Most people probably don’t know who the under secretary of the Air Force is. That’s true even for some people within the department. But from the moment she was confirmed to the post in July 2021, Gina Ortiz Jones stood out.
For starters, Jones looked different. She is the first woman of color to hold this job (she is Filipina American), and the first openly lesbian woman to serve as under secretary of any U.S. military branch.
Beyond that, the story of her rise to the top sounds like the inspiration for a movie.
When Jones joined the Air Force in 2003, she had to hide that she was a lesbian because of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which barred openly LGBTQ people from serving. She deployed to Iraq and served as an intelligence officer, all the while hiding who she was and feeling that her leaders weren’t as invested in her success.
Twenty years later, that policy is gone and Jones became the department’s second-highest ranked civilian leader, overseeing its $173 billion budget and responsible for making sure that roughly 700,000 military personnel and their families feel the Air Force is invested in their success.
Amid those two decades, Jones ran for Congress in Texas twice ― and nearly won in a race so close that The Associated Press initially called it for her.
Jones stepped down as under secretary this month. In a recent interview at the Pentagon, she said it seemed like a natural time to go, and that she’s ready for a break after working 12- to 14-hour days on “really meaty, meaty issues.” She hinted at a couple of job prospects, but was vague about what they might be.
“It will always be related to public service,” Jones, 42, said of her next step.
A year and a half isn’t a long time to make a difference at an entity as massive and bureaucratic as the Pentagon. But being the under secretary is at least partly what you want to make of it. And Jones, who is still very much shaped by her experience serving under “don’t ask, don’t tell” and feeling overlooked by leadership, came into the job knowing precisely what she wanted to accomplish. She pushed through some of the most significant diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at the Defense Department, and did so by espousing a pretty simple idea: It’s crucial for military recruitment, retention and readiness.
“I don’t know if anybody would be super surprised that the first lesbian and the first woman of color to serve as an under secretary of any military department would ... tackle some of these things,” Jones said. “When you have firsthand experience with these things and the data is so clear about where you need to do work, of course we’re going to tackle those things.”
“Of course it’s probably going to be a little bit messy,” she added, “but we need the best Department of the Air Force for the country.”
In some cases, Jones used her authority to simply clarify existing policies to make sure that personnel and their families knew about them and how they could benefit from them.
Amid the recent wave of anti-LGBTQ state laws targeting children, Jones last year directed the Air Force to clarify to its hundreds of thousands of personnel and families that it will provide them with any medical or legal help if they are personally affected by these laws. And if service members feel they need to leave those states entirely, for the sake of their child’s mental or physical health, the Air Force will help them do that, too.
“The health, care and resilience of our [Air Force] personnel and their families is not just our top priority — it’s essential to our ability to accomplish the mission,” Jones said at the time.
The Air Force is the only branch of the U.S. military that did this.
When Jones learned in the fall of 2021 that the Thai Royal Air Force didn’t let women attend its prestigious Air Command and Staff College, a mid-career professional military school, she worked with the defense secretary’s office to engage with Thai military officials to change the policy. They eventually agreed to accept a U.S. female officer in the fall of 2022, which opened the door to five female Thai officers being accepted for the first time, too.
Jones said that situation wasn’t just about making sure female officers could compete for spots at military schools along with men. It was about the United States knowing it has influence in the region, and using that influence with allies to bring about meaningful change.
“You know who would never do anything like that? The People’s Republic of China,” she said. “So yes, this is about equity. But it’s also about the power of our example. And we should never underestimate that. And we should ask because of the strength of that voice.”
“This is about equity. But it’s also about the power of our example. And we should never underestimate that.”
Jones pushed to change the department policy that governed when female pilots could fly while pregnant. Now, instead of some being barred from flying at all, female pilots can voluntarily request to fly during pregnancy as long as they apply for a waiver. They don’t even need a waiver during the second trimester of pregnancy when flying a bigger, non-ejection seat plane, as long as it’s an uncomplicated pregnancy. All pregnant aircrew members can apply for a waiver regardless of trimester and type of plane, too.
The effect of this change is that female pilots can decide for themselves whether they want to keep flying, and continue logging hours so they don’t fall behind in advancing their careers, which was happening regularly. Previously, women flying small, ejection-seat aircraft ― think fighters and bombers ― were barred from flying these planes at all if they were pregnant. But it’s precisely these kinds of planes that disproportionately produce Air Force generals.
In other words, this policy change is likely to have a major impact on the likelihood of women being considered for general officers.
Jones said it took months of reviews to change this policy, which made such a splash that it was celebrated by news outlets ranging from People magazine to Fox News. What was key here, said Jones, is that the process that female pilots previously had to go through was opaque, and based on next to no data about the safety risks of flying while pregnant. Now, more women can fly and not have to choose between their careers and starting a family.
What Jones wouldn’t say, though it was clear from her evasiveness after being asked the question five times, was that she met significant resistance to updating this policy.
“It took a real push to get that one to change,” was all she finally said.
Jones also pressed the Air Force to look at its data on personnel in different ways, namely so it wasn’t overlooking certain people. When the department issued a 2021 racial and gender disparity report, Jones directed the creation of an addendum because the report looked at race and gender separately without assessing how the two intersected. Once completed, the addendum showed, not surprisingly, how disparities were even worse for people of color.
The addendum revealed, for example, that women of color aren’t advancing at nearly the same rates as white women. Without looking specifically at the intersection of race and gender, the data made it seem as if women generally were making gains in promotions, enlisted leadership and military education designations. The addendum also revealed that Asian American and Pacific Islander men have the lowest promotion rates of any demographic.
In another case, Jones commissioned a study in response to anecdotes she’d heard about female general officers having more complaints filed against them with the Air Force inspector general than their male counterparts. The study found that while female general officers did have disproportionately more IG complaints filed against them, these complaints were substantiated at a much lower rate than those involving their male colleagues.
“We’ve seen this across all military services,” said Katherine Kuzminski, a senior fellow and director of the military, veterans and society program at the Center for a New American Security. She conducted the study for Jones.
“When a woman is relieved of command or faces consequences for toxic leadership, it becomes a real news story,” she said. “The reality is men are relieved for those reasons more frequently, but it’s not as much of a news story.”
Kuzminski, who has been doing research on military personnel for 12 years, said while there have long been anecdotes about women in the military being bad leaders, what’s been missing is someone willing to look at actual data to see if there’s any validity to such claims.
“But the first time Gina heard it, she said, ‘Let’s get to the root of it and take a look at what the data say,’” she said. “‘Is there an issue? And if yes, what do we do to improve the situation?’”
The point of a study like the one Jones commissioned isn’t so much about fixing perceptions of women, Kuzminski said, but about showing Air Force leadership what opportunities it has to expand the scope of how people think about leadership skills and potential. This final report and its recommendations are currently being reviewed before being implemented.
“Not to be on the nose about it, but this is why having a diverse set of background experiences and perspectives is important in the policymaking community,” she added. “What Gina was great at was being able to translate the necessity for diversity, equality and inclusion into building the military force that A, represents the country, and B, is more lethal than one where we were only selecting from this subset.”
Jones led the Air Force in addressing some of its uglier realities, too. Domestic violence is a huge problem in the military; Air Force leadership gets twice as many reports on domestic abuse every year as it does on sexual assault. Jones came across the case of Kata Ranta, a domestic violence survivor whose abusive ex-husband was an airman. Nearly 10 years ago, he tried to kill her ― he shot her twice, in front of their 4-year-old son ― and is now in prison. Ranta was eligible for transitional compensation, an Air Force resource that provides money and health care for 36 months to help a victim of domestic violence transition through the trauma of the situation. Except Ranta never got it.
“When I said, ‘Hey, we need to get this for her and help her apply for it,’ folks were like, ‘Well, it was so many years ago, if we do this, we may open up the floodgates,’” Jones said. She was stunned. “I’m like, ‘Well? Then open up the damn floodgates.’”
Ranta ended up getting her benefits ― but it took eight months, and likely only happened because the under secretary made it a priority. The ordeal had a real effect on Jones. She directed staff to raise awareness of transitional compensation to military families. She also directed the creation of a six-month pilot program at seven Air Force bases that set up a hub of services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The goal was to see if co-locating these services would decrease retraumatization for victims and raise awareness of the problem.
Jones tapped someone to serve as an adviser on the pilot and on follow-up efforts after it was over, too: Ranta.
“The family members of abusive active-duty members kind of get lost in the whole military machine,” Ranta told HuffPost. “In my case, [Air Force leaders] were definitely more concerned about my abuser than they were about me and my son. It just is unfortunate that it took something so extreme for people to jump into action to make things right.”
“But that it happened at all, I’m grateful for,” she added, referring to finally getting some help from the Air Force. “It’s a story of women helping women.”
For all the work that Jones put into making diversity and equity a priority within the Air Force, she said she never became a target of right-wing lawmakers or news outlets eager to accuse the Biden administration of pushing “woke” policies that reduce people to identity politics. To the contrary, Fox News glorified Jones’ change affecting pregnant female pilots.
It’s hard to say what the lasting effects will be of Jones’ efforts. It’s not because she just left, but because every presidential administration brings in a new team of people with their own ideas about the right policies to push.
Jones isn’t worried about it. She put in the time to gather data on most of everything she did, and crafted policies based on what the data found. Besides, as former President Barack Obama used to say about Republicans’ failed efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, it’s a lot easier to give someone a benefit than it is to take it away.
“Part of the key to that will be the people who are impacted by these things, how loud of a voice they raise,” Jones said. “Good luck to the person that wants to now tell pregnant women, ‘Oh actually, we’re going back to the old policy where you couldn’t even apply to keep flying when you were pregnant.’”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.