WASHINGTON ― When Gina Ortiz Jones joined the Air Force in 2003, she had to hide that she was gay. For years, she served in fear of losing her ROTC scholarship and being discharged because of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which barred openly LGBTQ people from service.
Nearly 20 years later, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is gone and Jones is the under secretary of the Air Force, the department’s second-highest-ranking civilian leader. She has the authority to help ensure the Air Force is as inclusive and accommodating as possible. She is also a historic leader for the 74-year-old institution: She is the first woman of color in this post, and the first out lesbian to serve as under secretary of any U.S. military branch.
It’s an incredible full-circle moment for Jones, 40, who aspires to be the military leader she never had as a young cadet ― someone with the courage to say that anybody willing and able to serve their country should be able to do so.
“It’s not lost on me, you know?” Jones said in a recent interview at the Pentagon. “To serve under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ to know what it feels like to have leaders that are not as vested in your success because of something you have no control over ... I’m in a position where I can shape policies, change policies, so that that is not the case.”
Jones’ new role marks her return to an institution she left 15 years ago. She previously served in the Air Force until 2006, during which time she deployed to Iraq and reached the rank of captain. She briefly returned to her home state of Texas to take care of her mother, and then went back into public service, working as an intelligence officer under President Barack Obama. She went on to take a job as a director in Obama’s Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and stayed in the post when Donald Trump became president.
But she lasted only five months in the Trump administration. The president’s plans to gut education and housing aid hit too close to home for Jones, as someone who relied on reduced-cost school lunches and subsidized housing when she was a child being raised by a single mom in San Antonio. She was also appalled by Trump’s hires for top jobs.
“The type of people that were brought in to be public servants were interested in neither the public nor the service,” Jones told HuffPost at the time. “That, to me, was a sign that I’m going to have to serve in a different way.”
So she ran for Congress in Texas ― twice. Her 2018 race was so tight that The Associated Press initially called it for her, though she ultimately lost by 926 votes. She lost her 2020 race by 4 percentage points. President Joe Biden nominated her in April to her current post, and she was confirmed unanimously by the Senate in July.
Ever since, she said she’s been putting in 12-to-14-hour days at work, by choice. It showed, as she sipped from a mug of hot tea and spoke with a hoarse voice.
“I have a small window of time to really serve in the best way that I can,” Jones said. “I’m not here for any other reason than to ― don’t make fun ― but I mean, it’s about giving back to a country that has given me so much ... So that’s what this time is about.”
So what does Jones want to accomplish in this role?
She is already looking at a problem that the Air Force has faced for years: retention of mid-career women. In 2015, women made up 18.9% of the Air Force ― the highest rate among the military services ― but they left their jobs mid-career at twice the rate of men. Female officers say the desire to have children or raise a family are major factors in their decision to leave, coupled with the difficulty of managing frequent moves, problems with child care facilities on military installations, and difficulties finding accommodations for pumping breast milk after maternity leave.
The under secretary said the Air Force can do more to ensure that female officers don’t feel like they have to choose between having a family and extending their careers.
“Folks made a decision just a couple of years before that they couldn’t have both. But you can, actually,” she said. “We’re cutting ourselves off from talent ... I mean, we talk about pilot retention. Well, let’s talk about women retention at a certain level.”
The COVID pandemic has already created different expectations for how people work, Jones said, and telework has become an option that some personnel have come to rely on. It’s provided more flexibility for those trying to juggle family and work life, and it’s helped the military branch remain competitive with the private sector.
“It’s not just about giving somebody a laptop and saying, ‘Hey, you know, call in at this time.’ We’ve also got to kind of shift our mindset about how we think about telework, and what that means for our senior leaders,” said Jones. “Whatever we can do to make sure that we are, one, seen as inclusive, and as an employer of choice.”
“We’re cutting ourselves off from talent ... We talk about pilot retention. Well, let’s talk about women retention at a certain level.”
The under secretary has also been helping to oversee mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for all personnel. The Air Force set the most aggressive timelines for vaccinations out of all of the military branches and is proud of it. As of Nov. 23, more than 97% of its active-duty personnel had received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Put another way, said Jones, within 60 days of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin telling military leaders to be ambitious about vaccinations, the Air Force had delivered 100,000 shots.
But even with that high vaccination rate, because of the sheer number of people in the Air Force, it still means that thousands of personnel aren’t vaccinated. The Air Force employs roughly 501,000 people, which breaks down to about 326,000 active-duty personnel for the Air Force and Space Force, and about 175,000 people in the Air Force National Guard and Air Force Reserve.
As of Nov. 23, there were 7,874 active-duty personnel classified as “unvaccinated,” per data crunched by the Air Force. Of those, 1,993 had not started a vaccination process, 1,125 flat-out refused to do it and 4,756 had a religious accommodation exemption in process.
Air Force National Guard and Air Force Reserve members have until Dec. 2 to be vaccinated, so data on their vaccination rates has not been completed and released yet.
Asked how Air Force leadership will respond to personnel who refuse to get vaccinated, Jones emphasized that we were talking about “a very, very small percentage of folks.”
“There are some folks that are exercising their right to request a religious accommodation, a medical exemption,” she said. “And they should do that if that’s what they feel is necessary.”
But that still doesn’t account for the current 1,125 active-duty personnel without an exemption who are refusing to get vaccinated.
After some back and forth, the under secretary said people in that category ultimately will be penalized in the same way that any service member would be punished for not following orders: They will be “separated from the military,” as Jones put it bluntly.
Four months into her job, Jones can feel how different her presence is in meetings with senior military leaders. She’s often the only woman in the room, and definitely the only woman of color. She said she makes a point to speak up on various issues because, at times, she has a different vantage point than her mostly white, male colleagues.
“I’m very cognizant of the fact that if I don’t say it, it might not get said ― and it needs to be said,” said Jones. “It’s really important … that we understand the unique experiences of certain groups that have unique barriers that affect their quality of life and their quality of service.”
One of those moments was during a meeting just after the Air Force had released a racial and gender parity report in September. For all its data, which Jones said she was “proud” the Air Force compiled, the report didn’t provide any analysis of disparities specifically affecting women of color. This particular group of personnel disproportionately faces sexual harassment and sexual assault, for example, and the report didn’t examine this.
“So I asked the question, ‘Why didn’t we look at this?’ And the thing is, we had the data, we just had to kind of cut it and look at it that way,” said Jones. “I firmly believe had I not asked that question, we would not be getting an addendum to our report” addressing this reality. The addendum is here.
Jones spends a lot of time in meetings with top military leaders. But she said she tries to think about all the personnel she doesn’t talk to on a daily basis, and how policy changes being discussed at the highest levels would affect them differently. Airmen of color. Single parents. Junior-level recruits thinking about whether or not to stay in military service.
She attributes that to her time serving under “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“It’s always like, who am I not hearing from? What don’t I know? What assumptions are we making?” said Jones. “There’s a lived experience that needs to be part of this conversation ... I’m also very deliberate about how I make sure we are also building policies that are reflective of and convey the importance that we place on everyone’s ability to serve to their full potential.”
One idea she had for connecting with personnel was to hold a September ceremony marking the 10-year anniversary of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But COVID-19 precautions meant that couldn’t happen, so she asked her team to find people who had served under the ban and invite them to take a photo together in the Pentagon courtyard. When she showed up for the photo, the people gathered looked way too young to have served that long ago. Jones asked what was going on.
“My team said, ’Oh, no no, these folks, they wanted to be part of this picture because they came in because ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed,’” Jones said.
“I might have gotten a little emotional,” she added. “I think that’s what we sometimes forget is like, when we actually take these things away, the message that conveys to people about their ability to fully contribute to the team.”