In grate­ful ser­vice to an adopted home

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARC FISHER

His fa­ther gave up ev­ery­thing to es­cape from com­mu­nism, an over­bear­ing govern­ment, an­tiSemitism and the painfully nar­rowed op­por­tu­ni­ties that Jews faced in the Soviet Union. Alexan­der Vind­man grew up in Brook­lyn, de­ter­mined to be as Amer­i­can as can be.

Now Vind­man is sud­denly a cru­cial fig­ure in a con­tro­versy that could lead to the im­peach­ment of Pres­i­dent Trump — hailed by many of Trump’s crit­ics as a pa­tri­otic truth-teller yet dis­missed by the pres­i­dent and some of his al­lies as a dis­loyal tat­tler who is some­how not fully Amer­i­can.

Vind­man and his iden­ti­cal twin, Yevgeny, were not quite 4 when they landed in the United States, set­tling in Brighton Beach, Brook­lyn, a half-hour sub­way ride from the ferry that runs to the Statue of Lib­erty.

Grate­ful to the na­tion that adopted them, the twins en­listed in the U.S. Army and launched ca­reers in govern­ment. To­day, at 44,

Vind­man is a mil­i­tary man in a job that puts a pre­mium on dis­cre­tion — and the com­man­der in chief, with­out ev­i­dence, calls him a “Never Trumper wit­ness.”

But those who have worked with Vind­man de­scribe him as a model of­fi­cer.

“He was firm and he was bal­anced,” said Peter Zwack, a nowre­tired bri­gadier gen­eral who was Vind­man’s boss when the young of­fi­cer was a De­fense De­part­ment of­fi­cial work­ing in the U.S. Em­bassy in Moscow. “To­tally self­made, as you of­ten get with im­mi­grants. They’re hun­gry. There’s a drive to pay back the op­por­tu­nity that your new na­tion gave you.”

As di­rec­tor of Euro­pean af­fairs for the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, Vind­man was re­quired to lis­ten in to the July 25 phone call be­tween Trump and the pres­i­dent of Ukraine, where Vind­man was born. Af­ter the call, Vind­man felt com­pelled to re­port his alarm over hear­ing the pres­i­dent re­quest that Ukraine in­ves­ti­gate for­mer vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den and his son Hunter Bi­den.

Wash­ing­ton scan­dals have at times over the years fea­tured pre­vi­ously anony­mous bu­reau­crats who glimpsed wrong­do­ing and found them­selves thrust into in­stant fame, their lives abruptly gone topsy-turvy, their mo­tives and his­to­ries ex­am­ined for bias or ve­nal in­tent.

In this time of po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sion and In­ter­net-fa­cil­i­tated in­spec­tion, Vind­man has lost the anonymity that served him well in Army po­si­tions at the U.S. Em­bassy in Moscow and in the White House. Af­ter con­sult­ing with an ethics lawyer — his twin brother, a Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil at­tor­ney who worked across the hall from him — Vind­man took his con­cern up the chain of com­mand. He was no whistle­blower, but he ended up telling his story to in­ves­ti­ga­tors, to a con­gres­sional com­mit­tee, and soon, he is ex­pected to ap­pear be­fore law­mak­ers dur­ing na­tion­ally tele­vised hear­ings.

If Vind­man’s first ap­pear­ance on Capi­tol Hill was any in­di­ca­tion, he will be a for­mi­da­ble wit­ness. Wear­ing his mil­i­tary uni­form, Vind­man tes­ti­fied in closed ses­sion for 10 hours last month — a gru­el­ing, com­bat­ive ses­sion re­counted in a 340-page tran­script re­leased Fri­day by the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee.

Vind­man’s brush with fame quickly got ugly. On Fox News, Laura In­gra­ham de­scribed him as “a U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cial who is ad­vis­ing Ukraine while work­ing in­side the White House, ap­par­ently against the pres­i­dent’s in­ter­ests,” and John Yoo, a Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cial in the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, replied that “some peo­ple might call that es­pi­onage.” On CNN, for­mer con­gress­man Sean P. Duffy (R-wis.) sug­gested that Vind­man “has an affin­ity, I think, for the Ukraine.”

As a de­fense at­tache posted to an em­bassy over­seas, Vind­man, in the mil­i­tary’s non­par­ti­san tra­di­tion, has in­sisted that he had no pol­i­tics other than rep­re­sent­ing his govern­ment.

“I am a pa­triot, and it is my sa­cred duty and honor to ad­vance and de­fend our coun­try, ir­re­spec­tive of party or pol­i­tics,” he told the con­gres­sional com­mit­tee last month. In his writ­ten text, he put the word “our” in cap­i­tal let­ters.

“I have ded­i­cated my en­tire pro­fes­sional life to the United States of Amer­ica,” Vind­man said.

Both Vind­man broth­ers reg­is­tered to vote as Democrats when they signed up in New York while still in their teens. Af­ter Alexan­der moved to Wash­ing­ton, he reg­is­tered in the District in 2012 with­out any party af­fil­i­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to city elec­tions records.

But in to­day’s Wash­ing­ton, where party af­fil­i­a­tion can be viewed as a scar­let let­ter that brands even the apo­lit­i­cal as some­how bi­ased, no af­fir­ma­tion of po­lit­i­cal neu­tral­ity seems to suf­fice.

Those who know Vind­man well say noth­ing could pain him more than to have peo­ple ques­tion his al­le­giance to the coun­try that gave him a home and a fu­ture.

Ken Burns, the doc­u­men­tary film­maker who hap­pened to fea­ture the Vind­man twins in a 1986 film about the Statue of Lib­erty, re­called them fondly. “Theirs is the story of Amer­ica at its best,” he said.

As kids, the twins of­ten dressed alike. They still do. Over four decades in Amer­ica, they have moved from the pow­der-blue sailor suits their grand­mother put them in to the deep-blue dress uni­form of the U.S. Army, in which they both serve as lieu­tenant colonels. They both work in the White House, both for the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. They both live — five houses apart from each other — in Wood­bridge, a leafy Vir­ginia sub­urb 38 miles from their of­fice.

The Vind­mans came to Amer­ica as part of a wave of hun­dreds of thou­sands of Jews who em­i­grated from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s. The Vind­man boys’ mother had re­cently died when the fam­ily made it to Brook­lyn in 1979, af­ter a brief stay in Italy. The twins ar­rived with their fa­ther, their grand­mother, their older brother, Leonid, and $750.

The boys lived in a neigh­bor­hood known as Lit­tle Odessa, where the shops un­der the el­e­vated trains had be­come a clus­ter of tastes of the old coun­try — Rus­sian din­ner clubs where new bot­tles of vodka ap­peared with ev­ery course, Rus­sian video and book shops. But Alexan­der and Yevgeny pressed to get out of their im­mi­grant com­mu­nity and be­come as Amer­i­can as they could imag­ine.

“Upon ar­riv­ing in New York City in 1979, my fa­ther worked mul­ti­ple jobs to sup­port us, all the while learn­ing English at night,”

Vind­man told the House com­mit­tee. “He stressed to us the im­por­tance of fully in­te­grat­ing into our adopted coun­try. For many years, life was quite dif­fi­cult. In spite of our chal­leng­ing be­gin­nings, my fam­ily worked to build its own Amer­i­can Dream.”

For Alexan­der, Yevgeny and Leonid, that meant serv­ing their coun­try in uni­form. Their fam­ily left the Soviet Union in part so the boys would not be sub­ject to be­ing drafted into the Soviet mil­i­tary. But the broth­ers ea­gerly en­listed in the U.S. Army, in Alexan­der’s case af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Bing­ham­ton Uni­ver­sity in Up­state New York — a school that so many Soviet em­i­grants chose that it even­tu­ally started a “Rus­sian for Rus­sians” course for na­tive speak­ers, said Nancy Tit­tler, the school’s un­der­grad­u­ate di­rec­tor of Rus­sian stud­ies.

Alexan­der — nine min­utes older than his “kid brother,” as he told law­mak­ers — served in South Korea, Ger­many and Iraq, where he was wounded in 2004 by an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice, an in­ci­dent that led to him be­ing awarded the Pur­ple Heart.

Af­ter his time in Iraq, Vind­man’s path shifted from com­bat in­fantry­man to Har­vard Uni­ver­sity stu­dent, and he earned a master’s de­gree in Rus­sian, Eastern Europe and Cen­tral Asian stud­ies. Al­ready flu­ent in Rus­sian and Ukrainian, he gained the his­tory and po­lit­i­cal ground­ing that would serve him well as a for­eign area of­fi­cer, a job in which mil­i­tary of­fi­cers serve in em­bassies around the world.

Vind­man held posts in Kyiv, Ukraine, and in Moscow, where he, his wife and their baby daugh­ter lived in a diplo­matic apart­ment com­plex out­side the cen­tral city. Vind­man rep­re­sented the De­fense De­part­ment to his Rus­sian coun­ter­parts, vis­it­ing mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties, meet­ing with Rus­sian of­fi­cers and or­ga­niz­ing vis­its by Amer­i­cans.

The mis­sion in Moscow in those years was to sup­port Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s effort to “re­set” the Amer­i­can re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia. It wasn’t go­ing well. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin be­lieved that the United States was be­hind pro-democ­racy demon­stra­tions that were putting pres­sure on his regime, and Wash­ing­ton had moved against cor­rupt Rus­sian oli­garchs, freez­ing their as­sets.

Zwack, Vind­man’s boss, needed of­fi­cers he could trust to en­gage the Rus­sians. He found Vind­man to be per­fect for the job. Zwack said he never saw any in­di­ca­tion that Vind­man ei­ther held a grudge against the coun­try his fam­ily had fled or had a soft spot for the Rus­sian regime. “If he were a hard-ass to the Rus­sians, it would have been dif­fi­cult for him to suc­ceed,” he said. “And he never let his feel­ings about the coun­try get in the way of his job.”

Dur­ing Vind­man’s ten­ure in Rus­sia, from 2012 to 2014, Zwack said, “we weren’t ob­sessed with the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion as so many peo­ple are now. I never knew whether some­one was an R or a D. Our job was to be sup­port­ive of who­ever was pres­i­dent.”

In July, when Trump spoke to the Ukrainian pres­i­dent, Vind­man lis­tened in from the Sit­u­a­tion Room, grow­ing ever more “con­cerned by the call,” as he would tell mem­bers of Congress. “I did not think it was proper to de­mand that a for­eign govern­ment in­ves­ti­gate a U.S. ci­ti­zen. . . . The re­quest to in­ves­ti­gate the Bi­dens had noth­ing to do with na­tional se­cu­rity.”

Vind­man felt com­pelled to reg­is­ter his con­cerns to his su­pe­ri­ors. “The com­mand struc­ture is ex­tremely im­por­tant to me,” he said.

Vind­man has re­mained pub­licly silent since his name burst into the news. His at­tor­ney, Michael Volkov, said Vind­man goes to the White House ev­ery day: “He is at work, busy, do­ing his job.”

LT. COL. VIND­MAN. AL DRAGO/BLOOMBERG NEWS

PHO­TOS BY CAROL KIT­MAN

Iden­ti­cal twins Alexan­der and Yevgeny Vind­man race af­ter a friend on the board­walk in Brook­lyn, where their fam­ily set­tled in 1979. To­day the broth­ers, be­low, serve as lieu­tenant colonels in the U.S. Army, work in the White House for the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and live five houses apart from each other in Wood­bridge, Va.

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