Deborah Lee James is the U.S. Secretary of the Air Force
By John Burton
THE PENTAGON, Va. – Deborah Lee James, has had, by her own estimation – and probably almost anyone else’s measure – a remarkable career. And it started at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School.
James, a 1976 graduate of R-FH who grew up in Rumson, was confirmed 4 ½ months ago by the U.S. Senate as secretary of the Air Force, only the second woman of 23 to hold that post.
“It’s been a thrill of a lifetime,” said James in a telephone interview this week from her Pentagon office.
With more than 30 years experience in national defense in both the government and the private sector, James said her role as secretary is to serve as the Air Force’s CEO. “My position in law is responsible for organizing, training and equipping the Air Force.”
The massive responsibility includes overseeing an organization with a $110 billion annual budget and 690,000 active, reservist and civilian members.
“I’m responsible for taking care of people and that people get trained and get the equipment to do the job when called upon to do it,” said James, who has never served in the military. She addresses those interests and needs to the U.S. Congress and with the White House.
Though James has decades’ worth of dealing with military and defense and political infrastructure, it wasn’t the path that she originally envisioned.
“Anybody who is privileged to have a job like this and said they mapped out their whole life, that it’s all part of the grand strategy, is probably lying to you,” she said.
James grew up living on Ridge Road with her family, attending Rumson public schools and going to the Tradewinds beach club in Sea Bright every summer. Her mother and sister still live in New Jersey, which has James visiting every few months.
It was when she entered Rumson-Fair Haven Regional that her life’s passions began to take shape.
“I grew up wanting to fulfill a certain dream,” she said. “My passion in those days, what I was most interested in, was travel, diplomacy and international affairs.”
There were teachers at RFH who fanned that spark and became mentors. Most profound was the influence of Joan Lipton, who at the time was head of the school’s foreign language department and taught James’ Spanish class. “She was a role model for me and my life,” James said.
During that time, James was a member of the American Field Service Club and had been a foreign exchange student, spending a summer in Argentina.
“The high school period for me was when I felt my worldview expanded,” she said. “I was bitten with the travel bug early on and I wanted to be a diplomat.”
While in RFH, James, who was her class’s valedictorian, won the Mary Owen Borden Foundation scholarship, which James used to attend first Duke University, Durham, N.C., (completing her course work in three years), and then going on to graduate school at Columbia University, N.Y., where she earned a master’s degree in international affairs.
James moved to Washington, D.C., after graduation, where she hoped to use her interests and education to get a job at the U.S. Department of State.
“I thought I had it all,” she said. “But, they didn’t pick me.”
That was heartbreaking at the time but it also led her in a different direction in 1981, during the early years of the Reagan administration when there was a major defense buildup, and James landed on her feet.
She secured a job with the U.S. Department of the Army, her first real job out of college. “I didn’t know anything about defense,” other than having a father who was a World War II veteran. It was in that department where she cut her teeth, learning the industry.
She went from the Department of the Army to working in the U.S. Capitol, taking a job with the House Armed Services Committee. She worked with federal lawmakers on defense budgets and programs, spending 10 years there.
During the Clinton administration in the 1990s, she was nominated and approved by the Senate as assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. From there she went into the private sector for 14 years, working for defense contractors.
“Quite unexpectedly, I got this call” from the Obama administration asking her to step up and become the secretary of the Air Force. “Of course, I said yes.
“It’s been a honor of a lifetime,” she said. “It all started with an original dream that was shattered.”
James comes in a time of transition for the Air Force and all of the armed services as lawmakers look to trim budgets as military forces are being withdrawn after 12 years of conflict. “We are coming down and we have to make some very difficult budgetary choices and trade-offs,” she said. “And that is a challenge to explain that to Congress and explain that to our own people.”
That is a major focus for James and her job. She travels back and forth from her offices in the Pentagon in Virginia – she also lives in Virginia with her husband Frank Beatty – to Washington, D.C., to deal with elected officials as the service moves forward and works with her staff to ensure any transition is accomplished without compromising performance.
“There are things I can bring to the table,” she said, “and hopefully, I can be a good leader in difficult and challenging times.”