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Breaking the mold through leadership

By Chad L. Simon | 1ST INF. DIV. PUBLIC AFFAIRS | August 23, 2017

     Warrant Officer Elida Garza, human resources officer, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, has always tried to set the example, from being the oldest of four children to being a Soldier and now a warrant officer in the Army.

    According to fiscal year 2016 statistics, women comprise 15 percent of the Army’s total personnel, and Hispanic women account for 10 percent of all warrant officers. However, Garza is accustomed to being a minority.

     The 10-year Army veteran was born the U.S. but was raised in Piedras Negras, Mexico, until her father’s jewelry business faltered when she was 9 years old. At that point her family moved back to the U.S. to live in Eagle Pass, Texas, where her father found a job as a truck driver.

     The move to Texas lead to Garza taking more of a leadership role in her family as her father was gone for periods of time.

     “I was the oldest of four kids,” Garza said. “I had three brothers so they looked up to me. My mom needed help and I was trying to learn English myself. I had to help her pay bills because she didn’t understand. My dad traveled a lot so he was never home, so I was a second mom to my brothers because my mom was busy.”

     A self-described tomboy, Garza spent a lot of time feeding horses across from her home and roller skating. She played with friends of her younger brothers because there were not many girls in the new neighborhood.

     “My mom noticed I was being a tomboy, so she enrolled me in modeling classes,” Garza said. “I modeled for stores in the mall. I competed in beauty pageants and became a beauty queen.”

     Garza enjoyed the opportunity to see herself in a different light, but still remained grounded in who she was as a person.

     “I enjoyed it,” Garza said. “It was something different. I don’t want to say that I was shy, but I went from being a tomboy to seeing a different side of myself.

     “As you grow up you realize that this ‘outside thing’ does not matter as much. It is good for confidence, but the outside is just superficial. How smart you are and what your goals are is what matters. That does not change, ever. Between having good grades, playing soccer in school and being (in the) Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, it helped shape me. Not because my mom wanted me to be a pageant queen like she was and her sisters were. There is something more to me than that.”

     Garza’s plans and goals after high school were not typical in her traditional Hispanic household. She wanted to attend college and pursue dentistry in San Antonio. Instead, she took one year of classes at a local community college before joining the Army.

     “My dad didn’t want me to go to the university in San Antonio because he thought I should get married before I was to leave the house,” Garza said. “I did go to junior college for one year after I graduated from high school and he was OK with that I think because I still lived in the house. I don’t think he really liked the idea of me going out and getting my degree and being independent. He thought I should be somebody’s wife first, and I didn’t agree with that.”

     If her parents didn’t like Garza’s ideas of wanting to be an independent woman, they sure weren’t going to like her reason for joining the Army — love.

     “My dad was never really home,” Garza said. “I guess he didn’t think it would be for real. When the recruiters picked me up, my mom was there and she was like ‘Do your best.’ I don’t think she was prepared for it. I also didn’t tell her that I had got married in secret either.”

      Garza’s high-school sweetheart planned to join the Army.

     “I really loved him, so I told him ‘I will just join the military with you,’” she said. “We swore in side-by-side together, and we both became human resource specialists. We went to the same basic training and AIT (advanced individual training). Talk about awkward honeymoons — we got married five days before we swore in.”

      Garza rose to the rank of staff sergeant before being selected to become a warrant officer.

     “The Army has awesome opportunities,” Garza said. “I learned leadership skills. I liked the discipline, the following of orders, the chain of command, the background to the purpose of me processing paperwork. I like that I can actually help out a Soldier. It is just so much more to me than just administrative paperwork. I am processing paperwork for someone that needs their orders amended. We can really help out Soldiers, not just process paperwork.”

     Garza credits her successful military career to leaders she’s had during her time in the Army, but especially at her first duty station, Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington. She didn’t have far to look for a role model.

     “Sgt. Rebecca Fontes, she was the first leader I had in the Army,” Garza said. “I still keep in contact with her even though she had to get out of the Army. She instilled into me to do research and how to be a strong female leader. I looked up to her a lot. She always has a positive attitude. She was amazing at physical fitness. I told her I wanted to be an NCO (noncommissioned officer) like her and I did become an NCO. I called her and told her that she was my role model.”

     Garza’s first officer in charge was Chief Warrant Officer 3 Victor Trinidad. He laid the groundwork for Garza to one day become a warrant officer.

     “He taught me that you never stop being an NCO, you are just in background working in the shadows like Batman,” Garza said. “I just really like that because at the end of the day it is selfless service, one of our seven Army values. I learned a lot from him, and I said one day I would be become a warrant officer.”

     Though she had great role models at her first duty station, like all Soldiers, Garza has had to deal with personal challenges while being in the Army, including a miscarriage and a divorce. She feels those hard times made her a better Soldier and a better leader.

     “I have come through some difficult chapters in my life,” Garza said. “Anything can happen to you. You can have a miscarriage and lose a baby. You can get divorced, but it will always be how you react to those situations that matters. You have the power. After that, you have this knowledge in you to help somebody else that is struggling with a similar challenge. You already know how to help them.”

     Garza reacted to her miscarriage by becoming even more physically fit than she was prior to her pregnancy.

     “I didn’t know how to cope with it so I focused on physical fitness,” she said. “Two months after it I enrolled in Air Assault (School) and I completed the course. That helped me from within to say that I am a person that this happened to, and it could happen to anyone, but that there was nothing wrong with my body.”

     Garza has learned to take a step back and allow her Soldiers to lead since becoming a warrant officer one year ago. She is supportive of their ideas and allows them to put their ideas into action.

      “I came up with the idea, but we go out as a shop,” said Sgt. Bevelyn Kozma, human resources noncommissioned officer, 1st CAB. “We have gone out to lunch or bowling. Some leaders separate themselves from that, but she is very easy to talk to about anything.”

      Kozma sees the same qualities in Garza that Garza saw in Fontes a decade ago.

     “I think she sets a great example,” Kozma said. “She has medals up on her wall and I think ‘Man, I might want to try and do something like a marathon.’ I look up to her and I am inspired by her. If I think I can’t do something or I have a little doubt, she has no problem telling me ‘You know you can do that.’ She gives me motivation.”

     Some of the motivation is to be the best Soldier possible, no matter a Soldier’s gender.

     “I think she is a true example what a female should be in the Army,” Kozma said. “As in, don’t let the other gender tell you that you can’t do something when you believe you can do something. Just keep moving forward regardless of how many obstacles you have to jump over. Just keep moving forward and drive on.”