JACKSON TWP. Shannon Huffman Polson, a woman of many firsts, shared her stories of female leaders and trailblazers as part of the Kent State University at Stark Speaker Series on Nov. 15.
KSU at Stark Dean Denise Seachrist introduced Polson as a U.S. Army veteran and one of the first women to fly Apache combat helicopters. Seachrist defined grit as a firmness of mind or spirit.
"Grit is also defined as "unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger," Seachrist added.
Polson spent nearly a decade as an Army officer and attack aviation leader. She then became a manager in the corporate sector at Guidant and Microsoft. Eventually, Polson left the corporate world, deciding to follow her love of writing and storytelling to share her stories through her Grit Project.
Polson’s stories inspired the audience members and the many veterans who were present for the evening. She had the attention of everyone in the room as her stories of being an Apache pilot took audience members across three different continents.
Polson told the audience that she wanted to take them on a journey, telling them to strap in as they were in the front seat of an Apache helicopter with a five-point harness.
First, Polson took the audience to the red clay of southern Alabama and North Carolina, then to the mountains of South Korea along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and then to Bosnia to the area known as the Balkans.
"But, more than any of that, I hope you will travel with me into the human heart. Deep into that place where all of us have to go to lead ourselves and to lead others. It is the place that every one of us has to go to find that thing that I have always called grit." said Polson, who explained that leading and being a leader starts with a decision to lead. "You can lead no matter what seat you are sitting in."
Polson took the audience to a cold winter day in Alabama as she walked to the Apache for the very first time. The chills she felt had very little to do with the temperature as she walked toward the 58-foot long aircraft loaded with missiles and aerial rockets and a cannon under its belly. The most lethal and advance helicopter in the world sat before her as she walked to it thinking, "Who am I to fly this thing? What am I doing here? I am just an English major from Duke."
It was on that tarmac that she made the decision that she was going to own her own story and be in control of her own narrative.
Polson spoke about her assignment in North Carolina. She was a cadet, not yet 21 as she meet with a colonel. She said they exchanged pleasantries, he leaned back in his chair and said, "You realize cadet, that you will never fly an Apache."
She then showed a picture of her graduating class from officer basic and flight school. In the front row of that picture were the honor graduates.
"I made very sure that there would be a skirt in that front row," she said as she pointed to the picture where she was the only one with a skirt.
Why did she work so hard to be in the position to fly the Apache? Polson did so because she wanted to serve her country. Serving runs in her family history.
"It is something that is deeply internalized in me and it was the place for me, it was my core purpose; a place you have to go when things get tough," she said.
Taking the audience to Korea where her job was to patrol the DMZ, but not enter the DMZ or they would be shot down. She spoke of the leadership that it took to fly in the dark, calling it flying blind. Polson realized that in being a leader it is important to also be a part of the team. It took a team to make that helicopter launch.
"Every time we launched, we put our lives in the hands of those that turned the wrenches on that hangar floor," Polson said. "A leader does not just own things when they are going well; a leader owns things when they are not going well. The hardest place to find that grit was in the face of my own failure."
Polson brought the audience in for a landing from their flight and said as in take off, when landing, you face the nose into the wind.
"If you use it the right way, it will bring you home safely to land," she said.
The next speaker in the series is Anthony Ervin Olympic swimmer presenting "Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian," at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 27. Tickets are available beginning Jan. 29. Visit www.kent.edu/stark/featured-speakers for more information.