When the U.S. Senate unanimously approved 425 military promotions earlier this month, one person was missing from the list: Col. Ben Jonsson, the Air Force officer who espoused controversial views on race and diversity.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., stepped in to hold Jonsson’s ascension to brigadier general after a 10-month blockade of all military promotions by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. When fellow Republicans threatened to join Democrats to circumvent Tuberville by changing Senate rules, the senator withdrew his objection.

As a result, military officers who were singled out for their “woke” views on race, sexuality, and COVID-19 had their promotions swiftly approved Dec. 5—except for Jonsson and about a dozen other high-ranking generals. Senators then voted Thursday to give the promoted military officers retroactive pay for the time they waited.

The Daily Signal first reported in August on Jonsson’s views on diversity, equity, and inclusion—and his endorsement of a book on critical race theory. The story prompted The Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project to request and obtain a Defense Department “climate” assessment of during Jonsson’s leadership of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s news outlet.)

>>> ‘He Sees All White People as Racist’: Military Assessment Criticizes Air Force Colonel’s Leadership

The assessment included blistering criticism of Jonsson from his subordinates at MacDill, where he served as commander from 2020 to 2022. It paints a picture of his tenure and concerns about his views on DEI and CRT.

Following publication of the November story, The Daily Signal obtained more information about Jonsson’s time at MacDill, including an official DEI policy memo and email from a field-grade officer promoting a diversity agenda to his wing. For the first time, both can be read in full below.

“I worked under Col. Jonsson when he was the wing commander at MacDill Air Force Base and witnessed many troubling things,” said a veteran Air Force officer, who asked for anonymity to speak openly without facing retribution. “When [President Joe] Biden was elected, he said elatedly in a meeting with all squadron commanders, ‘Now we can start doing diversity training again.’ He also forced the COVID vaccine and masking harder than any other commander I am aware of. At a time when no one in Florida was wearing masks off base, he routinely would keep the base in heightened state of Health Protection Condition.”

Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., speaking in July at a Turning Point Action conference in Florida, is blocking the promotion of Air Force Col. Ben Jonsson. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Missouri’s Schmitt, in a statement to The Daily Signal explaining his decision to block Jonsson’s promotion in the Senate, said he objects to military leaders who promote DEI.

“It is long past time to root out divisive DEI policies and their advocates from our apolitical military,” Schmitt said. “Leaders must emphasize unity of mission and purpose, not our immutable differences, if we are to maintain our military as the greatest meritocracy in the world. I cannot in good faith allow the confirmation of individuals who advance this divisive DEI ideology to proceed by unanimous consent.”

The Daily Signal contacted the public affairs office at Scott Air Force Base, where Jonsson is currently stationed, but the office did not respond.

‘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.”

Will Thibeau, who directs the Claremont Institute’s American Military Project, applauded conservative senators such as Schmitt for demonstrating leadership and putting a hold on Jonsson’s promotion.

“It is not a mistake Col. Jonsson’s promotion hold remains in place. His reign as an Air Force officer typifies an extreme commitment to race-based leadership that is now institutionalized in military policy,” said Thibeau, an Army veteran and graduate of Army Ranger School.

DEI Policy Memo

The Daily Signal recently obtained a Jan. 21, 2022, policy memorandum issued while Jonsson was at MacDill. Written by Col. Jonathan E. Burdick, who was commander of the 6th Operations Group until his retirement this year, the memo defined DEI and outlined expectations for the group. (Read the full memo at the end of this story.)

DEI should be “baked in,” Burdick told MacDill’s 6th Operations Group, “instead of being reactively audited on a periodic basis.”

“DE&I processes will be incorporated into our normal battle rhythm to help illuminate blind spots, recognize unintentional bias, and strive to bring unintentionally overlooked airmen back into the fold,” Burdick wrote.

In practice, Burdick said, DEI would shape decisions on military promotions and other advancement opportunities.

“Going forward, every nomination for selective professional development programs, training courses, awards, leadership opportunities, and jobs must incorporate an internal review to ensure that all eligible candidates are considered,” he wrote. “This review intends to ensure that all candidates are given fair and equal consideration, and bias and blind spots are mitigated.”

The DEI policy memo outlined plans to review and analyze the group’s commitment to diversity.

“Group leadership will compare its placement of diverse airmen in selective professional development programs and desired jobs with Air Force and United States population demographic data,” Burdick wrote.

The memo concludes with this endorsement: “DE&I must remain integral and consistent with our core values, overall readiness, mission accomplishment, and reflective of the nation we serve.”

When asked if the memo was still in effect today, a spokesman at MacDill told The Daily Signal, “The memo was issued by a former operations group commander who has since retired. The new commander was not made of aware of its existence upon taking command.”

Diversity Agenda in Action

In January 2021, the Air Force formed the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Months later, Frank Kendall assumed the role of Air Force secretary and emerged as an outspoken proponent of diversity efforts.

Kendall and other Air Force leaders outlined diversity and inclusion goals for officers in an Aug. 9, 2022, memorandum that set targets in the categories of race, ethnicity, and sex. (Read the full memo at the end of this story.)

“Diversity and inclusion are an essential part of our society and key to the success of any organization,” Kendall wrote in the memo, which was signed by three other leaders, including Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

This directive is being implemented throughout the Air Force.

For example, the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, headquartered at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, operates a leadership and development program for officers known as Phoenix Horizon. According to a list of nominees reviewed by The Daily Signal, individuals had an asterisk placed next to their name if they were “diverse.”

“This program is highly selective and for most officers selected, it puts them on a path to future commands,” the veteran Air Force officer explained. “There are a few ‘golden tickets’ in the Air Force that set the trajectory of your career, and this is one of them for Air Mobility Command.”

Asked about the list, Air Mobility Command’s director of public affairs told The Daily Signal: “The [‘diverse’] indicator is applied to the list after selections are already made and is used as part of the outbrief to the developmental team following a selection board as an awareness tool.”

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, right, during a Jan. 23 appearance at Howard University, has championed diversity efforts during his tenure. (Photo: Lisa Ferdinando/DOD)

Another document shared with The Daily Signal emanated from MacDill, which Jonsson led from 2020 to 2022. In early 2021, MacDill’s top-rated squadron commander sent an email professing the importance of diversity and inclusion in the Air Force.

The Daily Signal is reprinting the squadron commander’s email below while withholding the author’s name.

I urge you all to take the time to read and thoroughly digest the historic review of our Air Force’s institutional struggle with racial disparity as it relates to military discipline and professional development.

Our Air Force’s senior leaders are sincerely committed to moving well beyond initial recognition of our racial issues and towards lasting and impactful policy changes to make a more equal, diverse, and inclusive Air Force.

The first sergeant and I chaired another poignant D&I discussion this afternoon with some of our brave marauders who volunteered to join the discussion on the social struggles facing our nation and Air Force today as it related to injustices, discrimination, and inequalities.

I challenge you to step out of your comfort zone and volunteer to join on our next D&I discussion in a few weeks when you are ready. Remember, our grassroot[s] efforts are essential to ensuring we stay incrementally focused on the fundamental issues and challenges our generation of airmen must tackle.

Your Air Force, wing, group, and squadron leadership are all in … the question is, are you?

Asked about these examples, an Air Force spokesman directed The Daily Signal to Kendall’s 2021 comments about diversity.

“It is clear we still have work to do in fostering inclusive environments where every service member feels respected and valued, and has the opportunity to reach their full potential,” Kendall said at the time. “Where barriers exist, we need to break them down. I am convinced diversity in our force makes us a stronger team and more capable to answer our nation’s call.”

Blowback to DEI

Last year, The Heritage Foundation commissioned the National Independent Panel on Military Service and Readiness to study the effects of DEI programs on military readiness, among other issues. Chaired by Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., the panel recommended that the Defense Department eliminate DEI programs and training.

The views Jonsson expressed while leading MacDill are consistent with DEI principles now propagated by Defense Department leadership and embraced by all branches of the U.S. military.

At the Air Force Academy where Jonsson served as vice superintendent, a “Diversity & Inclusion” slide presentation advised cadets to “use gender-neutral language and avoid terms such as mom and dad.” It also urged cadets to avoid the term “colorblind” and instead be “color conscious.”

Under Jonsson’s leadership, the academy faced criticism for promoting DEI and critical race theory.

Beginning during the Obama administration and accelerating on Biden’s watch, the military built a vast DEI bureaucracy. Those who questioned it, such as U.S. Space Force Lt. Col. Matthew Lohmeier, faced discipline.

The veteran Air Force officer, who spoke anonymously to The Daily Signal, warned that “wokeness” was raging out of control within the military. He called it a “cancer” that threatens to undermine the entire institution.

“We are at an endemic point and if we do not do something to turn the tide soon, I feel the military could be lost forever,” the officer said. “No matter how bad you think it is, the problem is much worse than you think and removing this cancer will be quite difficult. I would say 80% of our current officer force either wholeheartedly believes in the left-wing agenda and drives it like Col. Ben Jonsson, or they are too cowardly to speak against it.”

Heritage’s military panel warned that the full-scale embrace of DEI is compromising military readiness and warfighting capabilities.

“[T]he precepts of DEI distract from developing a well-trained, merit-based military, and some manifestations of DEI, such as the teaching of postmodernist theories, run counter to the foundational principles that define the United States,” the panel stated.

‘Climate’ Survey Results

The anonymous Defense Organizational Climate Survey, which evaluated Jonsson’s leadership at MacDill in January 2022, includes both a quantitative survey and substantive written comments. 

An email from Jan. 10, 2022, included in the 139-page FOIA response to Heritage’s Oversight Project, says the purpose of the survey was to “get meaningful comments and share them up & down the chain of command.” 

Although not all the comments were critical of Jonsson’s leadership, several subordinates cited his Air Force Times commentary as problematic or referenced DEI practices at MacDill. Their unedited responses, published Nov. 2 by The Daily Signal, were submitted 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.” 

Col. Ben Jonsson, while serving 379th Air Expeditionary Wing vice commander, greets then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a congressional delegation visit to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Oct. 21, 2019. (Photo: Tech. Sgt. John Wilkes/U.S. Air Force)

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 stated.  

Another added: “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 of Jonsson’s leadership 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).”

Thibeau, the Army veteran who is now at Claremont, said: “Based on Col. Jonsson’s command climate survey results, he makes personnel decisions based on race. This has no place in an institution that should be solely committed to merit.”

Stalled in the Senate

Senate rules allow an individual senator to object to “unanimous consent,” the process used to confirm a large bloc of nominees or promotions. That’s how Schmitt is able to put a hold on Jonsson’s promotion.

Following the Senate’s approval of 425 military promotions Dec. 5, only a fraction still await action, according to the Senate’s executive calendar. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said those promotions could be on the docket this week.

Currently, Tuberville is preventing about a dozen high-ranking generals from receiving promotions to four-star rank. The Pentagon has vowed to work with him to resolve his concerns.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, speaks with Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., prior to a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting in 2021. Austin and Tuberville would later square off over the Pentagon’s abortion policy. (Photo: Chad J. McNeeley/DOD)

“We’ll continue to stay engaged with Sen. Tuberville in the Senate directly to urge that all the holds on all our general flag officer nominations be lifted, to include those nominated for four-star [rank],” Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told ABC News.

Jonsson, however, is in a different category. Biden nominated him in January, and the Senate Armed Services Committee, under the leadership of Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., moved on his promotion in March.

Jonsson’s promotion has lingered since then and will continue to wait for as long as Schmitt retains his hold.

“Sen. Schmitt is right to hold his nomination,” Thibeau said, “and he should not relent until President Biden withdraws Col. Jonsson’s promotion.”

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