Chief Master Sgt. Paula C. Shawhan is not the type of woman to wait idly for her stars to align.
Two months out of high school, Shawhan decided to follow her mother’s military success and enlist in the Air Force Reserve. Now she’s forged 22-years’ service as a medical technician but broadened herself beyond stereotypes as well as with the Air National Guard.
“No women should ever say, ‘I can’t do that because I’m a woman,’” said Shawhan. “I take my experiences, and I find a way to apply them. That’s one of the great things someone can do for themselves and for the Air Force – don’t get pigeonholed.”
A Chief’s accomplishments
Chief Shawhan’s promotion was last month. She made E-9 while assigned to the Air National Guard’s central campus for training and education – the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center. She oversees its hub for broadcast and training programs.
This is how a broadened mindset allowed her success. She committed beyond female-in-nursing stereotypes. She earned a public relations degree at the University of Texas at Arlington. She took her Operation Iraqi Freedom service to heart. She sought out a mentor. She looked to her mother, a retired Air Force colonel, for inspiration.
Shawhan is the chief of professional continuing education. She is not an aerospace medical chief, but instead, she leads broadcasters, studio engineers and curriculum developers. She leads the division after directing the educational requirements associated with being part of the largest Air Force schoolhouse for NCO academy and Airman leadership school – the Chief Master Sergeant Paul H. Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center. Both divisions train thousands annually.
“Realizing the opportunities they were doing here, I just wanted to be part of it all,” said Shawhan. If you asked her why she moved away from Air Force medical – she’d advise you that it’s smart to seek development outside your comfort zone.
Shawhan believes that organizations and leaders need to give service members the backing and confidence to seek and meet opportunities.
“It’s about leaders taking a chance and allowing them to succeed, to push them to succeed, and to pick them up when they fail,” said Shawhan. “Ask them, ‘what’s in front of you, what do you want to do?’ to give them a broadened experience.”
Once a young supermarket manager concerned with shopping bag inventory, Shawhan deployed to Iraq in 2003. The trauma at Balad and Baghdad widened her service almost immediately. The mass of litter and critical care patients were unlike her earlier medical deployment to Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. But it did not take her long to roll with the combat zone’s chaos and concentrate on caregiving. It wasn’t about being an Airmen, a man or woman, or a reservist, it was about being a medic, she said. “There are people who came before me who made that evolution for the reserves, said Shawhan. “Two of the doctors we had there were heads of surgery at their stateside hospitals, the other nurses were working at home as head trauma nurses. Each person carried our medical team to give the best care of people. Each broke down a preconceived notion.”
“I don’t think you can experience that and it not define who you are,” said Shawhan. “Sometimes it’s my reality check to not be blinded by the little stuff [like a uniform error] but to seek the stories that someone carries and make them a reality.”
After her technical training and deployments, she thought of pursuing a medical degree but also wanted a broader knowledge in business. When she transferred to the University of Texas, it confirmed her interest in communications, and she refocused on a public relations degree. “My experiences in Iraq, those are the things that you can’t read in a book, and I would not trade them. I was just not impassioned to do that outside of the military,” said Shawhan.
Chief Shawhan joined the Air National Guard as a traditional guard member in 2006, eventually serving as a superintendent of nursing services for the 113th Fighter Wing. “I stayed true to my medical side because I loved taking care of our service members,” said Shawhan. But she also confided with a Chief Master Sergeant – in hopes to expand her full-time horizons.
That chief encouraged her to make a career-development move.
“Beyond being one of the most motivated and professional senior NCOs I have had the pleasure to work with, she simply sets the example every day,” said Air National Guard Command Chief, Chief Master Sgt. Ronald Anderson. “One of my most important priorities now, as Air National Guard Command Chief, is to make sure every Airman has a path to success and believes they can meet that success – however, she, or he, defines success,” said Anderson.
“He was for me to say, ‘you can do this,’” said Shawhan.
Moms in Service
The military highlights women in service to honor their achievements.
“My entire career I have been surrounded by amazing Chief Master Sergeants, many of them women,” said Anderson. “All of them dedicated their lives to setting the example for all of our Airmen – AD, AFRC, and ANG. I hope young women see them as role models. With their example, young women will hopefully believe anything is possible.”
Shawhan – a mom – recalled when her mother broke down barriers to women in the military.
“She grew up in a very poor situation and said to herself, ‘I want more,’ and she joined the military for that more,” said Shawhan. “Watching her go on, she did not allow a ‘you can’t do that,’ to stop her in what she wanted to do – it actually fueled her fire. If it weren’t for the opportunities that women before me opened up and that I took advantage of throughout my career, I wouldn’t be able to run a production house and a Community College of the Air Force accredited school-house.”
A New Team
Chief Shawhan said that PCE division has new courses, training, and broadcasts that are coming with emerging technology. Nearly one-third of the division’s personnel joined the team within the last year, which she said brings diverse talents and perspectives to serve its growing list of customers.
The division adjusted itself away from producing daily, one-minute news broadcasts and satellite EPME and now creates video productions. Shawhan said they reach out to the Air National Guard’s 90 wings and ask them – how can we support your training needs? They are abuzz with new instructional services and broadcasts, including public web live streaming, instructor certifications, even drone training. They developed an EPR writing course that will soon take TEC on the road. There’s a general officer staff support course that the National Guard’s top leaders acclaimed.
“It is because of who I have become over the past 22 years – learning from my experiences – that I can sit here with confidence, surround myself with these talented people who are passionate about what they do and take care of our Air National Guard,” said Shawhan. “I love my job!”