Editor’s Note: Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling is a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst for CNN. He served for 37 years in the Army, including three years in combat, and retired as commanding general of US Army Europe and the 7th Army. He is the author of “Growing Physician Leaders.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his. View more opinion at CNN.
I don’t know Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman personally. But his story, background, service record, skills and attributes are like those of so many others I have served with during assignments in Europe and the Middle East.
Vindman, the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert, is in the news as he is testifying before a House impeachment inquiry about his concerns over President Trump’s request that Ukraine’s president investigate Trump’s political rival. Because he questioned this — indeed he reported it to NSC counsel – Vindman has taken a great deal of criticism from President Trump’s defenders in recent days.
If you have been following along with the impeachment inquiry, you likely know at least some of Vindman’s own story. He came to this country with his parents from another country — Ukraine – that was within the boundaries of the then-Soviet Union. When he arrived as a three-year-old, the army in Europe was patrolling the borders of the Warsaw Pact and preparing for the invasion of the Soviet forces. Crazy times.
Vindman grew up in a family that knew the oppression of authoritarianism, and by his testimony we know his family instilled a passion for patriotism and service to his new country. He went to school, enrolled in ROTC, and upon commissioning, chose to be an infantry officer. By then, the Iron Curtain in Europe had come down and his country of birth – Ukraine – was emerging as a sovereign state.
Before he was promoted to major, Vindman like all Army officers was asked to choose a “functional area.” There are many of these offered – public affairs, strategist, operational research, etc. – and all majors understand that service and assignment in their chosen area will complement the requirements of their basic branch (in Vindman’s case, infantry). Though he had served as an infantryman, Vindman’s background, language skills, and cultural understanding likely contributed to him choosing Foreign Area Officer, or FAO.
Being an FAO is tough. Qualifications requires attendance at a graduate school to learn a nation or area’s culture, expertise in a language, extensive training in ethics, tougher vetting than what is given for other officers when applying for a security clearance, and service in a key position, like a critical staff or an embassy. FAO’s spouses are also vetted, given that they are usually asked to accompany the officer to foreign lands and interact with locals.
In fact, the preparation and qualification processes are so rigorous that many who become FAOs eventually “single track” in that area – meaning they usually don’t have the time to return to their basic branches.
I’m not an FAO, so how would I know all these things? Well, when I was commanding US Army Europe (USAREUR), we had an entire staff section, called the “POL-MIL (political-military) branch of the G5,” that coordinated operations, security assistance, theater exercises, training and partner engagements with the 49 countries of Europe and the Levant that fell in our footprint. Most, but not all, of the officers on the staff were well qualified, just like Vindman.
When not working in Heidelberg, where UAAREUR was headquartered, these officers also served as defense attachés in “their” countries, were pulled to work on the Joint Staff or Army staff in Washington, and in some cases were asked to serve at the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) or the National Security Council (NSC).
The level of expertise and skills always determined assignment to these higher positions. To get to the NSC, Vindman would likely have been the best of the best in understanding Ukraine.
Given this reality, it’s despicable that people who clearly know very little about Vindman’s background, his history, and the skills and attributes that elevated him to his position would disparage his service to further and support their opinion-based narrative. But commentators, politicians and partisan troublemakers have been doing just that across the media.
Aristotle once said that ethos, pathos and logos (character of the speaker, the frame of mind of the audience, and the proof of the argument) were critical to an informed argument or discussion. It appears that many pundits need a refresher in this approach.
Vindman states his devotion to the Constitution in his published opening statement to the committee. It put me in mind of a discussion I once had with another of the immigrant FAOs on the USAREUR staff when I promoted her to Lieutenant Colonel and she reaffirmed her oath. She reminded me that of all the countries the US had as partners or were allied with as part of NATO, only one took an oath to defend a piece of paper…the Constitution.
That’s what makes us different, she said, because we don’t vow to defend land or the head of state, we vow to protect and defend ideas.
That is what Lt. Col. Vindman is doing right now.