Air Force Secretary: 'Our Doors Have to Be Open to All'

Heather Wilson, Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, testifies during a Dec. 6 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Heather Wilson, Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, testifies during a Dec. 6 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

There are scores of cities, neighborhoods and families the Pentagon wishes to engage to recruit the next generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

But with fewer people serving and the military continuously tapping into the same "warrior caste" families who serve generation after generation, the civilian-military divide -- or the social and cultural disconnect between those who have served and those who have not -- is only going to grow, the top civilian of the Air Force said Thursday.

"Outside the [D.C.] beltway, I am concerned that the general population really hasn't shared the burden of the conflicts that we've been involved with," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told audiences at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Wilson was the keynote speaker for the center's panel, "Citizen Soldiers or Warrior Caste: Who Will Serve in America's Future Military?"

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"Less than two in 1,000 serve" today, she said -- something those developing the national security strategy must be wary of.

It's why "our doors have to be open to all -- wide open to all" in order to "attract, develop, [and] retain," Wilson said.

"There's all kinds of evidence that shows the advantages gained through a diverse workforce," she said.

Wilson's comments come as the Defense Department is struggling to set forth clear guidelines on how to welcome transgender service members into the ranks.

As of Jan. 1, the military was ready to begin processing transgender recruits after several federal court rulings found President Donald Trump's proposed ban on transgender individuals serving in the military to be unconstitutional.

A recent USA Today story reported that the Air Force has begun processing paperwork for eight individuals who identify as transgender. But the Defense Department said officials are not tracking that data.

"As of January 17, 2018, there are no contracted transgender recruits in the military, active or otherwise," OSD spokesman Maj. Dave Eastburn told Military.com.

"The process to enlist in the military is an extensive one, unique to each candidate's individual qualifications and desired military occupational skill. We do not track potential recruits, and will only begin to count them once they have signed a contract with a uniformed service, period," Eastburn said in a statement.

Wilson said there must be a seat at the table for future leaders, no matter their background.

"For young women, for minorities, for first-generation Americans, it's hard to be what you can't see," she said. "And by being role models and making sure our role models are out there where younger women and minorities and others who haven't traditionally been strongly represented in the military can see what the possibility is for them … that there's an opportunity there, we will inspire more to come to serve."

Wilson said the attraction and willingness to serve takes shape as each day of a recruit's military career progresses.

The first day of boot camp is an equalizer, because it's not about "where you come from, how much money you have, who your parents are, whether you're a man or a woman, or the color of your skin," she said.

"What matters is, 'Can you perform? Can you develop a better version of yourself?' " Wilson said.

The Air Force, for example, wants to build up its forces to 350,000 airmen by 2024.

Starting this year, it will expand its geographic recruiting areas with more vigorous recruiting efforts into areas such as New England, Wilson said.

"About only one in 10 recruits comes from New England," she said, while noting places such as Texas and California have continuously supplied the service with new airmen.

"And we intend to increase the intensity where young people may be inspired to serve but may not have that family connection," she said.

Echoing her comments at the White House's Empowering Women Symposium on Tuesday, Wilson said women are a "natural fit" in the armed forces.

She said roughly 20 percent of the Air Force is made up of women, and missions could not continue without them.

"If you think about the most protective person in your life, the person if you were in a burning building would come in and get you, the one who would do anything to protect you, my guess is half the people in this room is thinking of their moms," Wilson said.

In 2015, then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reversed long-standing U.S. military traditions when he announced that all military occupational specialties would open to women.

In the following months, the military services moved to amend their battlefield programs without diminishing physical training standards.

Wilson said, "We need to tap into that desire to be protectors of the innocent, which is what American airmen do. ... We're the protectors -- and that's a very feminine thing."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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