JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. – Two years and nine days since becoming the 24th Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson bid a formal farewell, May 21, to the institution and its Airmen, expressing gratitude for the opportunity to serve and declaring, “I will always be an Airman.”
“I lived a blessed life,” Wilson said in a 15-minute speech which reflected on her tenure as the Air Force’s highest-ranking civilian official.
She praised the skill and dedication of Airmen while comparing lessons learned from gardening as a corollary for the qualities that make for good leaders and an effective Air Force secretary. You need a plan, she said; you need friends to help, meaning allies, and “as long as it’s safe, let people tinker with the tools.”
“Our Airmen…tinker and fix things in new ways,” she said, extending the reference. “Let your people tinker with the tools. … As a leader, you have to think about the long term and strengthen the positive culture.”
“ Every one of you in this hanger, every single one of you, is a leader,” Wilson said, speaking at Joint Base Andrews in Hanger 3, surrounded by her family, senior Air Force leaders, including three former secretaries, approximately 900 Airmen and a B-2 bomber.
Wilson’s comments came at the end of the two-hour ceremony in which she was praised for her service and her achievements. Wilson announced her resignation in March after she was selected to be president of the University of Texas, El Paso. Her last day as Air Force secretary is May 31.
In a clear reference to what she sees as her legacy, Wilson told the crowd that a good gardener is someone who “accepts with confidence you won’t be able to be able to harvest all the fruits of your labor” and embraces the “beauty of work well done on something good.”
While Wilson reflected on two years as secretary by highlighting the achievements and contributions of Airmen across the Air Force’s global enterprise, other speakers focused squarely on Wilson herself.
“You have been the leader we needed at this exact time in our Air Force,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said, praising Wilson. “As an Airman’s Airman, you have served as a driving force for positive change.”
Under her direction and in partnership with Goldfein, the Air Force became both more prepared and nimble in the last two years. A shortage of more than 4,000 active duty maintainers that greeted Wilson when she arrived in 2017 has been closed to zero. Aggressive efforts to streamline the procurement process has shaved 100 years off traditional timelines while a series of major contracts approved in recent years saved more than $17 billion.
Wilson has been a catalyst as well driving innovation. She spearheaded the analysis which said the “Air Force we need” must increase to 386 squadrons from 312 to confront threats in an era of great power competition. Wilson was also a key architect of an ambitious upgrade for the service’s science and technology strategy released in April. That document will serve as a blueprint to better identify, develop and deploy breakthrough technologies in the future.
Wilson is leaving a considerable mark on the institution and its total force of 685,000 Airmen worldwide. She helped develop and manage the Air Force’s annual budget of more than $138 billion and was an influential voice directing strategy and policy development, risk management, weapons acquisition, technology investments and talent management of Airmen across a global enterprise.
She was a central figure in efforts to strengthen and build the Air Force to meet new global threats, particularly those posed by Russia and China. She was a strong advocate for increasing overall readiness and addressing personnel shortages that affected the Air Force’s ability to fulfill any mission at any time.
Overall, the Air Force today is 17% more ready today than it was when she was confirmed.
Wilson was a strong advocate for streamlining the contracting process when possible and injecting a more entrepreneurial approach.
In his remarks, Goldfein said Wilson will be remembered for “setting the conditions to build a more lethal and ready force we need for the future fight” while also paving the way “for the future Airmen who will follow in our footsteps.
And while hardware is important, Goldfein said that Wilson, “understood the priority is with the people and improving the quality of service and quality of life for our uniformed volunteers and their families is where it starts.”