KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A half-dozen sentences from the biography of a retired Air Force colonel offers a snapshot of a life full of challenges. It underlines why her “life motto” is: Get up, suit up, and show up!
“She joined the Air Force on September 11… in 1973 to get away from home. She attempted suicide in 1976. She married and divorced three times by the age of 35. She killed a human being in a car accident in 1994, then her 17-year old son died in her arms two years later in injuries from a car accident. In 2001 she was diagnosed with cancer with no known cause and no known cure. All real, all true,” said Paula Penson reading aloud the words she had written.
The retired colonel spent 40 years serving in the military. Her commitments now include teaching public speaking classes at Pellissippi State Community College and sharing her story of perseverance to community groups and church congregations across the country.
“Be brave each day. Serve something greater than yourself. Teach everything you can teach,” said Paulson in a recent conversation about her life outside the classroom.
In addition to our on camera interview, she also took time to answer the following 10 questions about how her military service influenced the rest of her life.
What one person influenced you most in life?
My mother was the most influential person in my life. She taught me that education is the only guaranteed road out of poverty. Even though she died when I was 18 years old,
I never forgot it. It took 15 years for me to get my Bachelors and Masters degrees, taking one class at a time. From that education, I made rank in the military all the way up to Colonel.
2. Do you feel honored and respected for serving your country?
Absolutely! Unlike the way this country treated our Vietnam Veterans returning home.
The citizens of the United States have made a determined effort to ensure we veterans feel honored and respected. It probably changed the most after Desert Storm; and has gotten better since then.
3. How can people thank you for your service?
Teach a child to run up and hug a person in uniform! That tells me more than anything else that parents are raising their children right! This happens to me in grocery stores and airports. I always know that there is a parent nearby who sent the child to me. I make eye contact and nod to the parent, acknowledging their efforts.
4. How do you honor your fellow service men and women?
Any chance I get, I work with veterans to ensure they have everything they need to merge back into the civilian world … whether it’s education benefits, medical assistance, shelter, clothing, or even food. To me, the best way to show honor is to ensure they’re taken care of in the literal sense of the word.
5. How do you think this generation of service men and women is different or similar to yours?
The latest generation of service members is just as dedicated to serving their country as we were! They may have different ways of doing business due to the technical advances they have; but at the heart, the want to “support and defend” with as much heart as we did.
6. What influence did your military service have on the rest of your life?
The military taught me a systematic approach to problem solving that carried over into my every day life … both personally and professionally. It also taught me to appreciate everything we have in this country that we take for granted otherwise. The more you travel, the more your realize everything we have!
7. Does your family have a history of military service?
I have several uncles who served in Korea and Vietnam (Army, Navy, Marines). I always thought they looked so cool in their uniforms. I grew up near Luke Air Force Base, Arizona and attended school with the military dependents. That was my real initiation into the military.
8. Would you encourage your son, daughter or other younger generations in your family to join the service?
I am proud to say that my daughter followed in my footsteps in 1994 and is now a Chief Master Sergeant in the Air National Guard at the 134th Air Refueling Wing. She has served in Iraq and Saudi Arabia as well as stateside.
9. After seeing it and living it, how has your opinion of war changed?
Unfortunately, as long as we live in a broken world with broken people trying to impose their will on each other; war is inevitable. The best we can do is to minimize the damage and destruction to innocent civilians. We cannot sit idly by and do nothing. As Edmund Burke, British statesman and parliamentarian, so eloquently stated, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As long as America stands for freedom, human rights and dignity, and the rule of law, we must engage … or the bad guys win.
10. How did your military experience shape your religious faith?
I came into the military with a strong Christian background. Serving in the military reaffirmed the need for a God-fearing nation and God-fearing military leaders to be in place at all levels in the chain of command, up to and including the Commander in Chief, or war is just a slaughter-house!