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Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson speaks with Airmen during a farewell interview at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on May 8, 2019. Air Force photo by TSgt. Robert Barnett.

JB ANDREWS, Md.—Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson used her last public appearance in the Washington area shortly before she retires to share her thoughts on leadership, and gardening.

“Everything I needed to know about leading the Air Force, I learned in gardening in 4H,” she said during her retirement ceremony here on May 21.

She said it’s important to start with a plan, and then make the process better with friends, because “we as airmen are in this as a team.” Let these friends help you plant, or execute those plans. “You have to weed, a lot,” or in service you have to “get rid of the things that don’t matter in order to make room for the things that do,” she said.

You have to plant more than you can eat, to feed others or to “engage allies.” Leaders need to “be tough with the mean kids” and stand up to those who question your work. As Secretary, she had to explain her work, “what we need and why”— to Congress, to reporters, and to the public, she said. Lastly, leaders must think long-term by planting ideas and projects that will last long after she’s out of the position.

Wilson announced her intent to retire on March 8, after she accepted an offer to be the next president of the University of Texas at El Paso. She served just over two years as Secretary, a relatively short tenure in office. Her last day is May 31, and her final public appearance in the job will be May 30 at the US Air Force Academy graduation ceremony.

President Trump announced via Twitter on May 21 his plans to nominate Barbara Barrett to be the next Air Force Secretary. Barrett is a retired Air Force combat pilot and former chairman of the Aerospace Corporation. The service has previously announced that Air Force Undersecretary Matthew Donovan will serve as acting Secretary beginning June 1.

Wilson became Air Force Secretary in May 2017, after then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reached out to her with a job offer. She is a former Congresswoman from New Mexico, past president of the South Dakota School of Mines, and a former member of the National Security Council. 

Wilson took office with five priorities that governed her tenure: restoring readiness, cost-effective modernization, a focus on innovation, developing exceptional leaders, and strengthening alliances.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said under Wilson’s leadership, the service has cut nearly 100 years out of the Air Force’s acquisition process, reduced red tape by removing more than 320 Air Force Instructions, set the conditions to build the “Air Force We Need,” led two years of dramatically increased funding for space, and made quality of life changes for airmen and their families.

“Of all her accomplishments leading our formation, here is the heart and soul of Secretary Wilson: She loves airmen and airmen love her back,” Goldfein said. “Her priority has always been with people.”

Wilson and Goldfein both attended the Air Force Academy at about the same time, with Wilson graduating one year ahead. It is “fitting” that she will go out of service where she began, and with the next generation of airmen, he said.

“Today she is once again graduating with full honors, one year ahead of me,” Goldfein said, saying his relationship with Wilson is “the most rewarding of my career. I have truly enjoyed working with, for, and learning from you.”

Wilson, who spent 37 years in public service, ended her speech by telling the hangar, “I will always be an American airman. You have the watch.”