Ellen M. Pawlikowski was the first woman to become a second lieutenant through the Air Force ROTC program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Nearly 40 years later, the four-star general who commands the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base will mark a homecoming of sorts Saturday as the honorary grand marshal of the New York City Veterans Day parade.
“It’s a bit of a homecoming for me,” Pawlikowski, 60, said in an interview with this newspaper. “I grew up watching that parade every year.
“It has a long tradition of recognizing our veterans and even through those years when being a veteran wasn’t necessarily something that was valued in the broader sense, so it’s very rewarding to me to be able to participate in it and to recognize those veterans, particularly those in the New York City area,” she said.
The East Orange, N.J., native also grew up in the era of the Vietnam war, which caused widespread unrest and protests on college campuses.
“I had friends who had older brothers … who were drafted and who were going off (to Vietnam) and there were always some discussion going on about veterans and who was in school and had deferments,” she said.
One reason she joined her college Reserve Officer Training Corps was her curiosity was piqued when she played the trombone with her high school band to welcome home a returning POW as he walked into his house.
“It left me with the impression that these folks were coming home had made great sacrifices from themselves and their families,” she said. “After that experience, I looked at this Veterans Day parade even in a more serious light than I had before.
“I really think the veteran heroes, they are those Vietnam veterans who came home to very little support for themselves and their families,” she said.
When she attended the University of California at Berkley early in her career to earn a doctorate in chemical engineering, ROTC students met early in the morning to have time to change out of their uniform for the rest of the day’s classes because of concerns about their security on campus, she said. It was the era when president Jimmy Carter had re-instituted Select Service registration for the draft.
Veterans receive more gratitude in recognition today, she said.
“I have to tell you, it was a very, very strange experience for me the first time I was walking through an airport and somebody walked up to me and thanked me for (my) service and that was like decades later,” Pawlikowski said.
In every war, veterans face unique injuries, she said. Today, some fight a new battle at home, facing “invisible wounds” like post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injuries.
And the number of women veterans who have been exposed to combat has increased, she added.
“I believe we still have some work to do in terms of how our women veterans are cared for when they return,” she said.
Women have far more career opportunities in the Air Force than when she first joined ROTC in 1974, and had no scholarship opportunity and worked in college, she said.
“When I first showed up my freshman year in ROTC, there were very few opportunities for women,” she said. “Women couldn’t be in any of the operational fields, (in) particular pilots. But we couldn’t be missileers. We couldn’t be navigators. We couldn’t be in any career field that was even moderately associated with warfighting.”
Today, she said, those institutional barriers are gone.
As the second four-star female general to command AFMC, Pawlikowski oversees about 80,000 employees in a command managing a $60 billion yearly budget. She’s a former commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patt and was the first female commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.
But she said she didn’t see herself as a trailblazer breaking through barriers.