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James says goodbye after three years as Air Force secretary

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James was honored Wednesday as her three-year tenure of leading the service comes to a close.

The ceremony at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland included remarks from Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.

James, the 23rd secretary of the Air Force, was hailed for putting airmen first, including a focus on the remotely piloted aircraft and nuclear forces.

Carter said James established an important feedback loop between airmen and senior leadership, and she will pass those lessons on to her successor.

"[She] never lost sight of what that greatest strength is: our people," Carter said during the ceremony.

James visited Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana last week to gain feedback from areas affected by her Force Improvement Program initiative, which was implemented to improve and bring changes to the intercontinental ballistic missile mission to include upgrading vehicles for security forces, offering the nuclear force incentive pay, and changes to testing and training regiments for the nuclear force.

Malmstrom was one of her first stops shortly after taking over as secretary in 2013, and she said she has seen improvement in the nuclear force since.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter participates in a farewell ceremony for Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James Jan. 11 at Joint Base Andrews, Md. Carter and James will both leave their jobs on Jan. 20 with the outgoing Obama administration.

Photo Credit: Air Force

Carter pointed to how James has run focus groups with nuke airmen to learn how the Air Force's policies are affecting them. One of her priorities was creating more temporary duty opportunities for nuclear enterprise airmen so they can see how their work plays into national security as a whole.

James also focused on the remotely piloted aircraft sector and acknowledged that those airmen are some of the most impacted by the manning strain.

In 2015, James signed a memo to increase pay for 18X drone pilots from $650 per month to $1,500, if they continue flying unmanned aircraft beyond their six-year commitments.

Goldfein said operational stress levels have improved for those airmen.

"The deliberate leadership of James has been instrumental in a number of areas and promises to normalize the RPA community in the near future," he said.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James was honored Jan. 11 with the Defense Department's medal for distinguished public service during a farewell ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, Md.

Photo Credit: Air Force

Carter said James not only revitalized the nuke enterprise mission and RPA plan, but was also a strong advocate to prevention of sexual assault, violence and suicide

He also noted how she promoted diversity and inclusion, launching initiatives to help increase opportunities for women, minorities and enlisted airmen. These initiatives included making it easier to waive height restrictions for pilots to setting diversity requirements for career field development teams.

James said she was thankful to Carter and President Barack Obama for the trust they placed in her.

"When I took the job, I knew it would be the honor of my professional lifetime," she said.

Instead of opting to talk about her accomplishments over the past three years, James said she wanted to share some of her experiences with airmen during her time as secretary.

"What I didn't understand at the time is what an absolute joy it would be and how much I have learned from all of you," James said to the hangar full of airmen.

She told the crowd about four different airmen she was privileged to meet and "who will inspire me forever."

The stories ranged from her first time attending a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware of an airman killed in action in Afghanistan to being counted among the ranks of such Tuskegee Airmen as Col. Charles McGee. James was named an honorary Tuskegee airman in October.

James closed out her farewell speech saying airmen had done more for her than she ever could have imagined.

"Let me say one more time: Aim high, airmen, aim high," she said. "I know you will, and I'll be watching."

Charlsy Panzino covers the Guard and Reserve, training, technology, operations and features for Army Times and Air Force Times. Email her at  

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