Lt. Col. Vindman’s former commander speaks out: ‘I would trust Alex with my life’

news
National Security Council aide US Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 19, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie US aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (Associated Press/Andrew Harnik)

President Donald Trump's early dismissal of U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council staff on Friday was half-expected based on the reporting from the night prior, but it still came as a shock to former senior officials and those who served with the soldier.


Vindman testified nearly three months ago to the House Intelligence Committee that Trump's "inappropriate" phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July had concerned him, prompting him to raise objections within his chain of command out of a "sense of duty."

The lieutenant colonel's account of the conversation between the two heads of state made him a target of political attacks from President Trump and his surrogates. As conservative commentators took to the airwaves to impugn his service and wartime record — even criticizing his decision to wear the Army dress uniform during his testimony — Trump cast aspersions in the weeks that followed.

"He was very insubordinate, reported contents of my 'perfect' calls incorrectly, & was given a horrendous report by his superior, the man he reported to, who publicly stated that Vindman had problems with judgement, adhering to the chain of command and leaking information," Trump tweeted Saturday, a day after the White House dismissed Vindman.

But one of Vindman's former commanders countered Trump's characterization. Retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack, who commanded then-Maj. Vindman from 2012 to 2014, said he wanted to "correct the record" about Vindman.

"He's obviously very bright, self-made," Zwack told Business Insider in an interview.

Zwack first met Vindman in Washington D.C., as they prepared for a government trip to Moscow, Russia. Zwack would continue serving in the region after Vindman completed his tour, and assisted with the U.S. response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shoot down.

"We worked in a pressure-cooker environment in Moscow where you have to trust everybody," Zwack said. "You just have to trust each other, there's no in-between."

"I would trust Alex with my life," Zwack added, referring to Vindman by his first name. "It was literally important — we were in a difficult operational environment as attachés representing the United States to the Russians. We really had to be reliable, we had to be accurate, we had to be diplomats and Alex was good at all of it."

Zwack, now a global fellow for the Woodrow Wilson International Center's Kennan Institute, pointed to Vindman's fluency in Russian as an asset during their missions there. Vindman immigrated to the U.S. from the Soviet Union when he was three, and joined the Army after college as an infantry officer; he later transferred to become a foreign area officer whose expertise is Russia and eastern Europe.

"I've traveled with him deep into Russia on various occasions," Zwack said, adding that Vindman was "always smart, interesting, and had good judgement ... I trusted him completely."

The timing and the circumstance of Vindman's dismissal fueled speculation that the move was retaliation by the White House. Vindman was reportedly escorted out of White House grounds just a few months shy of his completion of a two-year tour.

President Donald Trump holds up a newspaper with the headline that reads "ACQUITTED" during the 68th annual National Prayer Breakfast. (Associated Press/Evan Vucci)

'Toxic environment'

The White House claimed Vindman was one casualty from a wider effort to downsize the NSC, an initiative that has been in the works for over a year, according to The Washington Post. But Vindman's twin brother Yevgeny, also a US Army lieutenant colonel, was dismissed from his post as an ethics attorney on the NSC, despite not testifying in the House's impeachment investigation.

Retired Marine Corps Col. David Lapan, a former Pentagon spokesman and the vice president of communications at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said he "absolutely" believed the ouster of Vindman and his brother Yevgeny was a retaliation from the White House.

"It was Lt. Col. Alex Vindman who actually testified under oath in front of Congress," Lapan told Business Insider. "His brother didn't. Yet somehow his brother was also dismissed from his position in the National Security Council."

"They all serve at the pleasure of the president and he should have people he trusts," Lapan added. "But if the president didn't trust him, then why did this happen today? He testified back in mid-November. So if the president had concerns with his ability to trust Lt. Col. Vindman, why did he wait until after he was acquitted by the Senate to take this action? The argument about trust completely falls apart."

Zwack said he believed ouster was "designed to send a message," adding that Vindman's tenure at the NSC may have been a "toxic environment for him" due to the politicization of his testimony.

Both of the Vindmans are expected to be transferred to prestigious follow-on assignments within the Army — Alex eventually to the Army War College in Pennsylvania, an institution designed to prepare officers for leadership roles; and Yevgeny to the Army's general counsel, according to The New York Times.

'Stand tall'

But the chance for further reprisals, from the Defense Department or its commander-in-chief, still looms. Lapan said military reprisals "can take many forms," such as "the type of assignments he gets from now on and it can be future promotions."

If Vindman becomes a "full-bird" colonel and chooses to stay in the Army, he will require a nomination from the president and the Republican-controlled Senate's approval to become a general officer.

"I would recommend the Pentagon that given all the circumstances … to state very clearly that Vindman will be allowed to come back to the Army, that he will get his follow on assignments and there won't be any retaliation against him," Lapan said. "I think that is needed right now to send a strong message to the force that we're not going to allow retaliation for somebody who was subpoenaed."

"In this environment, with the president impugning his character, questioning his integrity, it's incumbent on the military to make clear to everybody in the force that that's not going to be tolerated," Lapan added. "You first have to set the standard very clearly, and then you have to enforce it."

Zwack said there could be "concern and trepidation" for a career military officer to serve with the NSC in the Trump administration, but added "it's what we do."

"The greater service is to our Republic and to the Constitution," Zwack said. "But I think certainly that anybody going up there would be very careful and tread carefully."

To his former soldier, Zwack offered a message of encouragement: "Stand tall, stand proud, continue to press forward. Continue to do the right thing."

Read more from Business Insider:

Army recruiters hold a swearing-in ceremony for over 40 of Arkansas' Future Soldiers at the Arkansas State Capital Building. (U.S. Army/Amber Osei)

Though the Army has yet to actually set an official recruiting goal for this year, leaders are confident they're going to bring in more soldiers than last year.

Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, head of Army Recruiting Command, told reporters on Wednesday that the Army was currently 2,226 contracts ahead of where it was in 2019.

"I will just tell you that this time last year we were in the red, and now we're in the green which is — the momentum's there and we see it continuing throughout the end of the year," Muth said, adding that the service hit recruiting numbers in February that haven't been hit during that month since 2014.

Read More
(U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

We are women veterans who have served in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. Our service – as aviators, ship drivers, intelligence analysts, engineers, professors, and diplomats — spans decades. We have served in times of peace and war, separated from our families and loved ones. We are proud of our accomplishments, particularly as many were earned while immersed in a military culture that often ignores and demeans women's contributions. We are veterans.

Yet we recognize that as we grew as leaders over time, we often failed to challenge or even question this culture. It took decades for us to recognize that our individual successes came despite this culture and the damage it caused us and the women who follow in our footsteps. The easier course has always been to tolerate insulting, discriminatory, and harmful behavior toward women veterans and service members and to cling to the idea that 'a few bad apples' do not reflect the attitudes of the whole.

Recent allegations that Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie allegedly sought to intentionally discredit a female veteran who reported a sexual assault at a VA medical center allow no such pretense.

Read More
In this June 16, 2018 photo, Taliban fighters greet residents in the Surkhroad district of Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

KABUL/WASHINGTON/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - The United States and the Taliban will sign an agreement on Feb. 29 at the end of a week long period of violence reduction in Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Taliban said on Friday.

Read More
A U.S. Army UH-60L Black Hawk crew chief with the New Jersey National Guard's 1-171st General Support Aviation Battalion stands for a portrait at the Army Aviation Support Facility on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., Feb. 3, 2020 (Air National Guard photo / Master Sgt. Matt Hecht)

Active-duty service members, Reservists and National Guard members often serve side-by-side performing highly skilled and dangerous jobs, such as parachuting, explosives demolition and flight deck operations.

Reservists and Guard members are required to undergo the same training as specialized active-duty troops, and they face the same risks. Yet the extra incentive pay they receive for their work — called hazardous duty incentive pay — is merely a fraction of what their active-duty counterparts receive for performing the same job.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, D-3 of Moorestown, are partnering on legislation to correct the inequity. Known as the Guard and Reserve Hazard Duty Pay Equity Act, the bill seeks to standardize payment of hazardous duty incentive pay for all members of the armed services, including Reserve and National Guard components.

Read More
A screen grab from a YouTube video shows Marines being arrested during formation at Camp Pendleton in July, 2019. (Screen capture)

Editor's Note: This article by Gina Harkins originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

Another Marine was hit with jail time and a bad-conduct discharge in connection with a slew of arrests made last summer over suspicions that members of a California-based infantry battalion were transporting people who'd crossed into the U.S. illegally.

Read More