Dedicated to the United States of America

The Vindmans

ERIC MINK

Retirement from the U.S. Army didn’t seem to be in the cards for 45-year-old Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman.

Consider the simple declaration with which he opened his widely watched testimony in November during the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment investigation hearings:

“I have dedicated my entire professional life to the United States of America. For more than two decades, it has been my honor to serve as an officer in the United States Army.”

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Vindman joined the Army in 1999 within months of graduating from college in upstate New York. He was 24. His active-duty service since then has included multiple overseas deployments, including a combat tour in Iraq during which he was wounded by an improvised explosive device and earned a Purple Heart. He later earned a master’s degree from Harvard.

For the past 12 years, he has served as one of the Army’s 1,100 elite Foreign Area Officer experts in political-military operations, specializing in the countries of Eurasia. In that capacity, he’s served in U.S. embassies in Moscow and Kyiv and worked for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His most recent assignment was a year and a half attached to the National Security Council (NSC) staff at the President Donald Trump’s White House.

This year, he’s in line for promotion to the rank of full colonel. On July 6, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper approved a list of 1,123 senior military officers who had been nominated for promotions. The list, including Vindman’s name, is then to go to the White House for the approval of the president, which almost certainly would be a problem.

On July 8, Vindman revealed in a Twitter post that he had  requested permission to retire from the Army, “an organization I love,” he wrote.

As I explored in a column about Vindman five months ago, his background, education, expertise and position at the NSC meant that he (and other White House colleagues) were assigned to listen in on Trump’s July 25, 2019, phone call with Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president of Ukraine.

Vindman heard Trump urge Zelenskiy to order needless Ukrainian investigations intended to generate damaging material about Joe Biden, Trump’s probable Democratic opponent in the 2020 election. In return, Trump would release financial aid that Ukraine desperately needed to counter Russian threats and aggression and that already had been approved by Congress and signed into law by Trump.

Vindman saw Trump’s efforts as inappropriate personal politics with the potential to damage U.S. national security, and he reported those concerns up his chain of command at the NSC. Last fall, he agreed to be deposed by House committees in private and to testify publicly.

Vindman’s testimony was precise and professional and figured significantly in Trump’s subsequent impeachment by the full House on Dec. 18.

Vindman’s refusal to stay silent made him the target of a vicious campaign by Trump and his supportive media trolls to discredit the lifelong soldier and punish Vindman for daring to expose the president’s corruption. Twitter rants and right-wing media attacks soon followed, including barely disguised anti-Semitic stereotypes and other vile slurs.

The attacks continued even after votes in the Senate on Feb. 5 failed to remove Trump from office and after Vindman was discharged from his position at the NSC two days later, along with his twin brother, Yevgeny, also an Army lieutenant colonel and a lawyer on loan to the NSC.

Senior officials at the Department of Defense, meanwhile, have failed to put their money where their mouths were.

Shortly after Vindman’s deposition in late October, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters that Vindman “shouldn’t have any fear of retaliation.”

In December, a Defense Department deputy secretary wrote to assure a concerned senator that the department “will not tolerate any act of retaliation or reprisal” against Vindman.

And at a briefing just days before Trump had Vindman fired from the NSC in February, Esper maintained: “We protect all of our persons, service members, from retribution or anything like that.”

Yet in June, multiple news reports surfaced in Washington that Trump had not forgotten Vindman’s testimony and wasn’t about to approve a promotion for him. Esper said nothing to contradict the reporting.

The idea that a dispute about him could hold up approval of the promotions of 1,122 other service members might well have been too much for Vindman to bear.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, for the first time in a great many years, I took another look at 1985’s “The Statue of Liberty,” the third documentary made by Ken Burns and his team of filmmakers.

Thirty-seven minutes and 55 seconds in, the film cuts from a beautiful reflection by historian David McCullough about the statue’s emotional impact to a shot of three people sitting on a bench in brilliant sunlight: a middle-age woman flanked by two young boys who look remarkably alike.

The boys are Alexander Vindman and his twin brother Yevgeny. Depending on when the film was shot, they would have been 9 or 10 years old. The woman is most likely their maternal grandmother. We hear the boys speaking perfect English, alternating and talking over each other:

“We came from Russia.”  “We came from Kyiv.” “And then we went to …” “Our mother died so we went to Italy.” “Then we came here.”

The boys arrived in the United States as 3-year-olds in 1979 with their older brother, widowed father and grandmother, all of them Jewish. They were born in Kyiv, then part of the Soviet Union. They settled and grew up in the Russian/Eastern European community in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn.

The family left hardship in the closing decades of the 20th century and crossed the unknown for the promise and potential of America. It struck me that their experience echoed the transformation of many millions of us, including my grandparents and great-grandparents, all Jewish, who came here from the same general area of Russia in the closing decades of the 19th century. They were Minks and Novacks and Potashnicks and Sirkins and Schainkers and other names that would become blended into connected families over future decades, mostly here in St. Louis.

I remembered Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus”  that’s hammered into a plaque attached to the pedestal of the State of Liberty. Not the familiar part about the “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse” but the earlier lines about the statue herself:

“A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.”

And I remembered the comment Ken Burns posted on Twitter last fall as the Trump crew was cranking up its ugly smear campaign against Alexander Vindman for speaking the truth and acting with honor:

“I remember the Vindman boys fondly,” Burns wrote. “Theirs is the story of America at its best.”

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St.  Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at [email protected]