Sen. Lindsey Graham served his country. This is more than can be said for many of his competitors for the Republican nomination, some of who actively dodged military duty.
Still a recent investigative report by the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock and a follow-on piece on the website Popular Military have stoked doubts about whether Graham’s service record has been exaggerated, and whether it reflects improprieties in the handling of his career. Whether Graham fairly earned promotions to Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel and whether he actually performed the duties listed in his service record are the key questions raised by the Post report, and they’re not unfair questions given the facts.
But the coverage to this point, in focusing on Graham’s role in representing his own service record, has neglected the question of how the Air Force’s notoriously hidebound personnel system managed to produce a career absolutely brimming with inexplicable weirdness. The trained Air Force eye instantly recognizes several oddities that just don’t add up – at least not without more information.
How does a sitting Senator who barely has time fulfill reserve duties secure a competitively sought-after position as a professional Judge Advocate General (JAG) instructor? How does someone with so little documented performance get promoted and decorated repeatedly?
JQP reached out to a source with knowledge of the answers to these questions. That source provided additional details demonstrating that the story of Colonel Lindsey Graham isn’t simply a banal matter of gotcha politics, but a possible window into questionable conduct within the military chain of command.
According to the source, not only did Graham never teach a single class at the JAG school, he never even attended the basic instructor course required for all faculty members. This means he was never qualified for the job.
Yet, he held down a duty title at the school for nine years, even if that duty title (“Senior Instructor”) never existed. Interestingly, Graham reportedly also never attended a required three-week judges course before being appointed as a military appellate judge. As the old military saying goes (no doubt quipped by many a military judge over the years), “anything more than once constitutes a trend.”
If such a trend were to manifest in any ordinary, rule-abiding Air Force organization, the commander of that organization would be thought culpable for professional misconduct. Falsifying personnel records to burnish the credentials of favored subordinates is not acceptable, no matter who does it, how it gets segmented and dissembled to look bureaucratically legitimate, or what explanation attempts to attach to it. The fact that it could persist in one of the service’s most detail-oriented communities is darkly remarkable.
Graham’s career was managed by Lt. Gen. Jack Rives and Lt. Gen Richard Harding, the two men who held the service’s top JAG position during Graham’s nine-year ghosting at the JAG school in Alabama, where he never lived and apparently never visited. Given their roles, Rives and Harding bear at least some if not most of the responsibility for any misrepresentations in Graham’s service record.
Accordingly, the Air Force should be asked why Graham was permitted — at least perceptually — to hold a job considered prestigious within the JAG community as an absentee logging an average of 1.5 days of military duty per year.
The service should also explain how it was that Graham earned a Bronze Star on the strength of 142 days in combat zones spread over 19 separate trips. Such an apparently brazen patronage move involving the nation’s tenth most exalted decoration reportedly inflicted a deep moral injury within the JAG community. Lawyers who had deployed for 179 or 365 days and found themselves at risk of or subject to enemy fire were turned down for the decoration, some around the same time Graham received his. To observers, it looked like nothing but blatant backscratching.
While the Post article gnaws at the question of Graham’s promotions to O-5 and O-6, the story is reportedly more unsettling than thus far exposed. A source with knowledge of Graham’s personnel file says that between 1995 and 2007, he didn’t accumulate a single Officer Performance Report. While a single Letter of Evaluation was entered during that period, the document covered more than 500 days and still provided scant performance information. Graham’s record was essentially an empty shell for a dozen years, and he was still promoted. That simply does not seem possible without manipulation of the process.
In the Post article, Rives was asked whether Graham’s political status played a role in his promotion to Colonel. Rives responded, in part, with an explanation of how promotion boards work:
“I can say from having served on [promotion] boards, you do score the record and you take an oath to do that. People are warned specifically you can’t show favoritism.”
Given that Graham didn’t have a single performance report as a Lieutenant Colonel and hadn’t logged the developmental education that boards look for as a key promotion indicator, the question is what “record” the board relied upon to meet the standard explained by Rives.
Rives, incidentally, is a particularly curious character in the Graham story. Senator Graham supported Rives’ 2006 confirmation as Judge Advocate General of the Air Force, which made Rives Graham’s military boss. Two years later, Graham supported a provision in the annual defense spending bill that elevated the Air Force’s senior JAG billet from a 2-star to a 3-star position, effectively bestowing Rives with a third star based partially on the political support of his military subordinate. While not necessarily indicative of a quid pro quo, this would seem to show a clear conflict of interest, as would the reported friendship between the two men stretching back decades.
None of this specifically distills corrupt conduct, but it does raise questions and allow for unfavorable inferences. The emerging narrative contradicts everything the Air Force claims to hold dear when it comes to avoiding conflicts of interest, applying personnel policies equally to everyone regardless of power or position, and remaining constantly vigilant to the danger of inappropriate political or ideological influence, especially over legal and regulatory process.
Maybe the story is much ado about nothing. Or maybe, it’s fair to question whether Col. Lindsey Graham actually earned his last two promotions, his war medal, and the duty titles that populate his service record. If he didn’t, or if there is significant doubt that he did, the issue should be investigated and discussed not so much for the sake of electoral illumination … but as an exploration of how the Air Force seems to have failed, quite miserably, in making sure Graham’s record matched his reality.
The alternative is for the Air Force to tacitly admit that political capture is complete, and to succumb at last to the debilitating apathy and crumbling morale certain to follow. That’s an unacceptable outcome for national defense.