WASHINGTON (AP) — The Soviet-era immigrant who came to the U.S. as a toddler and grew up to become a decorated soldier and a White House aide saw it as his "sacred duty" to speak up.
Now Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a 20-year Army officer assigned to the National Security Council, finds himself in the red-hot center of the House impeachment inquiry.
Vindman testified Tuesday that he twice raised concerns that President Donald Trump and his European Union ambassador, Gordon Sondland, inappropriately pushed Ukrainian leaders to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and son Hunter Biden.
"I sit here, as a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, an immigrant," Vindman, the NSC director on European affairs, told House investigators in written testimony. "I have a deep appreciation for American values and ideals and the power of freedom. I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend our country, irrespective of party or politics."
The Army officer was a specialist in the White House on Ukraine and Russia. His backstory — he's a Jewish immigrant who fled the Soviet Union with his family to become a decorated soldier and White House adviser— has the makings of an only-in-America movie.
"He comes from a hard-working immigrant family and is utterly self-made," said retired Brigadier Gen. Peter Zwack, who was the top Defense Department official for the U.S. diplomatic mission in Moscow during Vindman's tenure there. "He is smart. He had the courage of his conviction and would tell me what he thought, and I think there's a little bit of that playing out now."
Vindman was only 3 years old in 1979, when he and his two brothers, father and grandmother fled Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, for the U.S. His mother died in Ukraine before they immigrated.
His family was highlighted in a photo essay by photographer Carol Kitman, who first spotted Vindman and his twin brother in 1980 walking hand in hand with their grandmother under elevated train tracks in Brooklyn's Little Odessa neighborhood.
Kitman struck up a relationship with the Vindman family and photographed the boys over the years, including their weddings. His twin brother, Yevgeny, is also an Army lieutenant colonel and serving as a lawyer with the NSC.
Yevgeny "is always the smiling twin." Alexander "is serious," wrote Kitman. "At this age, it was very hard to tell them apart."
Vindman and his twin also made an appearance as boys in Ken Burns' 1985 documentary "The Statue of Liberty," which explored how the landmark has become a symbol of hope and refuge for generations of immigrants.
"Upon arriving in New York City in 1979, my father worked multiple jobs to support us, all the while learning English at night," Vindman said in his prepared testimony. "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."
He took part in the ROTC program while attending the State University of New York at Binghamton and later earned a master's degree from Harvard University in Russian, Eastern Europe and Central Asian studies.
Earlier in his Army career, he served as an infantry officer and did tours in South Korea, Germany and Iraq. In October 2004, not long into his yearlong tour in Iraq, he was wounded by a roadside bomb and awarded the Purple Heart, according to the Defense Department. Vindman showed up to Tuesday's hearing in full uniform, including his Purple Heart ribbon, a Ranger tab and Combat Infantry Badge.
Since 2008, he's served as a foreign area officer specializing in Eurasia, leading him to stints in Kiev and Moscow. He also served as a political-military affairs officer for Russia for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He moved to the Trump White House in July 2018 after being tapped to serve on the National Security Council.
Vindman told House investigators that he raised his concerns after he listened with other aides to Trump's July 25 call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and concluded that it was improper "to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen."
"I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government's support of Ukraine," he said.
He said he also raised concerns with the NSC's legal counsel after a July 10 meeting in which Sondland stressed the importance of having Ukraine investigate the 2016 election as well as Burisma, a company linked to the family of Biden, a top 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.
Trump took to Twitter to slam Vindman as a "Never Trumper" who he was unfamiliar with. Voting records show Vindman was previously registered as a Democrat.
"Supposedly, according to the Corrupt Media, the Ukraine call 'concerned' today's Never Trumper witness. Was he on the same call that I was?" Trump tweeted. "Can't be possible! Please ask him to read the Transcript of the call."
Ukrainian officials raised concerns with Vindman about how they should deal with Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, the New York Times reported.
Behind the scenes, White House officials sought to downplay the issues raised by Vindman. Senior administration officials argued that his opening statement showed he had a "policy dispute" with the president and other White House officials over Ukraine aid.
Some Trump backers and conservatives questioned Vindman's loyalty because he was born in Ukraine.
Vindman "is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense," former Rep. Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican and a Trump supporter, said in a CNN interview. "I don't know about his concern (for) American policy, but his main mission was to make sure the Ukraine got those weapons. I understand it: We all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from. Like me, I'm sure that Vindman has the same affinity."
Fox News's Laura Ingraham suggested that Vindman was "advising Ukraine while working inside the White House apparently against the president's interest."
Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia under Obama, worked with Vindman in Moscow. McFaul said Trump backers questioning Vindman's loyalty demonstrated a double standard.
"I have never heard them say that about the first lady, for instance," he said. "Just because she was born somewhere else, you're going to assume dual loyalties?"
Vindman "was 3 years old, for God's sake, and he was a Jewish émigré. That was a period of time when we were dedicated to religious freedom, trying to get ethnic Jews out of the Soviet Union," McFaul added. "The simplistic idea that he has loyalty to Ukraine is just insulting and naïve, and I find it to be un-American."
Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Zeke Miller and Alan Fram contributed to this report.