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Welcome Ceremony for Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Pentagon Auditorium, Friday, January 24, 2014

I want to thank all of you here this afternoon who do so much for this country, and our men and women in uniform for your sacrifices and the sacrifices of your families, your courage.  Thank you all very much for what you do.

Now, General Welsh’s remarks notwithstanding….as the former Chief of the Air Force…Mark Welsh knows that there is no one I hold in higher esteem than General Welsh, so he and I have a lot of fun together, as I do with all of our leaders here.  I think that’s a big and important part of any job and part of any team. 

It molds and shapes and brings a family dynamic, a personal dynamic into play when everyone here is under tremendous pressure to make the right choices and tough decisions.  We all know in our business, the business of securing this country, there’s very little margin for error—especially in our services, for those who have the tremendous responsibility for our nuclear components and so many facets of national security that the American people rely on.  So, General Welsh, thank you again for what you do.

I want to welcome everyone here for this opportunity, this occasion to make the swearing in of Debbie Lee James to America’s 23rd Secretary of the Air Force, formal, official, and with her family here in a formal capacity, they will be limited in their capacity to speak the truth about their sister, their wife, their mother—you don’t have any choice as children, we get that—but we’re especially glad that Frank, your children, your family, and some of your closest friends are here, Debbie, to be part of this with you. 

And I know how proud your family is of you and your accomplishments and what there is yet to be accomplished by you and this magnificent Air Force that you are now part of, so thank you.

I want to also say that some of Debbie’s former colleagues and friends are sitting here.  The former distinguished Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy de Leon is here in the front row—Rudy, always good to see you—and Eric Fanning, who has been noted, and appropriately so, for his leadership and what he’s contributed to this establishment.  I know that you and Secretary James are not old, but longtime friends, Eric.  And to have so many of the people who know you best and work with you here is a big deal and it says an awful lot about who you are and what people think of you. So thank you all for your continued leadership and what you’ve done for our country.

As General Welsh noted, Debbie James leads an institution with tremendous, with limitless possibilities – an institution of rich, rich history, heritage that matches technology to talent; integrity to agility; and inspiration to grit.   

Addressing cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1963, President Kennedy said that: Airmen travel where no one has ever traveled before…fly the fastest planes that have ever been built, reach the highest altitudes….and hold in their hands the most awesome destructive power that any nation or any man has ever conceived.

Those words still ring very true today.  Across many domains, the Air Force continues to push the limits of human achievement.  But pioneering flights, breakthroughs in space, and trailblazing in cyberspace are only part of the Air Force story.

When he held Debbie’s job, former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown liked to say that “technology is [just] Greek for a bag of tools.”  He was right.  We can’t achieve anything without leadership, without skills, without commitment, and without people – it is about people – these people are the dedicated airmen and civilians who drive invention and innovation;  those who master transportation and logistics; and those who safeguard checklists and fail-safes every day, every minute.

At the foundation of all these missions are the Air Force’s core values: integrity, service, and excellence. 

I saw these values on display earlier this month when I visited with airmen at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, and at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, where I had the opportunity to spend time with the men and women of the 90th Missile Wing—as I have in the last few months in my home state of Nebraska at STRATCOM, and with young officers from all over the world.

I was impressed by much of what I saw during that trip, as I am every trip, to all of our bases around the world.  And I talked to some of the most motivated young officers and enlisted personnel in our armed forces. 

But, at the same time, I am deeply concerned – as I know Debbie and Mark and all leaders in the Air Force are – about the overall health, and the professionalism, and discipline of our strategic forces.  Recent allegations regarding our ICBM force raise some legitimate questions about this Department’s stewardship of one of our most sensitive and important missions.  

Yesterday, we announced several steps that will ensure we are fully focused on this challenge.  Secretary James and General Welsh will lead on this, and I will meet regularly with them to ensure this issue has the highest level of my attention, and that anything I can do as Secretary of Defense to assist the leaders of this magnificent institution who lead these magnificent people.

Whatever the factors – historical, institutional, cultural – the Department of Defense and the Air Force will do whatever it takes to continue ensure the safety, security, reliability, and effectiveness of our nuclear enterprise – because our security will always depend on the reliability of our men and women charged with that responsibility.

These daunting challenges greeted Debbie in her first month on the job.  But her swift, decisive, and thoughtful response is what leadership is about.  As General Welsh noted, she follows Eric Fanning in that mold, as General Welsh has shown over his tenure and all of you in this room, that’s the kind of leadership that’s going to be required to deal with these great new challenges that face our country.  And it is about managing these challenges at a human level as well as at a technological level.

Restoring confidence in the nuclear mission will be a top priority for all of us.  At the same time, other challenges will not stand still.      

Since September 11th, the Air Force has made decisive contributions to our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But now, even as we wind down our nation’s longest war, we are entering a more uncertain, a more dynamic, and a more dangerous security environment than maybe ever before.  The rise of emerging powers, dangerous rogue states, affiliated terrorist organizations, and the proliferation of technology will mean more contested and complicated domains, from space to cyber to the sea lanes. 

Debbie James is prepared for the challenges and opportunities ahead.   

As a young staffer on the House Armed Services Committee, Les Aspin and his team knew that Debbie was their best listener—some of those here today worked with her in that office—and she got things done.    

In the private sector, Debbie developed impressive business acumen.  She was also personally instrumental in ramping up the production of MRAP’s, which helped save thousands of lives….and prevented injuries for many thousands more.   

And in her previous tour in the Pentagon, Debbie served three Secretaries of Defense – with distinction – as Assistant Secretary for Reserve Affairs. 

In every job Debbie’s held, her approach has been the same: understand the problems and opportunities; listen carefully; and then act decisively to fix the problems and seize the opportunities. 

That approach is how Debbie will succeed in her new job.  She won’t do much different.  No matter what job, the principles are the same.      

Debbie, we’re very proud, as Mark Welsh said, to have you on this team. And I know you’re proud to be back, and we’re all looking forward to working with you. And we’re glad your family is here to celebrate this moment.  Their encouragement and their strength I know has been a big part of your career and your success.

Thank you very much.

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