For most presidents, serving as commander in chief is the most solemn responsibility they bear. They understand the gravity of the job, the life and death decisions they must make, and appreciate the faith and confidence placed in them by those in uniform.
In a certain sense, I understand that awesome responsibility. During my three years as secretary of the Air Force, I was charged with caring for our 660,000 airmen. Among those airmen I met patriots, warriors, mothers and fathers — courageous and selfless individuals willing to make tremendous personal sacrifice for a greater cause.
That’s why I am so incensed by President Donald Trump’s purported comments about our military. He has called general officers dopes and babies, has mocked prisoners of war, and he has questioned the integrity of career military officials. According to the Atlantic Magazine and confirmed by Fox News, he even called members of our military losers and suckers. During my tenure as secretary of the Air Force, I met many airmen. Never once did I meet a loser or sucker.
Take for example Maj. Dana Lyon. I first met Dana on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base while attending the dignified transfer of her husband, David Lyon. David was killed after his vehicle struck a roadside bomb on the roads of Kabul, Afghanistan. At the time of David’s death, Dana was also stationed in Afghanistan and accompanied his body on the flight returning him to the United States. Dana and David are the ultimate example of what we ask of our servicemen and women — absolute selfless dedication to the mission, even in the most heartbreaking of circumstances. Despite it all, Dana has continued to serve. Dana Lyon is not a loser.
Next, consider Master Sgt. Brian Williams. On his sixth deployment — his second to Afghanistan — Brian was injured while his unit was clearing a Taliban compound. Ultimately, Brian lost his left leg above the knee. In the aftermath of his injury, the Air Force attempted to medically retire him, but Brian was committed to continuing his service. He fought to remain in uniform, and we found a way to make it happen. In a time when less than 1% of our population serves in the armed forces, Brian gave a limb for his country and decided that he wanted to give even more. Brian Williams is not a sucker.
Courage and tenacity are not new traits among our service members. Retired Brigadier Gen. Charles McGee is the premiere example of that fact. Despite facing deeply entrenched racism at home, BG McGee — a Tuskegee Airman — flew over 400 combat missions in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Out of uniform, BG McGee, now 100 years old, has continued to fight bigotry at home, sharing his story with countless young people. He has inspired a generation of service members by showing that we are stronger and more innovative when our force includes Americans of all races, ethnicities, genders, geographies, and backgrounds. Charles McGee is not a loser.
Finally, Master Sgt. John Chapman — a true hero. In 2002, while attached to a Navy SEAL Team in Afghanistan, Chapman participated in a daring rescue operation.
He and his team landed amid enemy gunfire while attempting to rescue their teammate. John directly exposed himself to the enemy, clearing multiple bunkers before being struck by enemy fire.
Despite severe injuries, he continued to fight relentlessly before succumbing to his wounds. Those who were there that day credit John with saving the lives of the rescue team. He was awarded the Air Force Cross for his heroism that day. Fourteen years after his death, I had the privilege of leading the fight against bureaucratic politics to upgrade John’s commendation to the Medal of Honor — the military’s highest award for valor. On August 22, 2018, John became the first airman to receive the medal since Vietnam. John Chapman was not a sucker.
It has been the honor of my life to learn the stories of these airmen and to play a role in preserving their legacies.
Over the years, I have learned that our nation’s service members are many things: strong, resilient, selfless, brave, and devoted.
There are two things they are not: losers or suckers.
Deborah Lee James served as the 23rd secretary of the Air Force, from 2013 to 2017.