Human Interest After Serving in 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Era, Air Force Under Secretary Gina Ortiz Jones Comes Full Circle "It would've been very difficult for 18-year-old Gina to understand that this was even a possibility," Under Secretary Gina Ortiz Jones tells PEOPLE of her job now By Nick Maslow Nick Maslow Instagram Twitter Senior News Editor, PEOPLE People Editorial Guidelines Published on May 23, 2022 04:14 PM Share Tweet Pin Email Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones. Photo: Eric Gay/AP/Shutterstock Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones is being whisked through the streets of Manhattan to her next speaking engagement when she recalls the moment that forever changed her life, setting her on a path to becoming the first out lesbian and first woman of color to serve as a U.S. under secretary. Back in her San Antonio middle school days in the early 1990s, she was "being a little bit of a knucklehead" and "getting in trouble at school," Jones, now 41, tells PEOPLE. "So much trouble that, at one point in time, I was involved in an altercation and I was placed on probation for six months." To this day, she remembers how her behavior affected her mother, Victorina Medenilla Ortiz. Victorina — a Filipino-American who studied at University of the Philippines Diliman, the top university in the Philippines, and taught science for a decade — wanted more opportunities in the U.S., so in 1978 she took a domestic helper job that would make her goal a reality. 92-Year-Old WWII Vet Fought 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' The opportunity came as Perfecto Medenilla Ortiz, Jones' uncle who lived in the U.S., prepared to marry his then-fiancée, Erlinda. After deciding to leave her job at the home of an ambassador, Erlinda was tasked with finding her replacement. "My aunt went back to the village where my mom's family is from, and she was just meeting the family," Jones explains. "But then she explained to my mom what she was able to do. And my mom's like, 'Don't ask anyone else. I'm going to go.' That's it. She was like, 'I'm going to go take your spot.'" Perfecto Medenilla Ortiz (right), Under Secretary Jones' uncle, was in the U.S. Navy's steward program and received a promotion (pictured here). He believes the photo was taken in 1968. courtesy Gina Ortiz Jones Victorina's family already had a deep connection to the U.S. thanks to her brother Perfecto — a topic Jones mentioned during her June 2021 nomination hearing. "In 1967, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy from the Philippines and served as a Steward, one of the few ratings open to Filipinos at the time," Jones told the Senate Armed Forces Committee. "Undeterred, he signed-up, because he too wanted his shot at the American Dream. Before retiring, he earned the distinction of being the first Filipino to serve as a gas turbine electrician in the fleet." As a child, Jones was inspired by her uncle's dedication to service and her mom's determination to start a new life in the U.S., where she gave birth to Jones and Christi Ann O. Jones, now 39, and raised them mostly on her own. A childhood portrait of Gina Ortiz Jones (left) with her mother, Victorina Medenilla Ortiz (top), and sister, Christi Ann O. Jones (right). courtesy Gina Ortiz Jones "Subsidized housing, reduced lunch — those were all also part of our experience," Jones says of growing up with assistance from government programs. "And so I just know that talent is universal — opportunity is not." Jones couldn't help but think of her mom's sacrifices when she faced disciplinary action in court back in middle school. "I just remember being in that courtroom, and my mom had the look of disappointment and hurt on her face," Jones says. "I think there's a special place in heaven for single moms and that place is probably an open bar, as it freaking should be," she later adds. "Even though my mom doesn't drink." After telling herself "I can do better than this," Jones thought, "What do the good kids do?" A classic '90s sitcom quickly answered her question: "Honestly, I remember watching Saved by the Bell, and good kids are on student council," she says. By joining the student council at John Jay High School, she grew close to Calvin "Buck" Buchholtz — the group's adviser, who remains Jones' good friend and mentor. Soon she also became interested in the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps. Available in 1,700 public and private high schools, military institutions and correctional centers, according to the program's website, Junior ROTC is known for introducing the nation's youth to the opportunities for those who commit to serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. "There's something about the structure of ROTC that was very appealing to me," Jones says. "And ROTC at that particular high school is, and continues to be, the largest Junior ROTC program in the country." "It's very much like part of that community and part of that school," she adds. "And it's not a surprise, right? We're literally less than five miles from Lackland Air Force Base, where you've got tons of drill instructors and it's just a very military part of town in Military City, USA. I just very much enjoyed it." Gina Ortiz Jones (bottom) during her ROTC Field Training days at Lackland Air Force Base in 2001. courtesy Gina Ortiz Jones Jones ended up becoming the Cadet Commander, the highest ranking junior cadet, and competed for a four-year Air Force ROTC scholarship. "My mom told us we would give back to a country that had given us so much," says Jones. "And then obviously, seeing my uncle serve in the Navy, I wanted to be part of and give back to a country that had given us so much. It's not to make it sound cliché, but I really wanted to serve." That scholarship covered her undergraduate studies at Boston University, but it came with a catch: she had to sign a paper agreeing to the terms of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," a former U.S. policy that prevented LGBTQ Americans from openly serving their country. She would live the next 12 years — during which she became an Air Force intelligence officer and served in Iraq — hiding her identity as a lesbian. Jones says she never had a this-is-too-much moment due to the policy, but she found it "really hard for me to see how I could serve in this environment if I couldn't do so openly." In 2003, Gina Ortiz Jones (center) was flanked by her mother, Victorina Medenilla Ortiz (left), and sister, Christi Ann O. Jones (right), during the future under secretary's Air Force ROTC commissioning ceremony at Boston University's Faneuil Hall. courtesy Gina Ortiz Jones On Saturday — nearly 11 years after the policy was repealed during the Obama administration — Jones had a pinch-me moment when she delivered a speech at the commissioning of the Boston University ROTC detachment from which she graduated. She returned to the place where she signed that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" letter as both an out and proud lesbian and the second-highest-ranking civilian in the Air Force, after Secretary Frank Kendall. "It would've been very difficult for 18-year-old Gina to understand that this was even a possibility," she says of her job now, "because of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, right? Because of having to sign that piece of paper." Ariana DeBose Celebrates Being a Queer Woman of Color as She Wins Oscar: 'There Is Indeed a Place for Us' She acknowledges that we now live in a "totally different world," one in which she can be open about her life with photographer Ana Isabel Martinez Chamorro, 32. Gina Ortiz Jones (right) alongside partner Ana Isabel Martinez Chamorro (left). courtesy Gina Ortiz Jones "Ana knows how passionate I am about this work, just given how my own service started and... Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Jones explains. "I could not have a more supportive partner, who's just got my back and knows that this is really important work. She's just so supportive and patient, and I owe her a huge debt of gratitude." That's partly because Jones — who has been on the job for nearly a year after being confirmed by the Senate in July 2021, following President Joe Biden's nomination of her that April — is figuring out how to strike a good work-life balance. "It's a work in progress," she says. "My partner will tell you, the weekends are as dedicated to us as they can be, but you know what? I still beat my alarm every morning. So while the days are long, there is no other work I'd rather be doing right now." "Sometimes I'm like, 'Really? You've got 15 minutes left. Go back to sleep.' But it's just such a privilege to do this," she says of her motivation. In July 2021, Gina Ortiz Jones (center) appeared in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee for her confirmation hearing and received support from her her mother, Victorina Medenilla Ortiz (left), and sister, Christi Ann O. Jones (right). courtesy Gina Ortiz Jones Starting at 7:30 a.m. on weekdays, Jones can usually be found at the Pentagon focusing on immediate and long-term threats to the U.S. and shaping the Air Force's $182 billion budget to reflect the nation's needs. "Given this leadership team, given the focus of this administration and given the challenges that we have before us — and to be able to be part of helping solve those for whatever time I'm able to do that, [it's] just a true honor," says Jones. Country Star Jimmie Allen Helps Combat Vet Write Powerful Song to Find Healing: 'I Was In a Dark Cave' Jones was on the job last September when the nation marked the 10th anniversary of the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." "This is going to just always be in my heart as one of the best experiences at the Pentagon," she says of the day, when she asked her team to gather people who also served under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" for a group photo in the courtyard. "So I show up, it's the day of, and they bring this group of folks together, and they're all super young," Jones remembers. "I was like, 'Ooh, I think my team messed up here.' I asked them and they're like, 'No, no, no. These folks wanted to be part of the picture, because they decided to serve because Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed.' Isn't that cool?" In September 2021, Under Secretary Gina Ortiz Jones (left) linked up with other members of the Air Force community to mark 10 years without "Don't Ask, Don't Tell.". Wayne Clark For Jones, it's a "very special picture" that demonstrates what happens when barriers to service are removed. "Once you do that, they will come to you and they will serve and we'll be a better Department of the Air Force for it," she adds. "So for me, Don't Ask, Don't Tell has come full circle with that story." One of the Last Pearl Harbor Survivors, 101, Asks Next Generation to 'Keep a Record,' 'Be Positive' Though Jones is also the first woman of color in her position, 10% of the entire Air Force are women of color too — something Jones didn't learn until getting the job and digging into data. "No company would ever write off 10% of their talent, and I'm certainly not suggesting that is what the Department of the Air Force is doing," she explains. "But by now, having looked at that lens, we have a clear picture of our challenges across the force. So we can address those both from a recruiting and from a retention standpoint." "When you look at some of these challenges in the general population, we know the experience of women of color is different than it is for others," she adds. RELATED VIDEO: We Tried It: Flying 9 Times the Force of Gravity in the Air Force's Super Bowl Rehearsal As a result, Jones sees an opportunity to ensure the Air Force is not overlooking the needs of women of color in their ranks. "We can better get after those things that are challenging the quality of life and quality of service of those folks," she says. As Jones strives to make her country a better place, her mom — who will soon retire from teaching in the U.S. — couldn't be prouder. "Mom wants to see every news clip, every article," says Jones. "She got on me the other day because I didn't send her the C-SPAN article when we rolled out the budget. So she's very proud, but I'm frankly very thankful because, had it not been for her sacrifice and her example, none of this would've been possible."