to fulfill his duties even as his — and his family’s — future remains in limbo.

“Officers with both operational expertise and deep regional understanding were very, very scarce,” Wilson said. “If you go down that list of 400-some-odd generals that were up for promotion [during Tuberville’s hold] and you said, ‘OK, how many of these officers have deep experience in the Middle East, understanding that area of the world, and also operational experience?’ I think you probably find one name. And that’s Ben Jonsson.”

Related: Tuberville Blockade Finally Concludes with Confirmation of 11 Remaining Four-Star Generals and Admirals

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