FIRST ON THE DAILY SIGNAL—Col. Ben Jonsson, an Air Force officer who accused his fellow “white colonels” of being “blind to institutional racism,” is the subject of blistering criticism from subordinates at MacDill Air Force Base, where he served as commander from 2020 to 2022.
Jonsson is among the more than 300 military officers awaiting Senate approval for a promotion. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has blocked Democrats—and now some Republicans—from rubber-stamping these promotions in a dispute over the Pentagon’s taxpayer-funded abortion policy..
This week, Democrats introduced a resolution that would change Senate rules for military promotions, bypassing Tuberville’s blockade. If successful, military officers such as Jonsson, whom Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recommended for a promotion to brigadier general in January, would advance without further delay.
The Daily Signal’s previous reporting on Jonsson’s views on diversity, equity, and inclusion—and his endorsement of a book on critical race theory—sparked concerns among conservatives.
The reporting also prompted The Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project to request a Defense Department “climate” assessment completed during Jonsson’s leadership of MacDill Air Force Base. As a result of a request under the Freedom of Information Act, the Oversight Project obtained the so-called Defense Organizational Climate Survey and shared it with The Daily Signal, which is Heritage’s news outlet.
Responses to this “climate” survey of Jonsson’s leadership, included below, paint a picture of his tenure and concerns about his views on DEI and CRT. The survey, completed in January 2022, was conducted anonymously.
“I trust [squadron and group] commanders, but not Col. Jonsson. He has bias in [equal opportunity] and [judge advocate] matters especially if someone is white,” one respondent stated. “He wants anyone white to feel ashamed.”
Survey respondents also said skin color was a factor in opportunities for promotion.
“Wing hiring practices are not based on [the] most qualified person, but focus solely on perception of diversity,” one comment states.
Another adds: “The core of promotion, advancement and opportunities must be performance based … period [but] that is not what we do at MacDill.”
The Pentagon’s climate assessment concludes with a recommendation addressing those concerns: “Review the Recognition program/promotions for fairness and equity to ensure it is rooted in merit and achievement (and not other factors like race/gender or personal favorites).”
Army veteran William Thibeau, director of the Claremont Institute’s American Military Project and a critic of “woke” military officers, says he was alarmed by the comments included in the Defense Department’s assessment of Jonsson’s leadership. The Daily Signal provided a sampling for Thibeau to review prior to publication.
“If Col. Jonsson’s previous public advocacy of bizarre and toxic political ideology was not already disqualifying, revelations about his on-the-ground leadership make his unsuitability for promotion undeniable,” said Thibeau, a graduate of Army Ranger School.
‘Dear White Colonel’
Shortly before becoming commander of the 6th Air Refueling Wing at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Jonsson wrote an 825-word commentary published in the Air Force Times on July 1, 2020. In it, he recounted several examples of what he described as “white defensiveness” in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death the previous May 25 while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
“Dear white colonel, it is time to give a damn. Aim High,” Jonsson wrote, adding:
As white colonels, you and I are the biggest barriers to change if we do not personally address racial injustice in our Air Force. 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.
Jonsson included an endorsement of critical race theory promoter Robin DiAngelo’s controversial book “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.”
One survey respondent writes: “If you are white and read this book, you cannot walk away without the interpretation [that] Col. Jonsson wants you to know he sees all white people as racist.”
Thibeau said the survey responses reveal that DEI was a defining aspect of Jonsson’s leadership, and a bigger problem with a politicized military.
“Col. Jonsson’s embrace of liberal political ideologies is a microcosm of the Pentagon’s institutional embrace of this merit-destroying decision framework,” Thibeau told The Daily Signal. “To Jonsson, DEI is about more than eliminating discrimination, but is instead about actively discriminating against certain demographics while preferencing others at the expense of standards. If a commander gives the perception of bias, then he has failed in his duty to be a neutral arbiter of talent, programs, and missions.”
Following his stint at MacDill Air Force Base, Jonsson became vice superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which faced criticism for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and critical race theory. He currently is stationed at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
The Daily Signal contacted the public affairs office at Scott Air Force Base, which declined to comment on the Defense Department’s assessment of Jonsson.
Climate Survey Results
The Defense Department survey “provides valuable information about members’ perceptions of the organization’s climate,” according to the 139 pages of documents obtained by Heritage’s Oversight Project.
The climate assessment includes both a quantitative survey and substantive written comments.
An email from Jan. 10, 2022, included in the FOIA response, says the purpose of the survey was to “get meaningful comments and share them up & down the chain of command.” It adds:
This survey will help all of us understand the issues facing our team, protect the successes we hold in high regard, and formulate plans to ensure we are moving in the right direction. We will outbrief [sic] the results once complete and develop action plans where necessary.
At the conclusion of the survey, Jonsson received an email dated Feb. 3, 2022, that said: “Participants provided a lot of valuable feedback in the comments.”
Those comments include critical responses to Jonsson’s embrace of both the DEI agenda and DiAngelo’s book on critical race theory. They represent just a fraction of the 249 total comments submitted but reveal strong concerns within the ranks.
And although not all the comments are critical of Jonsson’s leadership, several subordinates cite his Air Force Times commentary as problematic or referenced DEI practices at MacDill. Their unedited responses, printed below, were submitted anonymously for the survey.
I feel everything in this wing has a political bend to it. Sorry to say, but you can’t author an article ‘Dear White Colonels’ and then operate in the way in which we do and not lose people because they do not support your politics, which you are openly embracing. It’s highly disheartening.
It was suggested by Col. Jonsson all commanders read ‘White Fragility.’ If you are white and read this book, you cannot walk away without the interpretation Col. Jonsson wants you to know he sees all white people as racist. Who wouldn’t feel negatively impacted by this book and the fact he asked his commanders to read it. Can you not find a cause to unite us (our flag or our shared warfighter ethos) instead of your personal social justice war to divide us? The belittling experience as a commander of “line by line” COVID alibis to Col. Jonsson was not only antagonistic, it was probably what convinced me I never want to work for/near/around him when I leave MacDill.
Overall, I believe we operate within an imperfect organization doing its best to stay on a path of constant improvement and focus relative to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
We need to value all Airmen the same. Giving extra opportunities based off color or gender, even for what may be thought of as noble reasons, is still inherently flawed logic/racism.
Wing hiring practices are not based on [the] most qualified person, but focus solely on [the] perception of diversity.
D&I. Our base has a real blind spot in this area and command should be concerned. The Wg/CC [wing commander] pushes diversity at all cost to the level that performance and merit are not the primary markers for advancement or selection for opportunities. He has encouraged the reading of ‘White Fragility’ and his front office and many of his Gp CC’s [group captains/commanders] got more diverse front offices in short order. The core of promotion, advancement and opportunities must be performance based … period … that is not what we do at MacDill. Pushing repeatedly to give certain populations of people ‘second or extra looks’ to include Gp [group] manning diversity panels and extra pause in UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] matters that doesn’t include all personnel is coercion to [a] desired outcome. I can tell you I don’t feel included on this team because my skin color is not what this wing values.
I trust Sq/Gp [squadron/group] commanders, but not Col. Jonsson. He has bias in EO and JA matters especially if someone is white. He seeks to provide justice to anyone black, and works to create bias to support. The color of someone’s skin is more important than the qualifications/diversity of thought of the individual. He wants anyone white to feel ashamed, and he makes the SOD very uncomfortable with an accusatory tone to commanders having never identified what exactly it is that commanders at MacDill have done wrong.
Concern exists with new D&I [diversity and inclusion] policy at group level. Airmen perceive the policy intends to encourage the use of demographic information in selection processes for developmental opportunities, ratings and recognition.
I have mixed feelings with Col. Jonsson; on the one hand I see that he’s a genuinely good person, and does deeply care about his people, but on the other I’ve seen what appears to be a tendency to stick with a pre-conceived idea even in the face of his subordinate CC’s [commanders] repeated advice to the contrary: e.g. unrealistic/seemingly arbitrary sortie count/”readiness factor” metrics and excessive exercises, that come at the expense of the Airmen. The common perception from the rank-and-file is that he’s disconnected from the reality of what his decisions cause, which undermines his message of readiness and resiliency. Readiness, absolutely, but resiliency? No, any resiliency is despite Wing priorities, not because of them.
We are just trying really hard in the 6th ARW [Air Refueling Wing] to build a racial divide, especially when led by someone who wrote an article titled ‘Dear White Colonels’ … If he really thinks Diversity and Inclusion are as bed-rock as he says they are, he should have handed the wing over to the previous OG [general officer], we would have all been better off for it, and our wing leadership would have looked more diverse.
We need to be speaking up more about how to build inclusion, understand differences and improve our systems. Spend less time speaking on the political charged topics in the news that are created to divide, create a narrative of hate/victimhood and oppression. I am not saying we have to shut those heated touchpoints down or me dismissive. We need facilitators that can acknowledge the importance of the topic and evolve it into a positive action.
People are afraid of the wing’s intentions when it comes to fairness/justice for all airmen. It is abundantly clear Col. Jonsson wants to help primarily black airmen, whether its the 7 criteria, or EO/JA issues—and he will micromanage every detail with the commander, JA, and EO to help a black airman. Do you know how the other ethnic or white airmen percieve this? How your commanders perceive this? Do you persue white offenders more critically than others whether it ‘s EO or JA? Do you give black airmen more opportunites for positions, interviews, JA recovery, EO top cover, jobs? Is that discrimination? Is it racism? It’s definitely bias.
Under previous wing and group leadership, transparent communication, constructive criticism, diversity of thought, and shared ownership flourished. In the current environment, fear precludes expression of opposing ideas or alternative courses of action at the wing commander level. Decisions and policy are not respectfully challenged when warranted or a lack of clear understanding exists.
Group and Wing leadership jump to conclusions without gathering all the relevant facts. They need to trust their squadrons and seek understanding before assessing situations.
Squadron commanders are undercut by group commanders due to fear of optics when Airmen need reprimanded/punished. Unnecessary, redundant diversity/equity/inclusiveness initiatives are implemented by group command although they are already codified in Air Force doctrine and Core Values. I am not trusted to train, develop, and promote my Airmen on my terms without group leadership’s approval.
In response to an email from Jonsson on Feb. 3, 2022, another individual (whose name was redacted) writes: “Finally, you along with your team will need to decide how to address the comments aimed at you, some couched in [diversity and inclusion], communication, trust/empowerment and a few aimed directly at you. It will be very important to acknowledge this feedback in order to build trust so leaders will continue to provide feedback in the future.”
In addition to the written comments, the climate survey includes a quantitative portion asking questions that range from whether someone is “proud of my work” to whether “discipline and criticism are administered fairly.” It was distributed to 112 individuals, 51 of whom responded.
Asked to rate the “current level of morale in your unit or organization,” 83% of respondents said they considered it low or moderate.
A whole section is devoted to “racially harassing behaviors.” The survey data suggests such concerns weren’t a problem at MacDill, despite Jonsson’s focus on DEI.
Stalled in the Senate
As noted above, Jonsson is one of more than 300 military officers awaiting Senate approval for a promotion. Senate Democrats—and now a few Republicans—would like to rubber-stamp the promotions using an expedited Senate procedure known as unanimous consent, which bypasses consideration of each nominee individually.
Since March, however, Tuberville has objected to numerous requests for unanimous consent from his colleagues, preferring the Senate instead consider the promotions individually until the Defense Department rescinds its taxpayer-funded abortion policy.
An estimate from RAND Corporation predicts that, under the disputed policy, the number of abortions in the military eligible for taxpayer-covered expenses would skyrocket from 20 each year to more than 4,000 a year.
Thibeau, the Army veteran now at the Claremont Institute, says the new information on Jonsson obtained by Heritage’s Oversight Project provides a fresh example of why Tuberville’s effort to undo the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy is so important.
“For too long, conservatives have not exercised the just and legal means of scrutinizing military leaders,” Thibeau told The Daily Signal. “To do so [for leaders] like Sen. Tuberville is the highest form of respect for our military, servicemembers in uniform, and our national security. Col. Jonsson and others should not receive their promotion because of their toxic embrace of political ideology at the expense of the military profession.”
Tuberville so far has withstood attacks from the Left and even members of his own party, including an attempt Wednesday evening by a few Senate Republicans to end his blockade of military promotions.
Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mitt Romney of Utah, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, and Todd Young of Indiana made their opposition to Tuberville public when they attempted to approve promotions by unanimous consent.
Tuberville’s initial objection was to the Defense Department’s policy of providing three weeks of paid leave and reimbursement of travel expenses for military personnel and dependents seeking abortions.
Now the issue has moved beyond that, with the standoff over abortion travel and miltary promotions reaching its eighth month and more concerns emerging about the woke beliefs and actions of military officers.
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