The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Power struggle among Biden appointees gets personal over race

Former U.S. ambassador John Estrada poses for a photograph at his home in Lake Worth, Fla., on January 12, 2022. (Saul Martinez for The Washington Post)
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A clash over race and social status has roiled a panel of Biden administration appointees entrusted with overseeing military cemeteries and war monuments, after a former U.S. ambassador and retired Marine who is Black was replaced as the group’s chairman by a White retired general, according to internal correspondence obtained by The Washington Post and interviews with nine people familiar with the matter.

John L. Estrada, the former ambassador, was elected chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission on Nov. 9, but commissioners disagreed over how long he would hold the post. Estrada and at least two other commissioners believed he would serve indefinitely through the Biden administration. But the majority of the group said that they had agreed that they would vote on the role again if the White House appointed another member to a last, vacant commissioner position, and that they expected that retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a high-profile CNN news analyst, would join their ranks within days.

Estrada, while serving as chairman, wrote in a Dec. 9 email to all of the panel’s 10 other commissioners that the issue was “divisive,” saying he had been asked by people outside the group whether his race was a factor. Estrada had just become the first person of color, immigrant and enlisted military veteran to become chairman. He came to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago at age 14, and rose to become the senior-most enlisted member of the Marine Corps through the height of the Iraq War.

“I have had questions presented to me on whether this has to do with race, me being enlisted or immigrant born,” Estrada wrote to the other commissioners. “I never answer, but it does make me wonder.”

The comment irritated other commissioners, according to emails obtained by The Post and interviews with Estrada and other officials familiar with the argument. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying the subject remains highly sensitive.

Hertling was elected by a majority of commissioners to replace Estrada on Dec. 15, after being appointed to the last open spot on Nov. 30, ABMC officials said. Estrada said in an interview that he is disappointed and frustrated. Other commissioners — including those supporting and opposing Estrada’s chairmanship — said they are dismayed by how personal the issue became.

“I can’t believe that this thing is happening at this day and time when we keep talking about equality and fairness,” Estrada told The Post. “These guys really pushed me to the limit. So yeah, it did make me wonder.”

The discord cuts against President Biden’s promise to bring order to government after the turmoil that often plagued his predecessor’s administration. It also highlights simmering tensions in the military about the social standing of enlisted personnel and the comparatively small number of officers who oversee them.

The White House declined to comment, beyond saying that the president had no role in deciding who would chair the commission.

The dispute threatens to undermine what is typically a staid, sacred and nonpartisan mission of remembering Americans who died in the line of duty, said David Urban, a former Army officer who chaired the commission under President Donald Trump. He called the infighting “truly sad.”

“This drama,” he said, “gives a black eye to the Biden administration, the ABMC and all of those involved.”

The group, mostly appointed by Biden on Sept. 29, have a diverse array of experiences and backgrounds. Estrada, 66, is one of several people of color on the board, and he campaigned for Biden. Hertling, 68, retired in 2013 as the commander of U.S. Army Europe and now works as an adjunct professor at Rollins College in Florida and at CNN, where he has criticized Trump for a lack of empathy and backed Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Other members include Medal of Honor recipient Florent Groberg, retired generals and Amy Looney Heffernan, the Gold Star wife of a Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan.

Although the commissioners are unpaid, they oversee an organization that has nearly 500 full-time employees and a budget of about $84 million. Formed after World War I, it is responsible for the care of hallowed grounds at the sites of dozens of major American battles overseas, including Normandy and Belleau Wood in France, Flanders Field in Belgium and Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

The dispute, in part, appears to have originated with a miscommunication between the White House and Hertling.

After leaving the full panel empty for the first eight months of his presidency, Biden appointed 10 commissioners on Sept. 29, leaving the final position vacant and naming Hertling as the group’s secretary. While commissioners weigh in on policy matters, the secretary is a full-time job with a salary of $172,500. Hertling said in an interview that he was interested in being a part of the commission, but was “kind of surprised” to be appointed secretary instead of commissioner and did not know what the job entailed.

For a few weeks, Hertling received briefings and began to learn the job, he said. The retired general said he did not realize that there were ethical requirements for the position that prevented him from having other employment, until he was told by government lawyers that he would need to file a financial disclosure form.

“I said, ‘Oh, man,’” Hertling recalled. “The main driver of me wanting to be on this commission or doing anything for the government — and I specifically told people this — is I don’t want to be paid. I’ve had a great, four-decade-long career in the military, and I don’t want to be paid for any government positions. That’s where it became a sticking point.”

Those who retire from the military after at least 20 years of service receive a pension from the federal government, with annual compensation rising substantially based on rank and years of service.

Hertling told the commission’s full-time senior officials that he would need to resign as secretary but was interested in filling the last vacancy on the 11-member panel, he said.

When the commission met for the first time on Nov. 9, Hertling was still the secretary, meaning he could not be named chairman. Robert Dalessandro, a full-time career employee who serves as deputy secretary, told commissioners that the White House had made a mistake and that Hertling could be reappointed to join them on the board instead, several commissioners said.

Estrada said that before the first meeting, Dalessandro made calls to some commissioners asking them to support Hertling becoming chairman. Considering that Hertling was not yet a commissioner, Estrada said he found that “underhanded” and decided to pursue the chairmanship himself.

Dalessandro denied Estrada’s claim, saying in an interview that he notified commissioners that Hertling would be stepping down as secretary and was interested in returning as the commission’s eleventh voting member.

“I probably said there was an error,” Dalessandro said. “The bottom line was that the White House was not aware that he did not want to continue that employment” as secretary.

The White House declined to address several questions seeking clarity about the situation, including whether the administration believes that Estrada was treated unfairly or whether officials had made a mistake in appointing Hertling as the commission’s paid secretary.

Hertling resigned as secretary Nov. 9 and was reappointed as a commissioner Nov. 30. He will not be required to pay back the federal government for drawing a salary while having outside income, Dalessandro said. At the rate set, that amounts to about $10,000.

“He did the job,” Dalessandro said. “That’s the short answer.”

The first vote for chairman occurred in an executive session, and commissioners said that no minutes were kept to memorialize whether Estrada’s selection was meant to be permanent or temporary. Open government experts say it is advisable to take minutes to ensure there is clarity and a common understanding for what occurred in a meeting.

Darrell Dorgan, a current commissioner and enlisted Army veteran who served in Vietnam, said in the closed session that Estrada was making history in a couple of ways, and that if the board was going to swap chairmen it needed to do so carefully or the decision could attract media attention, two commissioners said. Dorgan declined to comment.

After Estrada raised questions via email about the motivation for his removal as chairman, a retired admiral on the board, Michael Smith, responded emotionally.

“I hoped we could discuss this calmly,” he wrote to the full panel. “But just because we might have different memories is no reason to ‘wonder’ or ‘question’ if I am racist, don’t value enlisted members or disrespect immigrants.”

Smith added that if Estrada did not withdraw his remarks, Smith “may not be able to serve on this Board” with him. In an interview, Smith said that he talked with Estrada on the phone later and that Estrada told him he was not accusing him of being racist.

“Part of it for me was I’m so honored to be in this position, and we’d only had our first meeting,” Smith said. “It’s an honor to take care of the fallen. Let’s focus on that.”

Another commissioner, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Daniel Woodward, wrote to the group that he “had no hidden agenda or ulterior motive” in seeking a second vote for chairman.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are derailing,” wrote Woodward, the emails show. “We have among us a Gold Star spouse, a Medal of Honor Recipient, and we are distinguished civilian and military leaders. We can and must be better than this.” He said in an email to The Post that he stands by his comments.

Hertling replaced Estrada on Dec. 15. The commission said it would not release the vote because it was held in executive session and is thus exempt from public scrutiny. But several commissioners said it was 6 to 3 in Hertling’s favor, with Estrada and Hertling not allowed to vote.

Among those voting for Estrada were Dorgan; Bud Pettigrew, a Marine veteran active in Democratic politics in Nebraska; and Raymond Kemp, a retired Navy SEAL who left the military as a fleet master chief, a senior enlisted position, four commissioners said. At least two people of color — Groberg and Gail Berry West, a retired lawyer and wife of former Army secretary Togo West — voted for Hertling, the commissioners added. Each declined to comment.

Commissioners who voted against Estrada said they were disappointed that he brought race into the discussion. One said, “He is trying to manufacture that he was chairman in a permanent capacity” and that media attention on the situation is making “a mountain out of a molehill.”

One of Estrada’s supporters on the board disagreed. He is a man of integrity and justified in his anger, that commissioner said.

Estrada, Hertling and other commissioners all said that they can continue to work together. But raw feelings remain.

Estrada said White men have led the commission for its entire 99-year history. Hertling, he said, could have “stepped up and shown leadership” and backed Estrada becoming chairman, especially because Estrada also served on the commission during the Obama administration and Hertling did not.

“Am I qualified for it?” Estrada said. “Damn right I’m qualified for it!”

Hertling said he was interested in the chairmanship in part because of his Army experiences at the commission’s cemeteries in Europe.

“If he still feels the same way, I can’t do anything about that other than to say that we’re going to build a team,” Hertling said. “I’ll try to understand him a little better if he says he still feels that way.”

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