The US Army has given itself a self inflicted black eye in how it has mishandled LTC Vindman’s promotion.This did not need to happen. Even though the reality, regardless of anything else that might or might not happen or have happened, is that because LTC Vindman was never going to be able to deploy as a Foreign Area Officer in his region of expertise again. By complying with a lawful subpoena to testify before the House of Representatives, he both raised his profile and did so while stymying one of Vladimir Putin’s objectives in regard to Ukraine. As I wrote back in February, going to either the US Embassy in Kyiv or in Moscow as the Defense Attache or Senior Defense Official was simply out of the question. It would not be safe for him to be placed in either of those assignments, which are usually the highest level assignment that a Foreign Area Officer can aspire to. That didn’t mean that his career had to be over, nor did it mean that the Army didn’t have a meaningful path forward they could have created for him.
What the Army needed to do was to have the Chief of Staff or the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army or the senior officer overseeing Functional Area 48/Foreign Area Officers to sit down with him, explain the reality, and tell him that even if they had to put his promotion in above the zone – after the year in which he should be promoted – because it had to wait until after the election in November, that it would ultimately go through. They also needed to tell him that he was going to matriculate at one of the Senior Leader Colleges for his war college year, preferably one of the ones NOT in Washington, DC to get him out of DC and thereby out of the sights of the President, his surrogates, and his enablers. Back in February, when it was reported that he would be attending the Academic Year 2021 Resident Course at US Army War College in Carlisle, PA, I wrote:
LTC Vindman will be matriculating at the end of July/beginning of August into the resident class at USAWC for academic year (AY) 2021. When he graduates he will have earned both a Masters in National Security and Strategy and his Joint Professional Military Education Level II certification. Without these he would not be eligible for an O6 (colonel) level command or equivalent assignment. He’s just at the right stage of his career, around 22 years in, to be sent to one of the senior leader colleges. Given how the selection process for the Senior Leader Colleges is done, I suspect that this was also always his intended follow on assignment to serving on the National Security Staff of the National Security Council as his assignment was supposed to originally end in May of this year. While it does not always work out that way because life is not neat, the expectation is that the officers who attend the Senior Leader Colleges will serve well past their graduations retiring as full colonels or captains near or at the 30 year mandated retirement or be promoted to general officer/flag officer and serve past the 30 year mark.
Here’s what I think is likely to happen to LTC Vindman and his career based on informed speculation. He will attend USAWC as a student next academic year, graduate, and I would expect that he will be then moved onto the faculty as the Director of Eurasian Studies where he’ll oversee the Eurasian Regional Studies Elective (every student in the resident class is required to take a regional studies elective, but they get to choose which one, which is why it is called an elective even though it is mandatory – don’t ask me, I just worked there…). If this happens, then at some point he’ll be promoted to full colonel and will serve out the remainder of his career at USAWC. He and his family will have eight years of stability in a lovely small town that is close to a medium sized city (Harrisburg) and within a ninety minute to two hour drive of three large cities – Philadelphia, Baltimore, and DC – depending on traffic and whether you’re driving like you stole it. During the short summer breaks between resident class graduation and course prep for the next academic year, he, like many of the Foreign Area Officers (FAOs) assigned to the faculty will be available for temporary duty assignments in his functional speciality as a Foreign Area Officer. While the pinnacle of a career for a FAO is usually being a Defense Attache (DAT) or Senior Defense Official (SDO) at a US embassy within their region of expertise, given LTC Vindman’s prominence, I’m not sure that will be possible. I cannot imagine it would be safe to send him back to US Embassy Moscow to be the DAT, especially given how Russian intelligence and security treats US personnel assigned there. I expect that he and his family will have the stability that this type of assignment at USAWC brings: not having to relocate every two or three years, being able to keep your kids in the same schools until they graduate, and allowing one’s spouse to finally begin to put down some career roots.
Honestly, this is all they had to do to 1) make things as right as they could given the reality while 2) still doing as right as possible by LTC Vindman. Tell him that they would ensure that his promotion would go through, even if it was delayed a bit and give him a legitimate and meaningful career path to serve until he was ready to retire. Whether that was at year 25 or 28 or 30 when it would become mandatory for him to retire if he wasn’t being selected for brigadier general.
As we now know, this didn’t happen. Instead of getting him out of DC for his war college year, we now know he was headed to National War College, which is part of the National Defense University at Ft. McNair in DC. We now know that no one in the senior Army leadership was willing to make it clear that his promotion would eventually go through, even if delayed a bit Nor were they ready to resign on principle over the politicization of the Army’s merit based promotion system. And, apparently, we now know that no one in senior Army leadership took the time to provide him with an acceptable career path as a colonel given the reality that now existed: that it is not safe for him to deploy as a senior Foreign Area Officer to be the Defense Attache or Senior Defense Official at either US Embassy Kyiv or US Embassy Moscow. What LTC Vindman needed was senior mentorship that provided him hope for a useful and fulfilling career path for the final eight years or so of his service as a US Army officer. From the reporting and his attorney’s statement, this does not appear to have happened.
A couple of final points.
First, please, everyone, stop fantasy casting LTC Vindman in a potential Biden administration. He is not only not going to be the Secretary of the Army, nor the US ambassador to Ukraine, he is also not qualified for either of those positions. LTC Vindman is many things, not least of which a real patriot, but he has neither the management experience to be Secretary of the Army, nor the diplomatic experience to be the ambassador to Ukraine. If VP Biden is elected and if he doesn’t find himself facing a Republican majority Senate led by Mitch McConnell, the senior political and diplomatic appointees he nominates will need to be actual professionals with the actual expertise and experience to properly do their jobs. Stunt casting or nominating donors or other elites and notables with no actual experience and expertise for these jobs is simply not going to work. Too much damage has been done over the last four years to let wealthy, connected people role play and play act being cabinet secretaries or ambassadors. That said, he would certainly be qualified to go back to the National Security Staff as the senior director for Russia, Ukraine, and/or Eastern Europe. Or to serve as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Russia, Ukraine, and/or Eastern Europe. I suspect, however, that he will soon be hired by one of the major think tanks as one of their senior fellows dealing with issues pertaining to Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe.
Second, everyone needs to understand the immense pressure LTC Vindman was under. Pressure that only got worse when Senator Duckworth placed a hold on the 1,100 or so Army promotions to the ranks of colonel, brigadier general, major general, lieutenant general, and general until she was assured that LTC Vindman’s promotion to colonel would not be held up by the President as an act of revenge. Let me be very clear, I am not saying that Senator Duckworth’s actions are wrong. I am saying that by her increasing the pressure on the Secretary of the Army, she increased the pressure on LTC Vindman. Those other 1,100 or so men and women now have their lives upended. Some of them are slated into commands at brigade (colonel), division (major general), corps (lieutenant general), Army Service Component Command (major general or lieutenant general), or Geographic Combatant Command (general) and cannot take up those commands until their promotions are finalized. Some are slated into deputy command and senior staff assignments at this same commands. Some where preparing to relocate their families; relocations which are now on hold and no longer sure things. What Senator Duckworth is doing, and she’s a retired lieutenant colonel herself so she knows exactly what she’s doing, is increasing pressure on the Army leadership – senior civilian appointees and uniformed – by creating a knot in the professional pipeline. That knot has a huge follow on ripple effect. It isn’t that promotions will be held up for a few weeks to a few months, it’s that an entire set of personnel changes and rotations into and out of assignments is now completely up in the air. And while this is not LTC Vindman’s fault, I guarantee that some of these 1,100 or so officers who are having their lives placed on hold and their careers potentially upended will blame him. This isn’t because they aren’t good officers, but because they’re humans. The more that Senator Duckworth increases the pressure by holding up these promotions, the more the pressure also increased on LTC Vindman. So it shouldn’t be surprising that he wanted to remove himself from the equation and relieve the pressure on himself.
Third, and finally, while it is not impossible – as in it would be legal – do not expect that a President Biden will suddenly reinstate LTC Vindman by recalling him to active duty shortly after inauguration in January 2021 and then immediately promote him to colonel. Aside from assuming that Biden will win in November and take office in January, which is putting your eggs in your cart without counting them before your horse has left the barn, it takes LTC Vindman’s agency away from him. He may find that even if this opportunity is presented to him that he enjoys being retired, that he and his family are happy with the professional and personal changes that he felt he had no choice but to make. And as much as I respect Senator Franken, there is no way that LTC Vindman would be presented with a Medal of Honor shortly after Biden would be inaugurated in January 2021.