November 5, 2017
By Nancy Dillon
When Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski joined ROTC as a college freshman, her New Jersey parents were a bit mystified.
“There were cultural challenges. They were like, ‘What are you doing?’ I don’t come from a military family,” the four-star general and commander of the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio told the Daily News.
It was 1974, and Pawlikowski couldn’t even qualify for an ROTC scholarship because those went to pilots — meaning men only.
“I joined ROTC more out of curiosity than anything else,” said Pawlikowski, who was born in East Orange, N.J., and raised in nearby Bloomfield.
She would become the first woman to complete the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program at what is now the New Jersey Institute of Technology, in Newark.
“They didn’t even have any uniforms for me. I had to take a road trip down to McGuire Air Force Base to . . . try on uniforms. I had no idea how they were supposed to fit,” she recalled.
Despite its barriers, ROTC became Pawlikowski’s social outlet on the commuter campus.
“Once I got involved, I found I really enjoyed the camaraderie, the true family atmosphere,” she recalled.
To cover expenses, she got a cashier’s job at a Pathmark supermarket in downtown Bloomfield.
“That was a challenge, I had to balance my engineering curriculum, additional time in classes for ROTC, and I worked 20 to 25 hours a week,” she said.
But Pawlikowski, now 60, stuck with it, realizing gender barriers weren’t limited to any one aspect of her life.
There was the physics professor who started every class with, “Gentlemen, this is what we’re going to do today,” she said.
And the Pathmark boss who quietly demoted her from night manager back to cashier, arguing, “We needed a male presence at the front of the store to detract shoplifters.”
After earning her doctorate in chemical engineering at the University of California-Berkeley in 1981, Pawlikowski had major oil companies knocking on her door with jobs.
But she chose active duty at McClellan Air Force Base instead. Her husband, whom she met in ROTC, joined the Air Force as well.
When her initial four-year commitment ended, the Air Force offered her a job that would keep the couple together, so she signed up yet again.
Pawlikowski began design work on equipment used to monitor the radioactive fallout from underground nuclear testing by other nations, she said.
Her husband eventually left active duty to become a high school teacher, but Pawlikowski remained — and quickly worked her way up the ranks.
By 2000, she became program director of the Air Force’s Airborne Laser Program, managing development of a massive laser mounted inside a 747 aircraft that would be able to shoot down boosting missiles.
She called the assignment “by far the coolest, hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
“The program started after Desert Storm. It was designed for defense against Scud missiles, so it was really important for ensuring the safety of our young men and women,” Pawlikowski said.
“It was an extremely challenging program, technically. It was a megawatt-class laser, and the optical system in front was something that had never been done before. Typically, you build lasers on solid tables that don’t vibrate. We were doing it on an airplane. It was very, very challenging and one of the highlights of my career,” she said.
Pawlikowski also served as commander of the Military Satellite Communications Systems Wing, deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory and commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center.
In her current position at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio, she manages some 80,000 people and $60 billion annually.
The institutional barriers she encountered early on, Pawlikowski said, have largely fallen away.
“When you look at all the opportunities I’ve had in the Air Force, I can tell you that I believe I’ve had as many opportunities as my male counterparts,” she said.
She even managed to raise two daughters, who are now in their 30s, a feat her “role model and mentor” warned her might be impossible.
Pawlikowski recalled how now-retired Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught visited her base in 1983 and warned the women officers about the “sacrifices” they likely would make to reach high-ranking positions — such as never having children.
“She was telling it like it was for when she grew up. I said, ‘I’d love to be able to prove her wrong,’ ” Pawlikowski recalled.
And then she did.
When Pawlikowski was promoted to one-star general, she invited Vaught to her ceremony — and proudly introduced her to one of her daughters.
“I know I have taken a very nontraditional path. I’m a geek and a mom, and I’m an Air Force officer. There are not many women in that nexus,” she said. “But yes, you can do it. They are not mutually exclusive.”
Pawlikowski said her role helping to lead the Veterans Day Parade in New York this year is “a bit of a homecoming.”
“Growing up, I watched these events. They’re important to me,” she said.
“I really want to make sure our veterans understand how much we appreciate what they’ve done for us.”