Our nation celebrates Veterans Day — originally known as Armistice Day — each Nov. 11. It is a day set aside to honor the brave men and women who have served to protect freedom around the world and the American way of life at home against tyranny.
In addition to school boards, the United States military has become increasingly partisan and politically divided in recent years. The U.S. armed forces have become a new political battleground and the forefront of a cultural war between the left and right.
Jace Yarbrough, a lawyer and Space Force reservist, found himself in the midst of such an ideological, and increasingly religious, conflict.
Yarbrough hails from a small town in West Texas and was raised in a working-class family. Despite his modest upbringing, he is living the American dream, balancing fatherhood with a successful career as a lawyer and Air Force reservist. However, his peaceful family life was turned upside down after he received a complaint for a speech he delivered during his friend’s retirement ceremony.
The biggest issue stemming from his speech was his quoting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a famous Soviet dissident and Nobel laureate. Solzhenitsyn’s commencement speech at Harvard received a massive media attention and was one of the defining moments of the Cold War.
As the culture war intensifies, American conservatives are rediscovering Solzhenitsyn and his work. For them, Solzhenitsyn is more relevant than ever. Well-known conservative columnist Rod Dreher titled his book “Live Not By Lies” after Solzhenitsyn’s famous essay. Yarbrough, 37, and his attorney Danielle Runyan, a senior counsel at First Liberty, spoke with Jovan Tripkovic, an editorial fellow at Religion Unplugged, to discuss the ongoing case. They also talked about Solzhenitsyn and his relevance to contemporary American society.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Jovan Tripkovic: A few years ago, you participated in a retirement ceremony for a fellow service member. During the ceremony, you practiced your religious beliefs. Now, you’re facing trouble with the Air Force, which could potentially jeopardize your career. Can you describe what led to this lawsuit?
Jace Yarbrough: During my second assignment on active duty, I had the privilege of serving with someone who later became a good friend. He was my senior noncommissioned officer during my first operations flight as a brand new first lieutenant. The relationship between senior NCOs and young officers is crucial in the military. It ensures that young officers receive valuable guidance and mentorship from experienced officers. I was fortunate to have Sergeant Fish as my first mentor.
We served together and eventually took different paths. I separated from active duty while he continued to serve. Despite this, we stayed in touch and talked fairly regularly. He’s a Christian. When the time came for him to retire, he asked me if I’d preside over the ceremony, which includes the significant task of delivering remarks in honor of the retiree. I gladly accepted.
In the summer of 2021, my wife and I decided to turn it into a two-day vacation. We flew to Hawaii with our fourth child, who was just five or six months old at the time. The three of us spent some quality time with Sergeant Fish and his family and took part in the ceremony, during which I delivered my remarks. It was in a lovely setting — the Battleship Missouri Memorial, a museum managed by a private organization. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, it was a small gathering of around 20 people, family and close friends.
My speech went really well. Sergeant Fish’s wife, Ada, was deeply moved by it. She even broke down in tears a few times. I was glad that my words honored him. I tried to connect his service and the virtues I saw in him to larger life issues. I asked myself, “What does the military need right now?” It needs the kind of virtues Sergeant Fish embodied: faithfulness and commitment and qualities that his wife demonstrated throughout his long career.
A week or two later, Sergeant Fish called me to tell me that a complaint had been filed against me. I immediately reached out to my military supervisor. I wanted him to hear from me directly about this. As it turned out, he had already learned about it the night before. I was notified that they’re going to conduct an official investigation. They asked to see my remarks. I sent them exactly what I said, almost word for word. I answered the questions they had. I also responded to some written questions they sent me. I was very open with them. I had nothing to hide.
Tripkovic: How long did it take for the Air Force to issue you a letter of admonishment?
Yarbrough: Roughly two months after I touched base with my supervisor is when the official letter of admonishment came down. Two months after the ceremony, I was officially disciplined and received a letter of admonition issued by my supervisor.
Tripkovic: What is a letter of admonishment, and how severe can it be?
Yarbrough: The practical effect of this letter of admonishment is that I will never get promoted again. My progression, at least in terms of ranks, is likely over. The Air Force does not look favorably on any kind of issues like this. A letter of admonishment is an official discipline that indicates the airman receiving this letter has engaged in inappropriate behavior, causing leadership to question his judgment, character and ability to serve faithfully.
All the performance reports I’ve seen that have been written about me since this issue happened are much less favorable. It would be very difficult for me to appear before a promotion board, which is a group of officers that evaluates and selects those who are going to be promoted. Getting promoted based on these performance reports would be very challenging for me.
Both in terms of having this official letter of admonishment in my record, which is available for any future commanders to see, and the implicit consequences of receiving much weaker performance reports, I will never get promoted again. These are a couple of significant outcomes resulting from this letter of admonishment.
Tripkovic: The retirement ceremony took place aboard the Battleship Missouri Memorial, a private museum in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The Navy provided a band, and someone from the band complained about your quoting Solzhenitsyn. Do you know which part of your speech upset the person who filed the complaint? Was it mentioned in the letter?
Yarbrough: The letter itself didn’t include a specific quote, but it mentioned that these were the words you used that upset someone who was present. It stated in general that several military members expressed displeasure with my comments. It also included some excerpts from the complaints. These attached excerpts stated that my comments were inappropriate and targeted towards the LGBT community.
According to the letter, these comments were hurtful to a group of people, but the letter itself did not specify that these were the things you said that upset the folks in attendance. Regarding my comment about Solzhenitsyn, the letter did briefly list and quote certain comments it was reprimanding me for. One of those was Solzhenitsyn’s famous line: “Let the lie come, but not through me.”
Tripkovic: What was the highlight of your speech?
Yarbrough: The highlight would be, “Don’t lie. Don’t participate in things you know to be false. Don’t, out of a false sense of courtesy, go along with or in any way endorse speech or conduct that you know is dishonest.” The reason for this is that when you do, you internalize the habit of dishonesty within yourself. This can only lead to terrible consequences for you, for any organization you’re a part of, including the military, for your family, and for your culture.
Tripkovic: Why Solzhenitsyn? Why did you quote him?
Yarbrough: I found inspiration in Solzhenitsyn’s faith, viewing it as an example of how to fulfill one’s duties to God in a culture that not only opposes and is hostile to the things of God but actively promotes its own egocentric religion. I witnessed the virtues of courage, competence, and faithfulness to the truth in my retiring friend. And I wanted to praise him for it. I saw a connection between him and Solzhenitsyn. My aim was to inspire other members of the audience to emulate Solzhenitsyn’s values in their own lives and behavior.
Tripkovic: What’s your favorite work from Solzhenitsyn?
Yarbrough: I quoted “Candle in the Wind” for a reason. If you have to start somewhere, start there. His Harvard address, even though lengthy for an address, is also really good.
Tripkovic: And what’s your favorite quote from Solzhenitsyn?
Yarbrough: “One word of truth outweighs the world.” It’s a powerful statement about the image of God within us, as he creates all material things through the spoken word. When you think about it in that context, the word has to hold greater weight, as it’s the means by which all substantial things were formed. It’s a truly profound statement.
Tripkovic: Taking into consideration your interest in Solzhenitsyn’s work, are you in the process of converting to Orthodoxy?
Yarbrough: I’m actually Catholic. I had no exposure to any form of historic Christianity while growing up. My family isn’t scholarly or cultured. I’ve never seen my dad read a book. My mom read Christian novels and similar things. They didn’t have much of that traditional historic formation to pass on to me.
They did give me the King James Bible, both in word and in practice. They said this book, and God within it, is worth every ounce of your love. If you take this book seriously, you will lead a good and fulfilling life. Thanks be to God, I’ve always followed that advice, whether it was explicitly stated or implied. Through the John Jay Fellowship, I became aware of the larger story of Christianity. That sent me on a journey, and we were ultimately received into the Catholic Church this past Easter. I’ve been a Catholic for about four or five months now.
Tripkovic: Besides Solzhenitsyn, are you familiar with other Russian authors?
Yarbrough: “Crime and Punishment” might be my favorite work of fiction. I am melancholic — that’s my temperament. It resonates with me. Obviously, I’m not Eastern Orthodox, but it does speak to me. I was in my mid-20s when I read “Crime and Punishment.” It just haunts you. I still find myself thinking about that book. Dostoyevsky provides a story in which the truth triumphs, but it triumphs simply because it is the truth.
It stands unaided, without every form of false support. In a Dostoyevsky novel, you don’t find the truth through the most beautiful or moral characters. None of the other transcendentals seem to support it, at least in terms of outward appearance. Truth comes through vehicles that you have no sympathy for. The lie comes through those characters that you find yourself rooting for.
Tripkovic: Do you see parallels between Solzhenitsyn’s work and recent cultural and political developments in our country?
Yarbrough: Our cultural elites and institutions are so militantly against truth and objectivity. One has to wonder, how long can this really last?
It’s not just that they’re lying about esoteric things. They’re not only lying about it themselves, but they’re forcing other people to lie about it. They’re forcing us to lie about things that are fundamental to everyday existence. A couple of phrases from the remarks I delivered: Men can’t give birth, and boys shouldn’t be allowed in girls’ locker rooms. These statements touch on some of the most basic biological facts in our world.
Yet, what our military and our institutions are doing is not only compelling us to lie about it, but they want our airmen to do so to such a degree that you can’t tell from the surface that they acknowledge it as false. They want us to tell these lies in such a way that we convince our cultural elites that we actually believe them. Solzhenitsyn was arrested because of something he wrote in a private letter to a friend. It doesn’t get much more invasive than that. In many ways, we are certainly approaching that level of invasion, facing an invasive inquiry from our cultural elites.
Tripkovic: The ceremony Jace attended was a Navy function, and he was in uniform. To those unfamiliar with the United States military regulations, it might appear as though your client was acting in an official capacity. What arguments do you have to indicate that your client acted as a private citizen?
Danielle Runyan: This is an excellent question. It’s a question that many people have asked. I appreciate you giving us the opportunity to clarify. First and foremost, it’s important to understand that being in uniform doesn’t automatically establish jurisdiction. Wearing the uniform doesn’t automatically grant the military the authority to discipline someone. There are specific criteria that must be met for the Air Force to exercise jurisdiction over a military member, and those criteria weren’t met in this case at all.
The military regulations state very clearly that somebody acting in their civilian capacity can wear the uniform and preside over a ceremony, particularly a retirement ceremony in uniform. That’s precisely what happened here, as Jace already explained. This was a private event at a private venue, intended for a group of family and friends of the retiree.
There’s really no way that anyone at that retirement ceremony is thinking that there’s any sort of official capacity speech going on. Nonetheless, Jace’s speech is protected by the First Amendment. As we state in our complaint, everything he said was protected speech. He didn’t say anything that was contemptuous. It just so happens to be speech that’s not consistent with the ideology being promoted by not only our military but also our executive branch. Essentially, the complaint here amounts to a heckler’s veto, and a heckler’s veto doesn’t give the military any jurisdiction or authority to discipline Jace in his civilian capacity.
Yarbrough: I would like to add that I’m not a traditional reservist. I don’t serve one weekend a month and two weeks a year. I serve as what’s called an individual mobilization augmentee. This means that my unit is an active duty unit, not a reserve unit. They will call me up for specific times when they need additional support.
When they do that, they put me in what’s called an official military status. They direct me to come in. They fund my travel. I get paid. It’s like I’m back on active duty in the military. None of that happened at this ceremony. My unit was not even aware that I was doing this. It was a favor for a personal friend. I funded all of it. I took vacation from my civilian job and traveled there with my wife and son.
Tripkovic: What actions have you taken up to this point? And what are the next steps?
Runyan: Jace made numerous appeals up his chain of command. He went all the way up to the point of asking the chief of the Space Force, General B. Chance Saltzman, to rescind the letter of admonishment. However, it was denied. Arguments were made that the Air Force didn’t have jurisdiction to issue the letter of admonishment in the first place, and Jace’s speech was protected by the United States Constitution.
We’ve filed a complaint and are now waiting for the defendants — the Department of Defense, the Department of the Air Force and Space Force officials — to respond. The case will proceed through the normal steps of litigation. Ultimately, our goal is to have the letter of admonishment set aside and to prevent the Air Force from taking any future disciplinary actions against Jace for his religious exercise and speech made in his civilian capacity.
The discipline that Jace received — in the form of a letter of admonishment — is considered an administrative action by the Air Force. This is distinct from the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which governs criminal actions that can be taken against an airman. We’re not discussing criminal jurisdiction here. What we’re talking about is the possibility of Jace facing punishment again for expressing this type of speech, which he very well might do in his civilian capacity. He is an attorney who represents a number of clients, including religious ones in some instances.
If it happens again, we could then enter the territory of a pattern of misconduct. This would put him at risk of being discharged from the Air Force due to his speech. That’s why we’re not only asking for the letter of admonishment to be set aside but also for the Air Force to be prevented from taking any future action against him. We’re also requesting the court to issue a judgment stating that the letter of admonishment violated not only the First Amendment but also the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
Tripkovic: How will this ultimately be resolved in court?
Runyan: As attorneys, we don’t have crystal balls. Both us at First Liberty and Winston and Strawn, another law firm representing Jace and the Ave Maria School of Law Veterans and Servicemembers Law Clinic, feel very confident. We have strong confidence that Jace will prevail in this case, be vindicated, and that this letter of admonishment will be withdrawn. Hopefully, this will become a case law precedent, clarifying that the Air Force can’t simply discipline individuals for actions taken in their civilian capacities.
As military members, we don’t give up our constitutional rights. We take an oath to defend and uphold the Constitution. While our rights may be limited to a certain degree when we are in active status, in civilian status, we do not lose those rights. We believe that case law on this is a positive development for people who want to express their religious views in the future.
Tripkovic: What advice would you give to another service member on avoiding similar situations while still exercising their religious beliefs? Is it possible in today’s political and cultural climate?
Yarbrough: Your day is coming, unless you compromise and lose a little bit of your soul. Your day is coming. I don’t say this because of the nature of the folks on the other side or the ideology that is attacking me, which has been expanding for the past decade and a half in the Department of Defense. It’s absolutely totalizing.
As a military member, you need to have a framework for understanding your duties to God. You have to understand the lines He has drawn that you can’t cross. You also need to consider what you will do when you are asked to cross them, because that day is coming. In short, live not by lies!