Years from now, Elizabeth Betterbed might reflect on her accomplishments and find reasons to boast.
The Fox Island native might marvel that she graduated at the top of her class this year at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Or how she was only the second female cadet to accomplish the feat in the school’s 208-year history.
The mechanical engineering student might toast being named one of fewer than three dozen Rhodes scholars in 2009 – an honor that will allow her to study at Oxford University in England.
Betterbed might tell stories about how she helped develop a carbon-fiber prosthetic foot for her senior project. Or recall proudly how a war-injured soldier used the foot to step on a treadmill and run 8.1 miles per hour – twice as fast as what had been projected.
Maybe she’ll talk about how President Obama mentioned her last month during his speech to West Point’s Class of 2010, citing the newly commissioned second lieutenant as an example of how women are shattering the military’s glass ceiling.
At age 21, Betterbed has accomplished more than many people do in a lifetime, but for now at least, she refuses to brag. Instead, she says her achievements are simply about serving her country.
“I sit with my friends all the time and say, ‘This is too good to be true,’” she said this week at her parents’ house on Fox Island.
Out of 1,002 graduating cadets, Betterbed finished with the highest cumulative score for academic, physical and military training.
West Point spokesman Frank DeMaro said since the school’s first coed graduating class in 1980, only one other woman has finished with the highest overall score.
This year’s class was also special because another female cadet, Alexandra Rosenberg, finished with the highest academic score, marking the first time female cadets topped their male counterparts in the classroom and overall.
The Gig Harbor High School alumna doesn’t come from a traditional military family. Her parents, Tom and Vicki Betterbed, moved from New Jersey to the peninsula almost 25 years ago.
Tom Betterbed, a former teacher who’s now supervisor of special education at the Clover Park School District, said he never pushed Elizabeth to enter the military.
But when the family took trips back to New Jersey, he would describe to his daughters, Elizabeth and Claire, and their brother, Tommy, how challenging student life was “over the hill” at West Point.
“She was intrigued by the challenge,” Tom Betterbed said of his daughter. “She was intrigued by the service and being part of a team.”
She was an honors student and star athlete for the Tides, breaking records and earning recognition in both soccer and basketball. She could have attended any of several colleges and competed athletically.
She chose West Point, a school that pushes students to their physical and mental limits and prepares them to serve in a combat zone.
By the time she began classes, the country was fully engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so going into a hostile environment was almost a certainty after graduation, she said.
“I usually tell people that West Point was the best mistake I ever made,” she joked. “I had really bought into the attitude there, the way of life and sense of purpose.”
Betterbed said she never saw female cadets being treated differently than their male peers. The school’s approximately 660 women are graded on a separate scale on physical tests than their 3,700 male classmates, but many women can still meet the benchmarks established for men, she said.
Betterbed played collegiate soccer and also excelled in the classroom. Last year she was one of 32 students, out of a pool of more than 800 applicants, who were named Rhodes scholars.
Part of the reason she won was her work helping develop a prosthetic foot for injured soldiers that they could use for walking or running.
In April, her group tested the foot on a soldier at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who had lost his foot to an enemy explosion in Afghanistan. They expected him to walk about 4 miles per hour on a treadmill. The soldier decided he could go faster.
“It was just awesome,” Betterbed recalled. “It really drives home the importance of working for our soldiers.”
Her hard work culminated at West Point’s graduation when Obama singled out Betterbed from her class. In her parents’ home is an autographed picture of the president with Betterbed and the other graduating cadets.
Betterbed credits her parents for giving her the opportunity to succeed, although Vicki Betterbed says the credit belongs to her daughter.
“We’ve hardly ever told you much at all,” she joked this week.
Betterbed will return to West Point at the end of this month, then go to Oxford to study social and economic history.
She plans to return to West Point for another graduation in three years. Her sister Claire, 19, just completed her first year at the school.
Elizabeth Betterbed said she wants to become an Army engineering officer and will likely deploy when she’s finished at Oxford. She wants to focus on developing energy sources that can be used in a restrictive war environment.
As to whether she feels pressure to succeed, Betterbed says she isn’t too worried.
“The pressure is more to represent West Point well, to represent the Army well,” she said.
Brent Champaco: 253-597-8653 firstname.lastname@example.org
OBAMA SINGLES OUT LOCAL STUDENT
An excerpt from President Barack Obama’s speech last month to the graduating class of the United States Military Academy at West Point:
“You’ve challenged yourself intellectually in the sciences and the humanities, in history and technology. You’ve achieved a standard of academic excellence that is without question, tying the record for the most post-graduate scholarships of any class in West Point history.
“This includes your No. 1 overall cadet and your valedictorian – Liz Betterbed and Alex Rosenberg. And by the way, this is the first time in Academy history where your two top awards have been earned by female candidates.
“This underscores a fact that I’ve seen in the faces of our troops from Baghdad to Bagram: In the 21st century, our women in uniform play an indispensable role in our national defense. And time and again, they have proven themselves to be role models for our daughters and our sons – as students and as soldiers and as leaders in the United States armed forces.”