Lindsey Graham Promoted Twice As Absentee Reservist

Lindsey Graham recently retired as a colonel in the Air Force Reserves after 33 years of service. He missed most of the last twenty.

Lindsey Graham recently retired as a colonel in the Air Force Reserves after 33 years of service. He missed most of the last twenty.

WaPo (“Sen. Graham moved up in Air Force Reserve ranks despite light duties“):

Of all the candidates vying to become the nation’s next commander in chief, none has spent as much time in the military as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham. The South Carolina Republican retired from the Air Force this summer after a 33-year career, including two decades as a reservist while serving in Congress.


But a detailed examination of Graham’s military record — much of it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act — shows that the Air Force afforded him special treatment as a lawmaker, granting him the privileges of rank with few expectations in return.

During his first decade in Congress, the Air Force promoted Graham twice even though documents in his military personnel file reveal that he did little or no work. Later, the Pentagon gave the military lawyer a job assignment in the Air Force Reserve that he highlighted in his biography for several years but never performed.

After he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1994, Graham was designated by the Air Force Reserve as a “key federal employee,” a category for a small number of lawmakers and senior government officials.

Over the next 10 years, he rarely put on his uniform. According to his personnel file, between January 1995 and January 2005 he received credit for a total of 108 hours of training — the equivalent of less than a day and a half per year.

During that span, however, the Air Force kept awarding him promotions. In 1998, he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Six years later, he was promoted to colonel by President George W. Bush.

In interviews with The Washington Post, Graham called that period the “wilderness years” of his military service. He said he struggled to find a useful niche in the Reserve and that his legislative duties left him little time to devote to his military career.

“At one time I almost thought about getting out because I felt like, okay, what am I doing here?” he said.

He added, “I didn’t feel guilty because I wasn’t getting any money.” As a key federal employee, he could earn points for a military pension but was ineligible for a service paycheck.

Even so, Graham said his promotions to lieutenant colonel and colonel were warranted. He said he earned them primarily based on his work as a junior officer, before he became a politician, when he served as a full-time military prosecutor and defense counsel.

“I think when it came to being Colonel Graham that they looked at my entire record, and I’ll put it up against anybody who’s ever served,” he said. “I don’t mean to pat myself on the back, but I was one hell of a judge advocate.

“Yeah, I think I deserved promotion.”

The arrangement benefited both sides. Graham emphasized his ongoing military service in his political campaigns, while the Air Force was grateful to have an influential lawmaker in its ranks.

By all accounts, Graham was indeed a hell of a judge advocate. But, no, he didn’t deserve promotion.

The fault here lies with the Air Force, not Graham. There’s no evidence he sought especial favoritism, much less applied pressure on the Service from his perch in the Congress.The nature of the legislative schedule, combined with the demands of fundraising and campaigning, left him little time to perform actual work for the Air Force but the Air Force was happy to have an enthusiast on Capitol Hill.

Given his glowing performance evaluations (some of which are referenced later in the story) it’s quite possible that he would have been promoted to lieutenant colonel even if he weren’t a VIP. Granted, 1998 was a fallow period for promotions but he was considered a superstar. But colonel was a tough cut even in 2004 and one doesn’t get selected for colonel based on one’s service as a captain and major but rather on one’s performance in command or other highly competitive lieutenant colonel billets. Graham did not fill one of those, at least not truly. And, frankly, the JAG corps isn’t generally a ticket to full bird status to begin with.

The Air Force referred questions to the Air Reserve Personnel Center. Col. Robert Palmer, a spokesman for the center, said that “selection for promotion is based on the whole person concept, which includes performance, professional qualities, leadership, depth and breadth of experience, specific achievements, academic education, and developmental education.”

Jack L. Rives, a retired Air Force judge advocate general who oversaw Graham’s assignments for several years, said he was an accomplished lawyer who took his Reserve duties seriously.

Asked if Graham’s standing in Congress influenced the Air Force’s decision to promote him to colonel, Rives replied: “Your question is a good one and a natural one. But 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.”

Right. But clearly someone did.

After he became a colonel, Graham began to dedicate more hours to the Reserve. He deployed for brief stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, visits timed to overlap with his travels there as a senator.

For nearly a decade, however, Graham gave inaccurate public descriptions of his job assignment, records show.

From 2006 until the start of this year, Graham’s official biographies stated that he worked as a senior instructor at the Judge Advocate General’s School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., the training hub for the service’s legal corps. That description has been cited in virtually all news coverage of Graham’s military career.

In fact, Air Force officials said they had no record of Graham teaching any courses on behalf of the school or even visiting it during that period.

Other uniformed lawyers said Graham’s assignment was widely perceived as a no-show job granted to a politician with whom the Air Force brass was eager to curry favor.

“It was kind of an open joke among people, that he was supposed to be a senior instructor here but he never taught any classes,” said an active-duty Air Force lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. “Clearly, the rules didn’t apply to him.”

In his interviews with The Post, Graham acknowledged that he “never went” to Maxwell Air Force Base and didn’t serve as an instructor for the school. “I actually did zero,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t know why they picked that title.”

He clarified that the Air Force did assign him to the school but said that he persuaded his superiors to allow him to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan instead so he could work with a Defense Department task force on detention policy.

Graham said he kept the inaccurate job description in his biographies because he didn’t want to draw attention to his war-zone missions. Although many of his trips to Afghanistan and Iraq were documented by the news media and publicized by the Defense Department, Graham said he tried to minimize coverage for fear that the Pentagon would view his desire to serve there as a political stunt.

“I never took time to change it,” he said of his biographies. “I probably should have. At the end of the day the one thing I didn’t want to talk about was being deployed overseas. If I start putting that out there . . . I thought that would screw everything up.”

I suppose Graham had the right to claim holding the post since he was technically assigned to it. But, frankly, instructor duty at the JAG school isn’t a particularly high-profile colonel billet even if you fill it.

When he arrived in Washington in 1995 as a freshly minted congressman, Graham struggled to fulfill his military duties.

As an unpaid officer in the Air Reserve, Graham was not required to serve a fixed number of hours, according to Air Force officials. But in eight of the next 10 years, he failed to achieve what the Reserve considered “satisfactory service,” or the minimum number of hours to qualify for a pension credit.

To be promoted to lieutenant colonel or colonel, Air Force officers are generally expected to complete advanced courses at the Air War College and the Air Command and Staff College, according to interviews with several current and former Air Force lawyers.

Graham did not and was promoted anyway, according to his personnel file.

Palmer, at the Air Reserve Personnel Center, said the courses were not formally required but “may be used as a qualifier or tie-breaker when considering the merits of multiple candidates.”

Graham acknowledged he did not complete the advanced courses, which are often taken by correspondence. He said it was unrealistic to expect a member of Congress to do so.

“I’ll just be honest with you: There is no way I had the time,” he said. “If you really want to keep members of Congress and people at the level I’m serving with in the Reserves, those requirements are probably not going to be met.”

My understanding of Reserve promotion policies is limited, other than that it’s supposed to mirror the active duty side. Regular officers are expected to complete an intermediate level school such as the Command and Staff College for promotion to lieutenant colonel and attendance at a resident school is quite helpful. Similarly, completion of a top level school like the War College is almost a prerequisite for the highly competitive promotion to full colonel. There’s simply no way a JAG officer without either of those courses under his belt and who essentially skipped his entire lieutenant colonel career should have been selected for colonel.

Graham did ultimately use his post to change the rules:

Graham wanted to go overseas instead. As a senator, he had visited Iraq and saw that the war was going badly. The torture scandal at Abu Ghraib prison showed the armed forces needed help devising policies for handling prisoners, he said.

“You could see the place fall apart in Iraq,” Graham said, recalling how he heard disturbing reports from military lawyers in the field. “People said, ‘You need to come over here and see this.’ ”

An obstacle stood in his way: a Defense Department policy that prohibited legislator-reservists from serving in war zones or “imminent danger areas.” In addition, the Air Force rarely called up reservists for war duty for fewer than several months — an unrealistic option for a senator.

But Graham buttonholed senior commanders and persuaded the Pentagon to grant him waivers to its policy.

The Air Force agreed to let him deploy for unusually brief tours — between two days and two weeks — when it suited his schedule. He would travel to Iraq or Afghanistan with a congressional delegation, then stay to perform his military service.

“Bottom line is, I kept pushing and pushing and pushing,” Graham recalled. “I said, ‘Listen, I want to go over there and see what you’re doing. I think I can help.’ ”

Graham said commanders were leery but eventually began to see him as an asset. In addition to tapping his expertise in military law, they used him as a political fixer to twist the arms of Iraqi and Afghan leaders who were causing headaches, he said.

One Air Force lawyer who served in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 said it did not appear that Graham did meaningful work.

“Nobody who was in the war-zone billets who were doing [legal] work in Baghdad ever knew what he did,” said the lawyer, who is still on active duty and spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. “He was just hanging on.”

While in uniform, Graham was often treated like a visiting celebrity. He was featured in military news releases and posed for photographs with other units.

Graham said he focused on the task force that oversaw the detention of military prisoners. His superiors said he did invaluable work.

“He’s a national treasure,” said Richard C. Harding, a retired Air Force judge advocate general who oversaw Graham’s duties. “His contributions were huge over there.”

This is all hearsay, of course, but it’s damned curious. At best, he was there as a senator-in-uniform. At worst, he was a tourist.

Not only should he have not been promoted to colonel, it’s not clear how he earned enough “good years” to qualify for a pension.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    He reminds me a little of the Southern gentleman that bought commissions during the Civil War. This resulted in a relatively incompetent officer corps and contributed to the Confederacie’s loss.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    I think Tim F at Balloon Juice had the perfect take on this long, long, boring WAPO story.

    Serious question: someone tell me who the hell cares enough to commission oppo research about Lindsey Graham.

    Tim F speculated Trump, then decided it’s too subtle for Trump. I think it’s Bush. He’s the one with spare money. Or has Graham done something to piss off the Koch Bros?

  3. An Interested Party says:

    A sign of desperation is the fact that Graham brought up Monica Lewinsky in last night’s forum…he needs to go back to being McCain’s sidekick because he certainly isn’t a factor in this race…

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    said the lawyer, who is still on active duty and spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation.

    A friend of mine has a sister who recently retired from the Air Force JAG as a LtCol. She started out in the reserves then went active duty after her divorce. I forget how many years she served, but she was at the Pentagon during the run up to the Iraq war. Exactly what her duties were I do not know, but my buddy told me she argued forcefully that the invasion was illegal. She was rewarded for her efforts on behalf of her country’s conscience with a billet in the American Siberia where she spent the last 7 years of her career.

    Something tells me she is not happy about this.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The fault here lies with the Air Force, not Graham.

    And James, this is like saying the fault lies with the Koch brothers for bribing Presidential candidates with campaign donations and super pacs, not the candidates for accepting them with promises of fiscal fellatio in the future.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08: That occurred to me as well. My guess is that the reporter was simply curious about Graham’s career upon coverage of his retirement.

    @OzarkHillbilly: Graham was apparently a superstar lawyer when on active duty and a terrific Guard/Reserve officer before joining Congress. It’s quite conceivable to me that he really thought he was deserving of advancement to colonel based on that record. Indeed, 25 years ago, he likely would have been; Reserve Component promotions were based on mere qualification, not competitive. But there’s no way he should have been competitive.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: By that thinking I should get a full pension from the Carpenters Union even tho I only had about 15 years worth of contributions when my body gave out. I guess it’s “Meritocracy for me, but not for thee.”

  8. C. Clavin says:

    There’s no evidence he sought especial favoritism…

    hahahaha…you crack me up.

  9. C. Clavin says:

    Remember…this is the same Republican party that doesn’t think G. Bush 43 was AWOL.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    @C. Clavin: It’s probably true that Graham didn’t seek any special privileges. Dan Quayle said he didn’t seek any special favors to get into the Nat’l Guard and that he didn’t lead a privileged life. He probably believed it. A fish don’t know it’s wet.

  11. Tillman says:

    So who were the people in Defense who thought it’d be a good idea to distort the reserve system to benefit a politician? The story’s framed in a way to make me think Graham is sleazy for this, but I end up condemning the dudes seeking favor in Congress by indulging a senator’s whims. Getting senatorial visits coscheduled as reserve tours is horseshit.

    I suppose I’d care more if Graham was grabbing larger margins in the polls.

  12. steve says:

    I was a superstar doctor when I was in the Air Force (have numbers to back it up). Does that mean I get a pension now? More seriously, the one thing about this that really does bother me is the pension. While the whole thing is kind of sleazy, the Air Force probably did benefit from this. Graham did also. Given the perks of the power elite, not sure we can really prevent that. But, we are going to actually end up paying him a pension for doing no work? That is galling and a waste of my tax money.


  13. anjin-san says:


    But, we are going to actually end up paying him a pension for doing no work?

    I’m sure we can find some combat vets who are getting food stamps and cut those to make up the difference…

  14. Electroman says:

    *shrug* I didn’t attend Air War College until I was already an O-6 selectee. In fact, it was pretty hard to get in there otherwise. I was active-duty, though. And I don’t blame anybody for not wanting to go to Maxwell AFB, the Fort Polk of the Air Force.

  15. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @steve: Hey! He was doing service. Those defense appropriations don’t authorize themselves, you know!

  16. JohnMcC says:
  17. DrDaveT says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    After he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1994, Graham was designated by the Air Force Reserve as a “key federal employee lobbyist,” a category for a small number of lawmakers and senior government officials.

    Kind of like that?

  18. Andy says:

    It’s important to point out that once Graham became a Senator he could not serve in the Ready Reserve. The Ready Reserve is what most people think of the reserves (ie. one weekend a month, two weeks a year), but there are other categories of reserve service. By DoD instruction, “key federal employees,” which include members of Congress, cannot serve in the Ready Reserve. The reason is that Ready Reserve members are subject to mobilization, but key employees, by virtue of the importance of their positions, cannot be mobilized. So he was transferred to “Standby Reserve” when he joined Congress. Before that he was active duty for about six years and in the National Guard for about seven.

    Members of the standby reserve do not train, are not assigned to units and do not receive pay for any military duty they do perform. To dig even deeper in the bureaucracy, there is an “active” and “inactive” status in the Standby Reserve. “Active Status” is very small category which allows Standby Reservists to accumulate points for retirement for any military duty they do perform and is populated exclusively (to my knowledge) with Key Federal Employees.

    Although I’ve very familiar with the promotion system in the Air Force, I do not know how promotions work for members of the Standby Reserve or even if they receive evaluations. Given the lack of participation requirements in the Standby Reserve (including attending formal schools like Air War College), it would be difficult to write performance reports for a board to evaluation, but perhaps there is another mechanism for people with that status.

  19. Tony W says:


    but perhaps there is another mechanism for people with that status.

    Yeah, I think that’s pretty clear.