South Dakota has a special connection to the U.S. Air Force, especially to the airmen who support its missions in the United States and around the globe. It’s because of this special connection that I’ve always had a particular interest in ensuring the Air Force’s civilian leaders both meet the needs of those they lead and possess the right vision for the future of the military and our national security interests as a whole.
For the last few years, South Dakota was proud to have Dr. Heather Wilson, former president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, serve at the top as secretary of the Air Force. Having lived with Ellsworth Air Force Base in her backyard, Secretary Wilson brought a small piece of South Dakota with her when she led the department.
I was proud to work with her on a number of projects, but I will never forget when the phone rang on the morning of March 27, 2019. I was sitting in my office in Washington when she delivered the news we had long been waiting for: Ellsworth Air Force Base had been officially selected to receive future B-21 training and operational squadrons, which meant South Dakota would be home to the first of our nation’s newest bombers.
I always appreciated Secretary Wilson’s leadership, and while she has since left her post to resume her career in higher education, the Air Force is still in good hands. On October 16, 2019, Ambassador Barbara Barrett was overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate to become the 25th secretary of the Air Force. Secretary Barrett is not only the fourth woman to lead the department in its history, but she is the third consecutive woman to hold this post since 2013, and I was proud to support her nomination.
Secretary Barrett is uniquely qualified for this role, and you don’t need to look further than her long and notable resume to prove it. She has served as U.S. ambassador to Finland, deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, and as a member of the Civil Aeronautics Board. As impressive as those achievements are on their own, she’s gone even higher. Tens of thousands of feet higher, actually. She became the first civilian female pilot to land in an F-18 on an aircraft carrier, part of a mission to demonstrate women’s fitness to fly in combat.
Before she was confirmed, I had the opportunity to sit down with then-nominee Barrett to discuss her vision for Ellsworth Air Force Base and how she believed it fit in the department’s broader mission. I’m confident she will serve our airmen and their families well, and I look forward to working with her, particularly as Ellsworth prepares to host the B-21s in the not-too-distant future.
Speaking of new leadership, I visited Ellsworth in early October and was able to spend some time with the new commander of the 28th Bomb Wing, Colonel David Doss, as well as Command Chief Master Sergeant Rochelle Hemingway. They, too, will play a critical role in preparing for the B-21s, and I’m thankful for their service and leadership to carry out the base’s current missions.
During this recent visit, I couldn’t help but think about how far things have come at the base. In a mere 14 years’ time, Ellsworth went from imminent closure to now being on the leading edge of our national security strategy. I couldn’t be prouder of what it’s become, and I’m so thankful for the men and women of Ellsworth who call South Dakota home.