Story by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Patton
PRIZREN, Kosovo -- Austrian Army 1st Lt. Eszter Deak is living proof that childhood dreams can become a reality.
As a 10-year-old girl, Deak was returning to Austria from a vacation in Romania. As she glanced out the backseat window of her family’s car, she saw an American military convoy. The young Deak was so impressed by the Soldiers and their military vehicles rumbling down the highway she daydreamed of being with them and becoming part of their group.
"I saw a lot of adventure in that moment,” said Deak. "It was for me like a movie.”
Twenty-three years later, Deak is now donning her own boots and military uniform at Field Camp Prizren, Kosovo, as part of Kosovo Force, or KFOR, a NATO-led peace support operation.
Since her arrival to Kosovo in late October, 2016, Deak serves in a dual-hatted position as the deputy company commander of Transport Company, Joint Logistics Support Group, KFOR, and as the transport company commander of the Austrian contingent there. A sampling of the tasks that Deak’s company provides include the transportation of personnel, fuel, water and moving containers as well as the recovery of vehicles in need of repair.
Not a traditional path
Deak was born in Romania, but her family moved to Austria at the end of the country’s communist days to escape a stagnant economy. She received her Austrian citizenship in 2008. After completing high school, Deak went to Vienna, where she studied a variety of subjects like archeology and law, while working several student jobs such as a math tutor, event photographer and selling shoes.
The childhood image of the military vehicles passing her on the road and stories of adventure of the Austrian Army told by the father of her best friend growing up never left her and she decided to make a jump from Vienna and try something different.
She went to Wiener Neustadt, Austria, next where she spent three years at the Theresan Military Academy. Following her stint at the academy, she headed back to Vienna to continue her studies in theater, film and media science.
Deak’s sense of adventure blossomed after her studies as she packed her bags and served as a kitesurfing instructor in Germany, Egypt and Brazil. It was on the sun-soaked beaches of Brazil where Deak started to have an itch for change and the desire to save some money.
"I didn’t know what to do, I was at a point in my life where I had to change something,” Deak said.
Because of Deak’s military academy experience, coupled with her degree, she’s able to serve in the Miliz, which, along with active and reservists, is another form of service. Members of the Miliz can choose when and where to serve on missions if there are open positions matching their abilities.
When Deak was offered a six-month rotation in Kosovo, she swapped her kitesurfing life for one serving alongside peers from around the world at KFOR.
"My mother was surprised, but she was always supportive,” said Deak. "My family knows I’m a little bit crazy and hungry for adventure.”
Serving as a female
Deak’s introduction to the company she serves as deputy commander of in Kosovo came a few weeks after the rest of the team had arrived, so she had to make a quick adjustment to learn the ropes of her mission.
"It was hard in the beginning being the newcomer,” said Deak. "Letting my troops know who I am, what I expect and getting to know everybody was my priority.”
Observing Deak now, a few months into her mission, with a seemingly constant smile and comfort around her troops, it’s hard to imagine the beginning of her mission where she faced scrutiny.
During her first days in command of 25 Swiss and 18 Austrian troops, she had one Soldier inform her that they’ve never had a female commander in a transport company. Another Soldier approached Deak shortly after and told her that he hated women. Looking around at her company, there was just one other female Soldier there.
"Jesus, I don’t know what is expected here,” Deak recalled thinking at the time. "I hope we will cooperate together.”
Since that time, she’s been universally accepted by her troops.
"Once I started making the right decisions, they started to calm down,” Deak said. "In the beginning there was a distance between male Soldiers and me, but we’ve closed that bridge.”
Deak’s a strong supporter of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. The resolution highlights the importance of female roles in conflict and post-conflict situations, and it urges an increase of females in the ranks and to incorporate gender perspectives in peace and security efforts.
Deak said it’s a great feeling to work in her position as a female, and cited the importance of adding more female Soldiers. She’s quick to point out that her gender doesn’t change how she leads.
"I try to act like a human, not a female or male,” said Deak, adding that she knows some are watching carefully because she’s a woman.
As for the biggest challenge she faces on a daily basis, it’s not being a female leader that tops the list.
"How to work with so many people is my biggest challenge, and I never expected to have so much responsibility over others,” Deak said.
Wiping sweat from her face after a boxing session at the camp’s gym, a hobby she enjoys outside of work along with martial arts and spin classes, Deak said she enjoys working in an international environment and hopes there’s a chance she can extend her tour in Kosovo.
Even though another unit will take over Deak’s company at the end of her tour, she hopes she can stay to serve KFOR in another capacity, such as being the officer responsible for vehicle maintenance.
When asked where she sees herself in 10 years, Deak smiled saying she doesn’t think so far ahead, and her sights are narrowed to trying to extend her stay in Kosovo and traveling the world.
Deak joked that she feels as if she’s already lived three lives, but she’s not ready to tame her wanderlust just yet.
"I want to journey around the world with my backpack,” Deak said.
Deak had some advice for fellow women that may have reservations about branching out of their comfort zone.
"Listen to your heart, and do as much as you can,” said Deak. "Do what you always wanted to do in your childhood dreams.”
• Allied Joint Force Command Naples will publish a series of articles highlighting female KFOR troops and their accomplishments. The next articles will be released on the following dates:
Jan. 31, 2017: Finnish Army 2nd Lt. Kethlin Piirma
Feb. 7, 2017: U.S. Army 1st Lt. Erin Schneider
Feb. 14, 2017: Italian Warrant Officer Sara Sapienza