Heather Wilson, a former representative from New Mexico and Air Force Academy graduate, was sworn in Tuesday as the 24th secretary of the Air Force.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis administered the oath of office to Wilson at a ceremony on the steps of the Pentagon, and thanked her for leaving her position as president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, South Dakota, to serve the Air Force once again.
"Welcome home," Mattis said.
Mattis lauded Wilson's accomplishments, including being one of the first women to graduate from the Academy, being a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England, and serving as director for European defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council when the Berlin Wall fell.
"I read Oxford University books — Secretary Wilson writes them," Mattis said, referencing her book, "International Law and the Use of Force by the National Liberation Movement," which was published during her tenure at NSC. "How's that for a mouthful? How's that for a book we might all want to be reading right now? Madam Secretary, I say unequivocally, I need your ideas. This department needs your wisdom."
In her remarks, Wilson told an anecdote about aviation pioneer Orville Wright's 1908 demonstration of his rickety wood-and-fabric airplane, not far from the current location of the Pentagon, to prove to the Army that air power could revolutionize warfare — and he was right, she said.
"As airmen, you are the successors to those bicycle repairmen," she said. "You are the innovators, and the intrepid airmen who stand ready every hour of every day on every continent, ready to protect the country that we love."
Wilson pledged to modernize the Air Force in a cost-effective manner and drive innovation.
"We're not going to take for granted American dominance in air and space power," Wilson said. "We're going to use every taxpayer dollar entrusted to us to train for it, to equip for it, and to fight for it."
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis laughs as Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson sings the Air Force song after her swearing-in ceremony Tuesday at the Pentagon.
Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley/Air Force
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein noted the long history of close partnerships between Air Force secretaries and chiefs, and declared, "Today begins the era of Wilson and Goldfein."
Goldfein fondly recalled their time together at the Air Force Academy — Wilson graduated in 1982, and Goldfein graduated one year later.
"I'm proud to follow you, and I'm honored to fly on your wing once again, these four decades later," Goldfein said.
During her time in the House, Wilson served on the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, and the Committee of Energy and Commerce. She lost races to New Mexico Democrats Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich.
Wilson is now the first service secretary to take office in the Trump administration, but her path to the Pentagon was somewhat rocky. Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, opposed her nomination in a Senate floor speech. Reed said he had "deep concerns" over ethical questions about Wilson, particularly allegations that she allegedly pressured New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias during a corruption probe involving Democrats in the state.
Reed also questioned Wilson's work as a private contractor for Sandia National Laboratories, which was criticized in an Energy Department inspector general report for being paid $450,000 for consultation, but not providing evidence the work was done.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., placed a brief hold on Wilson's nomination earlier this month, but she was ultimately approved by the Senate.
Joe Gould contributed to this report.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.