As the 23rd Secretary of the United States Air Force, Deborah Lee James is the USAF’s highest-ranking civilian and only the second female in history to hold the position. She is also a proud graduate of Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School, Class of 1976.
James, who was sworn in by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon on January 24, is responsible for the organization, training and welfare of more than 690,000 active duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian Air Force personnel and their families. She is also in charge of equipment, and oversees the more than $100 billion budget of the USAF.
During her high school years, James was active in a number of school activities. She worked on the student newspaper, participated in the drill team and enjoyed being a member of the Forensics and American Field Service clubs. She was Valedictorian of her class, and the recipient of the Mary Owen Borden Foundation Scholarship.
After graduating from RFH, James earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Comparative Area Studies from Duke University in Durham, N.C., and a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs in New York.
She has 30 years of senior homeland and national security experience in the federal government and in the private sector, and served as an assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs during the Clinton Administration from 1993 to 1998. More recently, James served as President of Science Applications International Corporation’s (SAIC) Technical and Engineering Sector, where she was responsible for 8,700 employees and more than $2 billion in revenue.
According to the New York Times, as Air Force Secretary, James made a powerful impact just weeks into her assignment, when she launched an investigation into a report of cheating on exams by 34 Air Force officers with the authority to launch intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles. The exams had been designed to measure whether or not the officers were aware of procedures for launching the weapons.
After ensuring the system had sufficient safety measures in place, she flew to three bases and spoke with the missile launch officers — after asking their commanding officers to leave the room — to receive their unfiltered feedback.
At a subsequent Pentagon news conference, she revealed her concern over the fact that military commanders were not only insisting on perfect exam test scores of 100 percent, but also for using the scores as the sole basis for promoting missile launch officers (known as missileers).
Since then, James has been praised not only for her openness but also for tackling a problematic issue head-on. She also successfully turned the focus of the scandal from being about the fear of nuclear mishaps — which the Air Force says is unfounded — to concern about the welfare of the Airmen.
“I have three priorities as Secretary of the Air Force,” James said. “taking care of people, balancing the needs of today’s readiness with our modernization needs of tomorrow, and making sure that every dollar we spend is a dollar well-spent.”
“These priorities will guide us to provide the American people a smaller, but more capable and ready Air Force, which I’m convinced has an extremely bright future. The nation has a go-to force, and that go-to force is the United States Air Force.”
James’ mom Regina Roche still resides in the home where she raised her family in Rumson — and her sister, 1965 RFH graduate Regina Roche, describes herself as “my sister’s biggest fan and cheerleader” and influenced James’ desire to explore the world.
“My mom and sister always taught me I could be anyone and do anything if I set my mind to it,” James said, adding that “Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School was a great place to start…I still visit Rumson regularly and remember the great teachers from high school.”