Female Air Force ROTC cadet excels

Cadet Rachel Bakaitis is among the first women to graduate from BYU as a pilot select, and has been influential in helping to raise awareness for women's roles in the air force.
Cadet Rachael Bakaitis is among the first women to graduate from BYU as a Pilot Select and has been influential in helping raise awareness for women’s roles in the Air Force. Photo by Ari Davis

She was met with skepticism when she signed up for BYU’s Air Force ROTC program.

“I had my mission call in hand when I showed up, so a lot of people really didn’t think I would stick to it,” Rachael Bakaitis said. “They thought I wouldn’t come back after my mission.”

Bakaitis stuck with it and when she graduates at the end of this school year she will not only receive a degree in physics but will commission to the Air Force as BYU’s first female Pilot Select in more than six years.

Recognized by her leaders as driven and a problem solver, Bakaitis has grown to be a leader, mentor and advocate within BYU’s Air Force ROTC program.

Bakaitis grew up in a home with tremendous respect for the armed forces and a father who spent six years in the Air Force Reserves. She said she remembers being inspired by general authorities who spoke of their time in the military. However, uncertainty and social pressures kept her from joining the ROTC throughout high school and her first two years at BYU.

“I was told by my friends that they didn’t think the military was for me,” Bakaitis said. “I wasn’t the type of person they pictured joining the military.”

Her feelings toward the military eventually got the best of her. On the first day of her third year at BYU, Bakaitis went to the ROTC office and signed up.

Cadet Adam Solomon, a senior majoring in exercise science, recalls Bakaitis standing out right away.

“Generally in the ROTC, it has been mostly guys, at least here at BYU, so being a female, she stood out that way,” Solomon said. “But I think where she definitely stood out is academia-wise. Rachael is smart. You could see that she had a passion for ROTC.”

Not everyone felt so strongly that Bakaitis had a place in the ROTC, however.

“I had someone tell me, ‘I support women in the military, but I don’t support LDS women in the military.’ I just didn’t get it,” Bakaitis said.

A tight-knit group of friends, including other women in the ROTC, a supportive father and group of leaders encouraged her to keep at it. Most importantly, she said, was that she knew her purpose.

Rachel will graduate in April , followed by commissioning to the air force to train as a pilot.
Bakaitis will graduate in April, followed by commissioning to the Air Force to train as a pilot. Photo by Ari Davis

“I knew what I was doing was right. I was serving my country and doing a good thing,” Bakaitis said. “And when people doubted me, I didn’t want to prove them right.”

After her first semester in the ROTC, Bakaitis left on her mission to Peru. According to Bakaitis, her mission and time in the ROTC were great complements. They both placed emphasis on leadership skills, and she used exercise time on her mission to improve at push-ups.

“Unlike a lot of the boys, I just hadn’t had a lot of opportunities to practice doing push-ups growing up. When I started in the ROTC I could only do two push-ups; by the end of my first semester I could do 18, which is the minimum to enlist. By the end of my mission I could do at least 47.”

After her mission, Bakaitis quickly became involved in additional opportunities that ROTC provided, including playing an important part of a nationally recognized color guard, becoming involved in ROTC leadership, and even beginning a program to raise the awareness for women’s roles in the Air Force. According to Major Mark Slik, assistant professor of aerospace studies, it is Bakaitis’ drive and ability to solve problems that has helped her to excel.

“If she sees something that’s wrong, you have a couple of different choices: you can ignore it, you can walk by it, you can point out that there is a problem and not do anything about it,” Slik said. “More often than not, Rachael not only offers up a credible solution but she is coming in to tell you that this is the problem, this is the solution and, ‘Oh, by the way, I took care of it already.'”

This year Bakaitis was selected to serve as a senior leader in the ROTC program, which included students from both BYU and UVU, as the Wing Executive Officer.

“Her position quite literally means that she is one of the more trusted individuals in the ROTC,” said Cadet Seth Bracken, a senior at UVU majoring in physics.

According to Bracken, who is serving as the Cadet Wing Commander, the top student position within the program, Bakaitis’ position means she is a very public face in the program and that “she makes sure that everything gets done.”

“She is a fire-and-forget missile,” Bracken said. “I think that’s the best way I can describe her. You set her to a task and then you can basically forget about it because you know she will complete it and do an excellent job.”

Although pilot training and graduation don’t loom far off, Bakaitis acknowledged that there are still a lot of decisions left to be made. Balancing family life and a military career will be a challenge, she said, but she will do her best to make those decisions when opportunities become available.

“It’s going to be hard, but when you meet those challenges, remember why you’re there and push forward,” Bakaitis said. “Don’t quit because of anxieties for things that really aren’t there yet.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email