Lt. Col. Elizabeth Eaton-Ferenzi is the first woman to command the Cavalier ROTC Battalion at the University of Virginia.
But Eaton-Ferenzi doesn’t feel additional pressure beyond that of being an active-duty Army officer. She said the Army has opened all its schools and combat positions to women, including the Special Forces.
“There are some unique struggles for females in the Army, but I think over the years things have gotten slowly, incrementally better year after year,” she said. “I’m interested to hear from the female cadets here what their experiences are and what they perceive as their struggles. Hopefully we can keep closing that gap little by little.”
Eaton-Ferenzi, a combat helicopter pilot, was most recently stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.
“I was working at United States Central Command with the Commander’s Action Group, in charge of the Levant portfolio – Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq – and I did a lot of travel every month to the Middle East,” Eaton-Ferenzi said. “I was looking for a change of pace and for something a little bit more broadening. The brigade commander reached out and asked if I’d be interested in being a professor of military science.”
Eaton-Ferenzi holds degrees from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where she was an Army ROTC cadet, and Columbia University. She also brings combat experience to her post, having served a 13-month deployment in Afghanistan. She was also stationed in Africa and Honduras.
“The primary missions were counter narcotics and humanitarian aid/disaster relief,” Eaton-Ferenzi said of her Central American deployment. “The day after I took command, the Haiti earthquake happened, so I had a small contingent over in Haiti and I joined them at Port-au-Prince. During my deployment, we were all over Central America – Panama, El Salvador, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua – and we did humanitarian aid for mudslides in El Salvador.”
Eaton-Ferenzi, originally from Sidney, New York, followed in the footsteps of her two older sisters who both served in the U.S. Army after going through an ROTC program.
“They were my role models growing up and we all fall into each other’s footsteps in terms of academics, sports, schools and hobbies,” she said. “I went to Marquette University my freshman year, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That’s where they both went and did ROTC, but then I transferred to Lehigh University. I did ROTC all four years.”
But where she really broke with her family was not pursuing law.
“My father was the district attorney growing up in Delaware County,” she said. “His whole side of the family is in the law. My uncle is a federal judge, his younger brother. They both went to Albany Law [School]. His father was a lawyer. It was in the blood. When one of my two sisters got out of the Army, she went to law school and she’s a partner in her firm in Binghamton, NY.”
Eaton-Ferenzi, too, had planned a career in the law, but in her third year of ROTC she stepped into aviation. Two of her ROTC instructors shared their combat aviation experiences with their cadets.
“Until they did, I didn’t quite understand that the Army had aircraft,” Eaton-Ferenzi said. “I was under the impression that we were ground forces only. As I learned more about the various aircraft in the Army inventory, as well as aviation’s role, specifically air-ground integration, it intrigued me and it was something I saw as an exciting challenge where I could really contribute to the overall team effort.”
Becoming a Black Hawk helicopter pilot moved her into the unknown.
“I embarked on a journey that was foreign to me,” she said. “Learning to fly was one thing, but learning the ins and outs of helicopter systems, such as pneumatics, hydraulics, fuel, engines, was something else. It didn’t come naturally to me and I had to work hard, but I was exposed to a whole new world. I embraced it and came to love it.”
After several deployments, Eaton-Ferenzi went back to school at Columbia University in the Eisenhower Leadership Development Program, a hybrid master’s program between Columbia and the U.S. Army Military Academy at West Point. She received a master’s degree in organizational psychology and she taught three years at West Point. She thinks her experiences will benefit the UVA cadets.
“I was commissioned through ROTC, served in combat arms and taught at the United States Military Academy,” she said. “There’s a lot of crossover. But there’s also a lot of very distinct experiences and I can extract the most valuable lessons as we’re teaching and developing the next generation of leaders.”
Eaton-Ferenzi said her varied deployments will help her guide the students as they select their own paths in the Army.
“There’s a lot that’s available,” she said. “I don’t think people realize that. I want to open their eyes to possibilities out there, so they can forge their own path and really make the most of their experience. I just want to make sure that I get to know them, their talents, what they want to pursue and let them know the military may have some options for them.”
She said this could encourage quality officers to stay in for the long haul.
“We purge a lot of talent, unfortunately,” she said. “But from what I’ve seen here at UVA, the intrinsic motivation, the academics, the athletics, the patriotism – I’m kind of blown away by this population. I think it’s a special population, here at UVA.”