Just one promotion remains blocked due to officer’s views on diversity

by Tommy Grant

The Senate confirmed large batches of Defense Department nominees this month, ending a 10-month blockade on military promotions for hundreds of officers — except one.

As the Senate gaveled out for their holiday recess Wednesday, the promotion of Air Force Col. Benjamin Jonsson remained on hold. Even after the months-long blockade on military promotions was lifted this month by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., who was protesting military abortion access policies, another senator stepped in to block Jonsson’s promotion to brigadier general.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., is stonewalling the promotion because of his concerns about Jonsson’s stances on the military’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Schmitt’s office did not elaborate on his reason for the hold, other than to describe DEI programs as divisive and to note that Schmitt was a proponent of ending them.

“Senator Schmitt has long been an advocate for eradicating these DEI programs, and hopes to resolve these issues to ensure that these divisive DEI programs don’t continue to drive a wedge between military members and deepen the already existing recruiting crisis,” Will O’Grady, Schmitt’s press secretary, said in a statement.

Because Jonsson’s nomination wasn’t approved before the Senate recessed for the year, the White House will have to resubmit his nomination for promotion to the Senate in 2024, according to Senate rules described by the Congressional Research Service.

Jonsson faced public criticism after submitting a commentary for Air Force Times in 2020 titled, “Dear white colonel … we must address our blind spots around race.”

The Air Force colonel wrote the opinion piece just days after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In it, he urged other white colonels to acknowledge racial disparities in the Air Force, and he relayed specific instances in which white colonels were unwilling to discuss problems of racism, discrimination and inequality.

Jonsson ended the piece by encouraging white colonels to read the book, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” a New York Times bestseller recommended by various news publications and universities to readers who wanted to educate themselves about racism amid the fallout from Floyd’s murder.

“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. “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.”

The Heritage Foundation wrote sharp criticism of Jonsson after the Defense Department announced his promotion to brigadier general earlier this year. The conservative think tank took issue with Jonsson’s commentary in Air Force Times and argued he had espoused “woke” views, referring to what the group sees as radically progressive DEI policies. Those policies don’t fall in line with traditional American values, the Heritage Foundation wrote.

The think tank also blasted Jonsson for recommending the book “White Fragility,” which they claimed endorsed so-called critical race theory, which centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions.

“Col. Jonsson exhibited a toxic embrace of DEI policies that have no place in the U.S. military,” wrote William Thibeau, who works for the conservative think tank Claremont Institute, in the Heritage Foundation’s post. “His public characterization of ‘white colonels’’ blindness is inherently divisive and sends shockwaves through his command.”

Jonsson was the vice wing commander for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar when he penned the commentary for Air Force Times. In 2022, he assumed the role of vice superintendent of the Air Force Academy before moving this summer to Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, a spokesperson with the Air Force Academy said.

According to his military biography, Jonsson flew some of the initial C-17A combat missions of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was later accepted into the Olmsted Scholar Program, which awards scholarships to junior officers to pursue overseas graduate-level education.

Jonsson was not the only officer to be blocked by Schmitt, meanwhile, due to concerns over DEI policies, but he is currently the last officer to have his promotion stalled. Schmitt originally placed a hold on six officers but lifted the blockade on five of them. The Senate cleared those five confirmations late last week. And on Tuesday, the chamber confirmed 11 senior military nominees who had been stalled for months.

Opposition to the Pentagon’s DEI efforts has spiked among select conservative lawmakers since 2020, when Congress first expanded such programs and mandated the Defense Department’s hiring of a chief diversity officer, said Liz Yates, a researcher with the advocacy group Human Rights First.

Attempts by some lawmakers to dismantle the military’s DEI programs reached a flash point earlier this year, as the House and Senate struggled to come to terms on the national defense policy bill.

Congress approved a version of the bill earlier this month that capped the base pay of DEI staff at the Pentagon and instituted a hiring freeze on DEI positions until the Government Accountability Office completes an investigation of the military’s DEI programs. However, more severe proposals by GOP members were omitted from the final text, including one measure to eliminate the position of chief diversity officer.

With all but Jonsson’s confirmation approved, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., lauded the advancements Wednesday as a “very good outcome” and urged senators not to “hold military families hostage” for political agendas.

“I hope this never happens again. Let the experience of the past 10 months be a warning: No senator should use our military officers and their families as political pawns to push a political agenda,” Schumer said on the Senate floor prior to breaking for holiday recess. “This was a long and painful ordeal for our Armed Forces. Let’s make sure this never happens again, no matter how strongly any of the 100 senators feel about any one issue.”

This story was produced in partnership with Military Veterans in Journalism. Please send tips to [email protected].

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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