Army Col. Jonathan Chung is both loved and loathed by soldiers who served under him. Some of his former subordinates accuse Chung of being an abrasive leader, while other soldiers describe him as exactly the type of officer the Army needs: unafraid to hold others accountable, even at the risk of his career.

Now the Army must decide whether Chung’s leadership style is corrosive or motivating.

Chung was suspended as commander of the 5th Security Forces Assistance Brigade earlier this month pending an administrative investigation. So far, Army Forces Command, or FORSCOM, has not publicly released the reason why Chung was suspended or the reason for the investigation.

“The status of the administrative investigation is ongoing,” FORSCOM spokesman Paul Boyce told Task & Purpose. “We cannot provide further details about ongoing administrative investigation.” first reported on Tuesday that Chung sent an email to his colleagues explaining that he is facing allegations of being a counterproductive and toxic leader and that he has not been accused of committing any criminal, immoral, or unethical actions.

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Chung plans to respond to allegations of leadership issues that were brought up by an investigation that resulted in his temporary suspension as commander of the 5th Security Forces Assistance Brigade, said his attorney, Jeremy Snyder.

“Col. Chung has fully cooperated in the investigation, and we will do everything we can to help him share his side of the story and to respond to the investigation in due time,” Snyder told Task & Purpose on Wednesday. “We believe in the importance of a fair and unbiased process. Everyone is entitled to due process, and we ask that any reporting on this matter be fair and accurate.”

Army SFAB Col. Jonathan Chung
Col. Jonathan Chung, commander of 2-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, speaks with governor of a fictional state during a Key Leader Engagement at National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California on September 2, 2019. (U.S. Army photo)

Task & Purpose spoke with several people who have worked for Chung, some of whom on condition of anonymity to protect them from possible retaliation. What emerged was a complicated portrait of an officer who sets high standards for his subordinates, which some feel are unnecessarily harsh.

One soldier said he would require people to remain at work long after their tasks were finished, and he also ran “best squad competitions” every Thursday – soldiers who did not perform well enough had to redo the competitions on Fridays.

“I spent four years in the Marines and have been in the Army for just over four years and overall he was the worst commander I have ever encountered,” the soldier said.

However, after this story was first published, former Army Sgt. Robert Swyers, who served under Chung with the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, told Task & Purpose that the best squad competitions were held monthly, not weekly, and it was up to individual battalion leadership – not Chung – to decide if soldiers had to repeat the competition the following day.

One possible reason for the confusion is that battalion commanders often cited Chung’s strict standards to justify additional training, said Swyers, who served with the brigade first as a combat medic and then as a public affairs noncommissioned officer between 2019 to 2022.

That often led to company-level leaders seeking to set standards well above what Chung had originally established for the brigade, Swyers said.

Another soldier said that when a unit was filming a public affairs video showing soldiers in full battle rattle, Chung made two soldiers return to the Central Issue Facility to get new gear because they had been issued tactical vests in an older camouflage pattern.

“Col Chung told them their gear wasn’t ‘high speed enough.’” the soldier recalled. 

Tevin, an Army veteran who asked to only be identified by his first name, recalled how Chung required subordinates to listen to his podcast and then fill out a worksheet afterward answering questions about how the podcast helped them to become better soldiers and improve their leadership skills.

“My takeaway was that this guy liked to hear himself talk and enjoyed finding opportunities for soldiers to hear his voice,” Tevin told Task & Purpose.

However, another soldier who served under Chung said that the unit produced the podcast during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to have a conversation with soldiers. Although soldiers on staff duty for 24 hours had to listen to the podcast and answer questions afterward, some of those questions were meant to improve the podcast itself, including “What do you want us to do better” and “Who else would you like to see on the podcast,” the soldier said.

The soldier also said he saw Chung hold subordinates to high standards, but he never witnessed Chung belittling anyone.

There is no shortage of people who are speaking up in defense of Chung’s leadership style and character since he was suspended as commander of 5th SFAB. An Army officer, who submitted a letter of support for Chung that was obtained by Task & Purpose, wrote how Chung held accountable a lieutenant colonel who was sending her inappropriate messages and pictures, adding that marked “the first time I felt I could trust a leader.”

Jonathan Chung
U.S. Amy soldier Col. Jonathan Chung, outgoing commander of 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, smiles and greets guests with his family after the change of command ceremony on North Fort Lewis, June 4, 2021. (U.S. Army photo)

Throughout his Army career, Chung has energetically tackled the most difficult problems facing the Army, including suicide, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, said retired Army Command Sergeant Maj. Mike Burke.

Chung’s efforts have included using public affairs officers and social media to share stories about soldiers who are making a difference, finding new ways to protect soldiers who report sexual assault and harassment, and empowering noncommissioned officers, said Burke, who served with Chung when he was a company commander for the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment as well as other assignments.

“He is trying new things – some of them work, some of them don’t,” Burke told Task & Purpose. “He’s getting feedback from his subordinates. He’s getting feedback from other peers and superiors and everybody else to try to solve some of these hardest things. And there’s not many leaders that are doing that in the Army.”

Burke also said that the allegations of “counterproductive leadership” against Chung are ridiculous.

“There’s no one who uses that word and talks about Jon Chung,” Burke said. “He’s got 24 years of service to back that up.”

Maj. William Shinego said that Chung pushed his subordinates but also trusted them when he led the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, or “Lancer Brigade.” Chung made serving in the brigade feel like soldiers were part of an elite unit, and Chung taught Shinego valuable command lessons that he has used throughout his Army career.

“I’d follow Jon Chung through the gates of hell,” Shinego said.

Col. Jonathan Chung, commander of 2-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, speaks with the Provincial Chief of Police and Department of State officials of a fictional country they're deployed to during a Key Leader Engagement at National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Ca on 2 Sep.
Col. Jonathan Chung, commander of 2-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, speaks with the Provincial Chief of Police and Department of State officials of a fictional country they’re deployed to during a Key Leader Engagement at National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California. (Sgt. Nicole Branch/U.S. Army)

Many of Chung’s subordinates disliked him because he is a tough leader, but the high standards he set forced his soldiers – especially his officers – to show significant improvement in their leadership skills, said a soldier who had Chung as a battalion commander when he served with the 10th Mountain Division

As a result of Chung’s relentless efforts, the officers in that battalion became the best with whom this soldier has served during his 11-year Army career.

“While working for him I thought that his expectations were ridiculous, however looking back I can see that it was to better everyone under his command and it showed,” the soldier said. “We were the best unit at Fort Drum, and it was obvious when working with other battalions. Years later I still use the skills and knowledge I gained from working with him in my current unit and it has made me a better leader and soldier. Looking back and knowing what I know now, Col. Chung was the best battalion commander I’ve had and it’s not even close.”

Former Army Capt. Jason Eaves, who served with Chung in Afghanistan as part of the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, describes Chung as one of the top leaders he’s ever encountered, who was focused on taking care of his Rangers and making sure that enlisted soldiers and officers who were not performing as well as they should be showed improvement while under his command.

“Although sometimes intense, not only were you glad he is on our side, it gave you the feeling that you and the entire team are the best and are going to persevere and win, no matter what the situation is or becomes,” Eaves told Task & Purpose.

During that deployment to Afghanistan, Chung showed that he is a Type-A, inspiring, aggressive, and indefatigable leader who refused to tolerate mediocrity, Eaves said.

Jonathan Chung
Maj. Gen. Scott Jackson, Commanding General, Security Force Assistance Command, hands the unit colors to Col. Jonathan Chung (left) during the 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade Assumption of Command Ceremony, June 30, 2021 at Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington.

Eaves recalled how Chung told him the first time the two met that the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment is a wolf pack that will eat you up and leave you in the dust if you are weak or do not do your part.

“I will never forget that, and it set the tone for my time in [the Ranger] regiment and even carries on into today in the private sector,” Eaves said.

Chung is the “quintessential combat leader” who would never ask his subordinates to do something that he was unwilling to do himself, said retired Master Sgt. Jariko Denman, who served under Chung in the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 75th Ranger Regiment.

While Chung’s leadership style can inspire subordinates to rise to meet his expectations, it can also come across as meanness to others, Denman told Task & Purpose.

“As a leader, he is also plain talking,” Denman said. “He is rough around the edges. He speaks harshly. He’s like Patton: He gives it to you ugly, so you remember it. But that’s not to say he cannot articulate himself. He’s just a very matter of fact, here’s the deal, blunt leader.”

In Denman’s experience, Chung has never crossed the line from being a tough to an abusive leader.

“Col. Chung has always had a moral compass that is stronger than his professional compass,” Denman said. “So, dressing down a junior officer: Is it rough? Is it probably something that – oh, that could get you in trouble? Yes. Did he ever step over any line? Did he ever do anything that was outside of regulations? No. But, he could make enemies.”

UPDATE: 04/21/2023; this story was updated on April 21, 2023 with comments from former Army Sgt. Robert Swyers about how often best squad competitions were held under Col. Chung.

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