WASHINGTON — Deborah Lee James, who took over as Secretary of the Air Force late last year, knows that sometimes life can throw a curveball.
Educated at Duke and Columbia universities, James originally came to Washington, D.C., to join the State Department as a diplomat in the Foreign Service. When she wasn’t selected for the position of her dreams, the young graduate embarked on an alternate and ultimately highly successful 30-year career in the government and growing defense industry.
However, decades later and only weeks into her new job as the Air Force’s senior civilian leader, James had barely settled into her new office at the Pentagon after her swearing-in Dec. 20, when yet another proverbial curveball hit her desk.
Thirty-four Air Force officers, charged with the crucial launch authorities over intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles, were found to have actively benefited from or to have tolerated the compromise of mission-related qualification exams, which tested missileers’ knowledge of systems and crucial procedures.
“It was revealed — in fact, we revealed to the public — that there had been a cheating incident at Malmstrom Air Force Base (Mont.),” James recalled. “I remember vividly, I was about two and a half weeks into the job, when we made the decision that we were going to explain this publicly within days of learning about it.”
In agreement with her leadership team composed of Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Under Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Larry O. Spencer and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Cody, James opted for an open approach of bringing the news to the public quickly, rather than trying to deal with it behind closed doors. The move prevented further mistrust, but also put the newly appointed secretary under unexpected public scrutiny.
“We thought it was important we tell the story rather than someone else learning about the story, and then of course learning only some of the facts,” she said. “That allowed us to tell this story, as best as we knew it and as it has been unfolding.”
James promised accountability and shifted her schedule to fit in a mid-winter trip to the country’s ICBM arsenal bases in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming to investigate the situation firsthand.
“I thought it was important that we visit the bases,” she said. “I wanted to talk to the missileers and the people around them, so I could do my best personal due diligence and understand the environment of what was going on and how this failure of integrity could occur in the first place.”
After meeting with command leaders, James prioritized her meetings with missile launch officers to get an unfiltered view on what seemed to have become a systemic issue that forced some to resort to cheating in order to stay on top of their careers.
James quickly turned her focus to taking care of Airmen in the future, by changing the climate that forced them to cheat in order get the perfect scores necessary to advance in their careers.
“It was a curveball, but one where I’m convinced we’re going to make the environment better for the Airmen,” she said.
Despite the integrity issues she inherited, the new secretary’s momentum didn’t suffer, leading Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to commend James for her leadership during her welcome ceremony at the Pentagon.
“… Daunting challenges greeted Debbie in her first month on the job,” he said Jan. 24. “But her swift, decisive, and thoughtful response is what leadership is about … that’s the kind of leadership that’s going to be required to deal with these great new challenges that face our country.”
The 23rd Air Force secretary, James, 55, is only the second woman to hold the job, after Sheila Widnall, a Clinton administration appointee. A former assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, James now oversees more than 690,000 total-force Airmen and a $110 billion annual budget.
While restoring confidence in the nuclear arena was a top priority, other challenges did not stand still.
In late March, the secretary dusted off her desert boots for her first troop visit to Europe and Afghanistan. While the trip allowed her to get a feel for the global reach of the force under her command, James also celebrated a tacit career milestone, when she passed her 100th day in office March 30.
Since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s successful New Deal presidency, U.S. presidents have increasingly been put to a benchmark test measured by their performance within the first 100 days in the White House.
Likewise, returning to the buzzing hallways of the Pentagon in late 2013, the Air Force secretary said she came prepared with some ideas of what she thought she would be working on during this crucial first semester.
“I had a personal goal for the first 100 days to get out and meet the Air Force,” she said. ”I wanted to see our Airmen on the flight line, I wanted to see them overseas, I wanted to see them here at home. I wanted to learn through their eyes, and their experience, the five core missions of our Air Force and learn about the things that are important to them.”
Thus far, James has already visited a long list of 19 bases and has made several stops at foreign and deployed locations.
“The number one thing that has impressed me is the quality of our Airmen,” she said. “It was impressive to see their dedication to the mission and how enthused they are about the future … Of course I knew how young the force is, but then you go out there and you see those young faces, you realize we put awesome responsibility in the hands of very smart, young people — and they do a magnificent job.”
Seeing the mission through their eyes, the secretary said, was a valuable learning experience, teaching her about weapons systems, mission sets and challenges of the Airmen that man them.
“If there was one surprise I had, it was just how much innovation is going on, right there at the ground level,” she said.
“Whether we’re talking on the flight line or the mission support area, there are new ways of thinking (and) all kinds of terrific grassroots ideas, from the most junior Airmen in some cases.”
The time spent with Airmen around the world brought James in tune with the concerns of those assigned to her care. Between ongoing force management, budgetary downsizing and compensation changes, James said some news were more difficult to share than others.
”Ultimately, when it comes to force management, the tough story is that not everybody who is currently in our Air Force, will continue in our Air Force,” she said. “The message I try to give our Airmen, on that score, is that although you may not remain in the Air Force, we want to do as much from a voluntary perspective as we can. So, please look at your records, talk to your family and your mentors, get your head around what the possibilities are for you individually.”
Although deep personnel cuts will inevitably reduce the overall size of the force, while increasing reliance on the guard and reserve, James said she is confident in the service’s ability to maintain mission readiness.
“All too often, we reduce our armed forces to fighter aircraft or how many submarines and aircraft carriers we have,” she said. “But if you peel that back, it’s about the people that manage and man those platforms. So what I’ve been most excited about are the Airmen in our Air Force, and despite the challenges we face … I’m extremely optimistic about the future of our Air Force. The number one reason: the people that I’ve met.”
Another topic James and the rest of the leadership team are focused on is sexual assault prevention, an area James originally anticipated to tackle shortly after taking office.
“Sexual assault is a crime, less about sex and more about power and control,” she said. “Where we need to go, is to stop it. We need to eliminate it. That’s the vision and of course it’s a journey to get there. It may be a never-ending journey, but that’s where we have to aim and we have to try our best to get as close to that end point as possible.”
Siding with a recent senate decision against proposed legislation to move the power to prosecute from the hands of commanders to neutral military lawyers, James has been open about her support for maintaining commander’s authority to prosecute crimes within their ranks, even in cases of sexual assault.
“I think the best way to ultimately keep our commanders fully responsible for good order and discipline is to maintain their convening authority in sexual assault and other matters that happen under their purview,” she said.
Everywhere she goes, James said she takes time to meet in private with Airmen and sexual assault response coordinators, to keep a pulse on sexual assault awareness.
“My overall take, after the first 100 days, is that we are making good progress,” the secretary said. “I think victims are more comfortable nowadays coming forward and making reports, than they were years back. So we are getting there. But of course we have a ways to go and can’t give up our focus.”
While faced with a myriad of difficult issues over a short time, James said the teamwork among the top Air Force leaders in the halls of the Pentagon has been exemplary.
“We get along well and we like one another personally,” she said. “… We don’t always agree, but eventually we come to a point of agreement. Most importantly, we feel comfortable to air issues with one another. That kind of transparency, incidentally, is something we all believe in (when) we explain some of the tough choices we were faced with. It’s an important part of our authenticity and getting buy-in from those we lead to not only explain what we have decided, but why we have decided it.”
Despite the stress of the recent months, James shows no sign of slowing down, has adopted a new fitness regimen and looks forward to the coming years of her term of service.
“Before the first 100 days, I used to drink decaf, now I’m back to full-on coffee with caffeine,” she said with a smile. “So a little caffeine keeps the energy going, and adrenaline I guess is another good thing to have a healthy dose of. But it really is my own life experiences that have given me the (positive) outlook I have. I have stumbled plenty of times myself. But I think when we stumble, we can either stay down or we can dust ourselves off and get back up.”
With significant transformation planned to personnel and fighter aircraft inventories, James said she keeps a long-term perspective while the service goes through a myriad of changes.
“The first hundred days have taught me that this is a marathon, so you have to pace yourself,” she said.