Heather Wilson swore in as the 24th Secretary of the Air Force in May 2017 with a clear-eyed view on the task at hand.
"When Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis asked me to serve as the Secretary of the Air Force I said, "You know, Mr. Secretary, I'm not the kind of gal who just cuts ribbons on new dormitories, that's not me. But if you want somebody who's going to help to try to solve problems and make it better, not just different, but better, then that's what I'll do."
Before representing New Mexico's first district as a member of Congress and being the president of South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, Wilson was an Air Force officer. During her seven years of service in the 1980s, she served as a planner, political advisor and a defense policy arms control director. Her husband, Jay Hone, served in the 1970s as an Air Force lawyer and went on to retire from the service. For them, Air Force business was family business, and there was work to be done.
Wilson said her responsibilities as SecAF were broader than those of any other executive position she held…she was obligated to the welfare of 685,000 total force airmen and their families, and the oversight of a $138 billion annual budget. Aware of the devastating toll sequestration and 27 years of combat had taken on the force, Wilson called on her wingmen – Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright – to help devise and oversee plans to restore the readiness of the force, cost-effectively modernize, and revitalize Air Force squadrons. It would take an Air Force-wide effort to get after these challenges, and the senior leaders' message to the airmen was clear.
"We trust you…we trust that you've been well-trained," Wilson said. "We will try to give you a clear set of mission parameters and the skills and the abilities to get after the job. Don't wait to be told what to do…see the problems around you and just get after them. Don't wait for us."
That's one of the things Wilson said she's appreciated most about the "intelligent, capable and committed" U.S. Air Force airmen – their unique way of handling business.
"I like the fact that airmen don't always do exactly what they're told in the way they were told to do it because they come up with better answers to complex, difficult problems," she said.
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson speaks to 2nd Maintenance Squadron airmen during a tour at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., Nov. 14, 2017.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Mozer O. Da Cunha)
And for the issues that required Headquarters-level intervention, Wilson relied on her wingman for assistance.
"The law says the service secretary has all of the authority to run the service, but the chief of staff has most of the influence," Wilson said. "There are very few decisions that I make without asking for his advice, and he freely gives that advice. If I know we have a difference in opinion I always want to understand why, and as a result I think we have a very close, professional working relationship, and that is transmitted to the force. We've been forging vicious partnerships between both the civilian leadership and the military leadership of the service, and it's been very effective."
After two years, the results of Wilson's empowering leadership are palpable.
"There have been significant advances in the Air Force's ability to win any fight, any time, including a more than 30% increase in readiness, she said. "We've also gone a long way in cost-effective modernization and taking the authorities we've been given to buy things faster and smarter. We've stripped 100 years out of Air Force procurement in the last year…we're streamlining the schedules to get capability to the warfighter faster."
With a shared focus on revitalizing squadrons, Wilson and Goldfein also returned power, time and support back to the squadron by removing redundant policies, revamping personnel evaluations, updating professional military training and extending high year of tenure.
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington D.C., April 2, 2019.
(U.S. Air Force Photo by Wayne Clark)
On a larger scale, Wilson worked with the Secretaries of the Army and Navy to make the process of transferring duty stations easier for military families. Together, they wrote letters to governors across the United States to address two issues members said matter most – the quality of public schools near military installations and reciprocity of licensure.
"We told them, 'We want you to know when we make basing decisions in the future we're going to take these things into account,'" she said. "We had some leverage, and I've been really pleased at the number of states that have passed laws related to reciprocity of licensure.
"I hope the changes that we've made to assignment policies at Talent Marketplace has helped to make a difference, to give families more control and choice over their lives, and recognize that they're balancing family life with service life," she continued. "And I hope that ultimately that'll mean we keep more highly capable airmen in the service for longer."
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson speaks with airmen during a farewell interview at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, May 8, 2019.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert Barnett)
Though her tenure as SecAF is at its end, the impact of her laser-focused efforts may reverberate throughout the service for years to come.
"I came here to try to make things better," Wilson said. "Life's short, time's short, so you got to make a difference today. I hope people have a better quality of life and quality of service because we were here. And I hope that the Air Force is better because I served."
This article originally appeared on Airman Magazine. Follow @AirmanMagazine on Twitter.