USAF Honors Heather Wilson, Highest-Ranking Civilian Woman

An official portrait of the 24th Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson was unveiled by Barbara M. Barrett, the 25th Secretary of the Air Force on July 28 in a ceremony at the Pentagon.

Wilson served as the Secretary of the Air Force from May 16, 2017 to May 31, 2019. This was a transition period for the Air Force, as it moved from the era defined by combatting terrorism to confronting the emerging powers of Russia and China.

As the Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. Heather Wilson was responsible for the affairs of the Department of the Air Force. She was in charge of organizing, training, equipping and providing for the welfare of 685,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian forces as well as their families. She oversaw the annual budget of $138 billion, directing strategy, policy development, risk management, weapons acquisition, technology investments and human resource management across a global enterprise.

The senior headquarters of the Department of the Air Force and Headquarters Air Force (HAF) consist of two staffs in the Pentagon: Office of the Secretary of the Air Force and Air Staff. These are headed by the United States Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force. Air Force Chief is Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein.

During the ceremony, Barrett recognized the service and achievements that Wilson made as the highest-ranking civilian leader.

“I have been the beneficiary of your wisdom and foresight. It’s been said that if you want to define ‘patriot’ without using words, all you need to do is look at a picture of Heather Wilson. Today, we install a picture of you in the Pentagon to remind all who pass just what a patriot looks like,” said Barrett, while addressing Wilson directly.

Wilson reflected on her time as the Secretary of the Air Force:

“My children would tell you that when someone ever said, ‘you know, your mom is always coloring outside the lines’ my usual answer would be, ‘what lines?’” Sometimes to lead an institution forward, you have to redefine the question. As a leader, it’s most important to think about what are the right questions, not just what are the answers to the quiz that somebody else set for us to think,” said Wilson.

Wilson was an Air Force officer from 1982 to 1989. She graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in the third class to include women. She went on to earn her master’s and doctorate degrees at Oxford University in England as a Rhodes Scholar.

As an advocate for innovation, a study was done about the needs of the Air Force, resulting in an increase from 312 to 386 squadrons to ensure readiness in an era of great power competition. Her initiatives also contributed to closing a 4,000 active-duty-maintainers gap to zero, while changes in procurement practices saved the Air Force more than $17 billion.

By the end of Wilson’s tenure, readiness across the Air Force improved by 17%.

Wilson also worked with other service secretaries to address issues that Airmen and their families said mattered the most to them. Their focus was on the quality of schools near military installations and reciprocity of licensure, which is problematic for military spouses moving to different states every couple of years.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein also attended the ceremony where he highlighted Wilson’s legacy of “strengthening our people, our Airman and families.”

“The relationship we built for two years has been one of the most rewarding of my career and I truly enjoyed working for and with and learning from you. It takes both a military and a civilian leader working together as a team to make a difference. Neither can bring lasting change alone — it’s the ultimate team contact sport and a relationship that both must work equally hard at to establish a level of trust and confidence that this institution deserves,” said Goldfein.

During the ceremony, Wilson talked about the heritage of the Air Force and pointed out the strides it is taking toward diversity.

“History is a woven figure. Studying history makes us smart, but heritage makes us proud. We are our stories and next week this service will continue to write its story. This service is the only one to have had, not one, but four women secretaries…and it will soon welcome (Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr.) as our chief of staff. All of us are committed to his success and proud of the service that enjoys its talent from every race and creed and sex and station of life,” said Wilson.

The portrait was painted by Kim Jew of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The painting was based on a photograph taken by Staff Sgt. Rusty Frank.

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