WASHINGTON — The men and women of the Air Force bid farewell to the 23rd Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James during a ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Jan. 11.
James led the Air Force for more than three years after being confirmed in December 2013.
“Because of your leadership, the United States Air Force is better prepared to fly, fight and win than at any time in history,” said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. “Thank you, Debbie James, for your service to this country, for your commitment to our Airmen, to their families, and to the joint force. We’re safer today because of you.”
Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein spoke about the impact James tenure left on the service.
“You’ve inspired us, you took care of us, and you led us well,” Goldfein said. “It is now my distinct honor as the 21st chief of staff, on behalf of a grateful nation, and your 660,000 active, Guard and Reserve Airmen, to report that you have completed your obligation to support and defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That you bore true faith and allegiance to the same, and that you well and faithfully discharged your duties of the Office of Secretary of the Air Force.”
During the ceremony, James was presented with the Distinguished Public Service Award by Carter. Her husband, Frank Beatty, was presented with an Air Force award for exceptional public service from Goldfein.
“When I took this job … I knew it would be the honor of my professional lifetime,” she said. “I did not fully understand, at the time, what an absolute joy it would be and how much I would learn from all of you.”
In her remarks, James shared four stories of Airmen, who she said touched her heart.
Two weeks after James was confirmed, she received a call informing her of a convoy hit by an improvised explosive device near Kabul, Afghanistan. Ten people were killed. Among them was Capt. David Lyon, who had been in the Air Force for five years. He was a logistics specialist, executive officer for his group commander, athlete and volunteer coach for the U.S. Air Force Academy track team, she said.
James attended his dignified transfer where she met his widow, Capt. Dana Lyon, who was also stationed in Afghanistan. The couple had spent Christmas together two days prior to his death.
“In the midst of unspeakable grief, Dana taught me about how much we ask of people,” the secretary explained.
Today, she is Maj. Dana Lyon, assistant strength and conditioning coach at the Air Force Academy – an active mentor in her own right, James declared.
Within days of the call about Capt. Lyon, drug use and cheating on proficiency exams was discovered at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. James joined Gen. Mark Welsh, then chief of staff of the Air Force, as they investigated the situation.
They were joined by then Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, the 20th Air Force commander. James shared that Weinstein explained the dynamics of the nuclear enterprise, including how Air Force leaders spoke of nuclear as number one, “but no one put their money where their mouth was,” she said.
“He is still the fiercest advocate for our missileers, security forces, and all the other Airmen who represent our nuclear enterprise,” she proclaimed.
James then went on to describe Tech. Sgt. Brian Williams, “one of the bravest, most dedicated people I have ever met.”
Williams met the secretary when he was competing as a member of the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program. A 16-year veteran, he served in security forces where he deployed six times, including to Afghanistan. He was injured from an IED explosion, losing his left leg above the knee.
It was a difficult recovery, she said. The Air Force wanted to medically retire him, but he refused, wanting to continue serving. At the time, the service was starting to allow more exemptions for wounded warriors.
“I was the one who signed the paperwork that allowed him to stay in the Air Force,” James said proudly. “It is an honor to serve with Airmen like Tech. Sgt. [Master Sgt. select] Brian Williams.”
The secretary then highlighted retired Col. Charles McGee and the Tuskegee Airmen who “grew up in a time when ‘separate but equal’ was the law of the land.”
The Tuskegee Airmen proved to be exceptional flyers, maintainers, radio operators and support personnel, demonstrating that the Air Force core value of excellence in all we do, has nothing to do with the color of an Airman’s skin, she said.
Finally, she shared that as an American, she will be secure in the knowledge that the Air Force is protecting her family, friends and country 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“I will never ever cease being a member of the Air Force family,” she said. “I will always remain an advocate for Airmen and the Air Force.”