When a West Virginia University ROTC Cadet was told she’d never make it in combat arms, it ignited a fire that spurred Abigail Panza to become the first female U.S. Army Infantry Lieutenant in University history.
Breaking glass ceilings wasn’t originally her goal after transferring to WVU from Long Island University but serving in the military was. She sought ought an opportunity to serve and had her sights set on Morgantown.
“I didn’t want a boring job, and I love tactics,” Panza said. “When I came, I instantly fell in love with the campus. I remember talking to a few of the other Cadets and knew I would be at home.”
After an initial year of adjustment, the Honesdale, Pennsylvania, student quickly picked up the busy pace of the Mountaineer Battalion’s weekly regimen of physical training, leadership lab training events and hours of classroom instruction in tactics, leadership philosophies and military education.
A criminology major, Panza embarked on a path of self-improvement and the idea of serving in the Infantry began to grow during her junior year. That year was capped off by completing Advanced Camp at Fort Knox, a six-week leadership assessment for all Cadets that emphasizes squad-level tactics and leadership which form the foundation for basic Infantry operations. The goal quickly became clear, but a little resistance from a few unbelieving peers provided the motivation.
Panza will graduate and commission this week as a second lieutenant in the Army’s primary combat arms branch. In January 2016, the Army began integrating combat arms billets that were previously banned for female soldiers including infantry, armor, cavalry, fire support and special forces. Panza is the first female from the Mountaineer Battalion selected for service in the Infantry, considered one of the hardest and most physically demanding careers fields in the Army.
“It is the biggest honor. I want to make a difference in the Mountaineer community, and especially show women that they can do whatever they set their minds to,” Panza said. “I want to be an inspiration, and help motivate women to follow their dreams, even when you have people telling you that you can’t.”
Her time in Morgantown has served her well where leadership, service and completing the mission are the foundations of WVU Army ROTC, as well as the inherent bonds she’s formed the past three years with the 17 other commissioning officers in this year’s class and countless other Cadets under her charge.
“I am a little apprehensive, but that comes with the nature of the job,” she said. “I want to be respected and seen as an equal by my male counterparts, and I think that’s going to be one of the biggest obstacles I will encounter.”
Next, she heads to the Maneuver Center of Excellence and Infantry Basic Officer Leadership Course at Fort Benning – commonly, and now incorrectly, referred to as the “Benning School for Boys” – in the coming months to begin her active-duty journey.
Panza is looking forward to the challenge of IBOLC and getting a crack at Ranger School, where just the 100th female graduated in March from the elite military training that includes intense squad tactics in a variety of harsh field conditions while often experiencing sleep deprivation.
The Mountaineer Battalion’s motto of “Climb to Glory” serves as a perfect motivation for Panza, who relishes the challenges ahead as the first female Mountaineer Infantry officer knowing that can possibly make a difference for future females in the military and in the Mountaineer community. The opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong is not lost on her either.
“Just because something was previously labeled as a ‘man’s job’ doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” Panza said.
Note: Grabriela Tobar (’20) was the first female to serve in a billet previously banned. She was commissioned as an Armor officer in May 2020.