‘You have the watch’: Air Force salutes departing Secretary Wilson

Stephen Losey
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‘You have the watch’: Air Force salutes departing Secretary Wilson

The Air Force on Tuesday paid tribute to its departing secretary, Heather Wilson, as a dedicated leader, with a passion for aviation and airmen, who strove to make the service better on multiple fronts.

In a farewell ceremony in a hangar at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein said the relationship he and Wilson built working alongside one another the past two years has been “the most rewarding of my career.” Wilson’s husband, Jay Hone, and their son, Josh Hone, also honored her in their own speeches.

“Here is the heart and soul of Secretary Heather Wilson: She loves airmen, and airmen love her back,” Goldfein said, as a massive B-2 Spirit bomber loomed in the background. “Her priority has always been with people, and improving their quality of service and quality of life.”

Wilson is resigning as the service’s 24th secretary to become the next president of the University of Texas at El Paso. Her last day will be May 31.

Shortly after Wilson’s ceremony concluded, President Trump announced on Twitter that he will nominate Barbara Barrett, a former chairwoman of the nonprofit Aerospace Corporation, to be the next Air Force secretary.

In her farewell address, Wilson tipped her hat to the history of aviators, dating back to the Wright Brothers, as “bicycle mechanics" who are natural tinkerers. And as she departed, she advised leaders in the Air Force to let their airmen continue experimenting to find new ways of doing things.

“Our airmen … tinker and fix things in new ways,” Wilson said. “Let your people tinker with the tools.”

Wilson spoke about her love of gardening and offered several rules for gardening that could help leaders in the Air Force: start with a plan; find friends to help you; weed out unnecessary or outdated things; and think about the long term.

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“To be a good gardener, to be a good leader, you have to accept with confidence that you will not be here to harvest all of the fruits of your labor,” Wilson concluded. “I will always be a gardener, and I will always be an American airman. You have the watch.”

As soon as Wilson took charge of the Air Force, Goldfein said, she focused on restoring its readiness, cost-effectively modernizing, driving innovation, developing exceptional leaders, and strengthening alliances. She pushed for a massive review of outdated and redundant regulations, Goldfein said, that led to more than 330 Air Force instructions being cut and many more being rewritten — in English.

Goldfein said Wilson pushed for acquisition reform to make it easier for program managers to get their projects out to troops when they were actually needed, rather than getting bogged down in development. And Wilson was adamant that decision authority needed to be pushed down to commanders on the ground as much as possible, Goldfein said.

She made the case for expanding the Air Force to 386 operational squadrons to prepare the service to fight a potential conflict against a great power nation such as Russia or China.

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Wilson also oversaw the most significant reforms in three decades to how the Air Force manages its talent, Goldfein said. During her tenure, Wilson oversaw the closing of a once-massive shortfall in the Air Force’s maintainer ranks. She also drove an effort to halt and reverse an alarming pilot shortage, though that still remains unsolved.

The Air Force is also rolling out changes to personnel policies, such as plans to break up officers into several more competitive categories.

“You have been the leader we needed at this exact time in our Air Force,” Goldfein said. “As an airman’s airman, you have served as a driving force for positive change.”

Wilson graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1982, the third class to include female cadets. She also served as a U.S. representative from New Mexico from 1998 to 2009.

Three of Wilson’s predecessors as Air Force secretary — Whitten Peters, who served under President Clinton from 1999 to 2001, Michael Wynne, who served under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008, and Michael Donley, who served under President Obama from 2008 to 2013 — also attended the ceremony.