Jennifer Gerhardt 
Contributing Writer

Very few Civil Air Patrol members ever reach the rank of colonel. Even fewer do so three times – but that’s just what Elizabeth A. Sydow has done as the new commander of CAP's Virginia Wing.

It was the third promotion to colonel for Sydow, who previously held the rank in CAP’s cadet corps and then in the U.S. Air Force.

That’s quite a feat, but not surprising to anyone knowing her and her family — the Sliwinskis. CAP was a family activity for Sydow, then Elizabeth Sliwinski, who started at age 11

“My parents and siblings were all Civil Air Patrol members,” recalled Sydow, who earned the Gen. Carl A. Spaatz Award — CAP’s top cadet honor, which carries with it promotion to cadet colonel — as a Nebraska Wing member in April 1987, four months before her brother, Jay.

“It was definitely a family thing,” she said. “We could choose one activity to do as kids, but we all chose CAP. We were pretty busy with weekend activities, but my parents never pressured me to do it.”

As a cadet, Sydow quickly learned many valuable leadership lessons, and after three years she ventured into her high school’s Junior ROTC program. For her and five other cadets, it was a natural fit. The two organizations featured similar core aerospace curricula, as well as learning drill and leadership skills.

“It was a constant learning experience,” said Sydow, who served as cadet commander in CAP and Junior ROTC at the same time. “Leadership isn’t something you learn once; you are constantly learning it. I’m still learning it today, just at a different level.”span>

After graduating from college, Sydow joined the Air Force and moved to South Dakota while remaining a CAP senior member. Once she was settled in with her new career, she was asked to organize a cadet encampment for the wing.

“I knew it was important for cadets to attend an encampment, but you can’t just pop over to your neighboring state because it’s a bit of a drive in South Dakota,” she said. “It was a small encampment, but it was something the wing really needed.”

That event later evolved into today’s Joint Dakota Encampment.

Sydow worked with other active-duty Air Force lieutenants and captains, who had also been in CAP, to make the encampment happen. It took months to plan and at times proved frustrating, but for Sydow and the other officers, the result was worth it.

“We were paying it forward,” she said. “I know CAP made a difference for me. It changed me and it changed my life. CAP gave me the confidence to go after the things I wanted, and I definitely would not have ended up in the Air Force if it hadn’t been for CAP.”

As Sydow continued the next 27 years of her Air Force journey, she used many of her CAP leadership skills to help make decisions and lead people with confidence.

“Being in leadership roles and being in charge of people wasn’t new,” she said. “The leadership lessons carry through, although the scenario is different.

“I would listen to members of my team, especially when they were more knowledgeable, but CAP definitely gave me confidence to be responsible for decisions I needed to make.”

In the Air Force, Sydow served on active duty as a civil engineer from January 1989-February 2000 before transferring to the Air Force Reserve. Her active-duty service included positions on squadron and major command civil engineer staffs and as an instructor of readiness and engineering management at the Air Force Institute of Technology’s Civil Engineer School.

As a reservist, she served as an individual mobilization augmentee at squadron, group and major command; as a traditional reservist on a civil engineer staff augmentation Team; and as an active guard/reserve officer in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Her active-duty tours including service as commander, 90th Civil Engineer Squadron; deputy commander, 90th Mission Support Group; deputy commander, 50th Mission Support Group; and on the Air Force Space Command civil engineer staff.

After retiring from the Air Force Reserve in 2016, again as a colonel, Sydow continued to spend her time helping and mentoring CAP cadets. She served as Virginia Wing vice commander for four years and as CAP national diversity officer from March 2019, and she became wing commander April 10 — the first woman to hold the top leadership post.

While she doesn’t take being a female role model lightly, she also doesn’t want anyone to get locked into the idea.

“It can definitely be helpful for female cadets to see someone else do it first. For others, it is their own personality and confidence that pushes them forward,” she said. “My path is different than others. But I can inspire cadets to take their path and have their own unique experiences.”

As Sydow looks to the future as wing commander, her priority for the Virginia Wing is to emerge safely from the pandemic restrictions, then focus on growth and member development. Her vision also includes adding new units in southwest Virginia and other areas lacking a CAP presence.

Her advice to prospective cadets and parents is to look at how CAP provides youth with valuable skills and lessons — and not just for those who want to pursue a military career.

“Leadership and teamwork are skills kids need no matter what they do in life — whether it’s a civilian career or military life,” said Sydow, who had two children of her own in CAP.

“The life skills and experiences are transferable to whatever they want to do. Starting with self-discipline, getting to meetings on time, studying and working with others as a team are valuable in any pursuit they choose.”