Most people probably don’t know who the under secretary of the Air Force is. That’s true even for some people within the department. But from the moment she was confirmed to the post in July 2021, Gina Ortiz Jones stood out.
For starters, Jones looked different. She is the first woman of color to hold this job (she is Filipina American), and the first openly lesbian woman to serve as under secretary of any U.S. military branch.
Beyond that, the story of her rise to the top sounds like the inspiration for a movie.
When Jones joined the Air Force in 2003, she had to hide that she was a lesbian because of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which barred openly LGBTQ people from serving. She deployed to Iraq and served as an intelligence officer, all the while hiding who she was and feeling that her leaders weren’t as invested in her success. Twenty years later, that policy is gone and Jones became the department’s second-highest ranked civilian leader, overseeing its $173 billion budget and responsible for making sure that roughly 700,000 military personnel and their families feel the Air Force is invested in their success.
Amid those two decades, Jones ran for Congress in Texas twice ― and nearly won in a race so close that The Associated Press initially called it for her.
Jones stepped down as under secretary this month. It’s not clear why. In a recent interview at the Pentagon, she said it seemed like a natural time to go, and that she’s ready for a break after working 12- to 14-hour days on “really meaty, meaty issues” that affect military personnel. She hinted at a couple of job prospects, but was vague about what they might be.
“It will always be related to public service,” Jones, 42, said of her next step.
A year and a half isn’t a long time to make a difference at an entity as massive and bureaucratic as the Pentagon. But being the under secretary is at least partly what you want to make of it. And Jones, who is still very much shaped by her experience serving under “don’t ask, don’t tell” and feeling overlooked by leadership, came into the job knowing precisely what she wanted to accomplish. She pushed through some of the most significant diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at the Defense Department, and did so by espousing a pretty simple idea: It’s crucial for military recruitment, retention and readiness.
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