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Hispanic Caucus Takes Aim at African-American Veteran’s Service on Key Panel

Castro leads effort to yank Earl Matthews from military base renaming panel

• February 2, 2021 3:00 pm

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A group of Hispanic lawmakers is calling on Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to remove four Trump administration appointees from a panel tasked with renaming military bases that honor Confederate leaders—including an African-American military veteran who supports the renaming project. 

The lawmakers, led by Reps. Joaquin Castro (D., Texas) and Ruben Gallego (D., Ariz.), are objecting to the appointees because they were tapped during the Trump administration: "The work of removing Confederate names from the Department of Defense cannot be trusted to appointees of a President who gave aid and comfort to the ideological heirs of the Confederacy," the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote in a letter on Friday.

Now, one of those appointees is pushing back. Earl Matthews, an African-American military veteran who supports the renaming project, slammed the lawmakers’ move.

"It is regrettable that anyone would believe that my presence on the renaming commission would undermine the commission’s legitimacy merely because I accepted a political appointment in the last Administration," Matthews told the Washington Free Beacon. "This matter is above politics, it’s about properly honoring America’s heroes and about following the law." 

A Harvard Law School graduate and colonel in the District of Columbia National Guard, Matthews served as deputy assistant to President Donald Trump and senior director for defense policy and strategy on the National Security Council before leaving the post in November 2019. 

He expressed support for Austin's confirmation in December, writing in a Washington Post op-ed that while he "would have preferred that President Trump nominate the next defense secretary," Austin is a "strategic leader" who "has ably and honorably served for more than 40 years."

The Friday letter from members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus implores Austin to use the renaming of Confederate bases to "recognize and celebrate the contributions and sacrifice of generations of Latino Americans." 

That is a goal that Matthews says he not only has no intention of undermining, but one that he shares. 

"It is ironic that I share a reverence for iconic Hispanic American war heroes with some who do not know me personally, yet have suggested that my presence on the commission is illegitimate," Matthews told the Free Beacon. He pointed in particular to Navy officer Everett Alvarez, a Mexican American who was one of the longest-held prisoners in the Vietnam War, and to General Richard Cavazos, the first Mexican American to attain the "general" rank. 

Friends and allies of Matthews are also speaking out against the attacks levied by the Hispanic Caucus. Decorated Vietnam War veteran and longtime head of the United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce Al Zapanta called Matthews a "class act" who is sympathetic to the panel's mission.

"My feeling is very simple: A guy like him ought to be kept, because he understands the issue and will be very supportive," Zapanta told the Free Beacon. "If they want to take some people off, start out with those who are not veterans and those who are not minorities."

Rep. August Pfluger (R., Texas) echoed Zapanta's sentiment. An Air Force veteran who served in active duty for two decades before joining the National Security Council in 2019, Pfluger said Matthews would bring a "diverse perspective" to the commission.

"Col. Earl Matthews has served his country with distinction for over two decades in the U.S. Army National Guard. He grew up in the inner city, persevered to overcome racial inequality, and graduated from multiple distinguished universities—including Harvard Law School," Pfluger said. "He was rightfully appointed to serve on the commission for renaming military installations and will bring a fair, balanced, and diverse perspective."

Lawmakers created the eight-person commission through the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which orders the removal of Confederate names from U.S. military property within three years. Trump vetoed the annual defense bill in late December, citing in part his opposition to the "renaming of certain military installations." Congress overrode the veto days later. 

Austin has the authority to replace any of the four panelists appointed by the Trump administration. In addition to Matthews, this includes Joshua Whitehouse, Ann Johnston, and Sean McLean. Another four members will be appointed by the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. 

Defense officials told the Free Beacon that the department is "aware of the letter from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus" but declined to comment further. Castro did not return a request for comment.