Gun Control, Abortion Comments Scuttle Pentagon Nomination

Retired Air Force Col. Dean L. Winslow (Screen grab from November 7, 2017 Senate Armed Service Committee hearing)
Retired Air Force Col. Dean L. Winslow (Screen grab from November 7, 2017 Senate Armed Service Committee hearing)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' nominee for assistant secretary of defense for health affairs has withdrawn over his comments on abortion and gun control -- specifically his opposition to civilian ownership of assault rifles.

Retired Air Force Col. Dean L. Winslow, a flight surgeon with four tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, said in an op-ed Wednesday for The Washington Post that his nomination had been put on hold after his remarks on the AR-15-style rifle used in the Texas church massacre and that he sees no point in going forward despite his qualifications.

"My appointment had been put on indefinite hold by the Senate Armed Services Committee [SASC], and I felt the Defense Department needed to fill the position without undue delay," Winslow said.

"I am sorry not to be able to assist Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, whom I deeply respect, in building the best and most efficient military health care system possible," he said.

"I have the credentials to help, including 35 years of experience in the Air Force in military and academic medicine," Winslow said. "But unfortunately, I do not possess one credential the committee wanted to see: I do not support the unrestricted ownership of semi-automatic assault weapons by civilians."

Winslow's comments on abortion also fanned opposition in the committee.

"I know, too, that at least one other issue (my support for access to therapeutic abortion, in accordance with federal law, for women in military service was also a sticking point) helped torpedo my appointment," he said.

Winslow, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, ran into opposition at his confirmation hearing in November. He was asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, about domestic violence in the military and the Nov. 5 shootings at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, that killed 26.

The alleged shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, of New Braunfels, Texas, either killed himself or died of wounds inflicted by his pursuers, according to Texas police.

Kelley had served in Logistics Readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. He was court-martialed in 2012 for assaulting his wife and child. He received a bad-conduct discharge, was confined for 12 months and reduced to the rank of E-1. He was discharged in 2014.

The Air Force has acknowledged that Kelley's court-martial conviction was not reported to the FBI, which might have prevented his legal purchase of a Ruger AR-556, similar to the AR-15, used in the church shootings.

At the committee hearing, "I blurted out what was in my heart," Winslow said.

He told the committee that he wanted to say "just say how insane it is that in the United States of America a civilian can go out and buy a semi-automatic weapon like an AR-15."

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the SASC chairman, interjected: "I don't think that's in your area of responsibility or expertise."

McCain also took issue with Winslow's comments on abortion in his written responses to a committee questionnaire.

Winslow wrote that he believes "therapeutic abortion services should be provided by the military in appropriately staffed facilities."

"What do you mean by that?" McCain asked after he read the answer out loud.

Winslow clarified that therapeutic abortions refer to situations in which the mother's life is in danger. Federal law does not allow military medical facilities or Defense Department dollars to be used to provide abortions except in certain circumstances.

McCain told Winslow, "You may want to clean up this abortion issue, OK? Or you're going to have trouble getting it through the Senate."

In his op-ed, Winslow said, "As commander of an Air Force hospital in Baghdad during the surge, I have seen what these [assault] weapons do to human beings."

"The injuries are devastating. In addition, because of their high muzzle velocities, assault weapons are challenging for untrained civilians to control and are not optimal for home defense," he wrote.

"Assault weapons in the United States are not being used to kill 'bad guys' in self-defense or to provide for a 'well-regulated militia' but for entertainment, mass murder and domestic terrorism," Winslow said. "Is this really the intent of the Second Amendment?"

There was no immediate comment from the Defense Department on Winslow's withdrawal of his nomination or mention of a replacement.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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