by Joy Brown M’19
Alumna and U.S. Army Servicewoman Shares Advice on How to Soar After Stumbling
By definition, the word “failure” does not apply to retired Lieutenant Colonel Kathleen Cannon ‘87. Her career has been distinguished by groundbreaking and gutsy military service marked by Black Hawk missions, her status as one of the few female U.S. Army aviation commanders, and intricate foreign diplomacy work in and outside of combat zones. And yet, at a pivotal career point that should’ve been cause for celebration, Cannon said she didn’t feel like she’d succeeded.
“As I stood at this crossroad, it was so dark,” Cannon admitted during her graduate commencement speech at the University of Findlay in May 2019. “I felt alone and defeated.”
While embarking on a different professional mission for the Army that would take her to the other side of the world, where nearly everything seemed otherworldly, Cannon would initially carry those feelings of inadequacy with her. It would take more time and introspection for her to recognize the common thread of connection that she said is essential for us all to embrace if we wish to live lives that are of value to ourselves and to others.
“This is what I learned: Know yourself and bring others with you,” Cannon, a Legion of Merit award recipient and a 2019 UF Distinguished Alumna, told UF graduates. She emphasized that each challenge-induced reinvention requires self-awareness and outside help. “What is important to you? What do you admire about yourself? What needs work? Then lift your sights outward. What help do you need? Is it encouragement, a shove in the right direction, a shoulder to cry on, or maybe a glimpse of a new possibility? What are your strengths? What can you offer? Then, overcome your inertia or doubt and take action. These relationships you foster will help carry the burden, sometimes your load, sometimes another’s,” she said.
Of course, such wisdom didn’t come easy. Cannon’s life, much of it lived from a standpoint of stubborn independence cultivated within challenging settings at home and abroad, illustrates how she reached this conclusion, and why she hopes others benefit from it.
The Upstate New York native’s love of horses brought her to then Findlay College. She was impressed by the fact that “every student rode at least one horse every day,” and by the large farm that houses hundreds of horses. She decided to double major in equestrian studies and business. But the road to commencement wasn’t smooth. Her strong work ethic, others’ generosity, and academic offerings that stoked curiosity were key factors that guided her to graduation.
With her two brothers also starting college, Cannon’s family finances were limited, so, it was up to her to find additional ways to help pay for tuition, room, and board. “I had worked and saved in high school, had generous scholarships and aid, and worked several jobs at a time in my first two years at Findlay,” she explained. “But I realized if I didn’t get one more scholarship, I just couldn’t afford to return for my junior year.” Her solution: enrolling in the Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps, which covered her tuition and enabled her to become commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. “I literally knew nothing about the Army, but ROTC turned out to be my only real option,” she said.
In addition, “the kindness and caring of everyone at Findlay who were at first strangers” helped her immensely, Cannon said. Those interactions provided a firm social foundation that has since influenced her personal and professional endeavors at home and throughout the world. She hasn’t forgotten how so many people at UF helped her financially-strapped, far-from-home self in so many ways.
During the 1980s, phone calls were expensive, and travelling was too, Cannon pointed out; keeping in touch with family therefore meant monthly calls, if that, and a single trip home during Christmas break. Others took note. “One classmate invited me home for Thanksgiving freshman year,” she said. “Another gave me one of her old down jackets when she saw me wearing so many layers at the barn. The nurse always had a caring ear. A professor helped me earn some extra money babysitting and the campus maintenance supervisor let me ticket cars in 15-minute blocks for some of my work study,” she recalled. “As I later traveled the world, I believe this helped me not to fear strangers and the unknown, but to expect the best from people.”
Also unexpected at the time was the love of learning Cannon developed while at Findlay. She admitted that, although she did well with her high school studies, she found them “tedious.” “Studying new areas and subjects at Findlay was engaging,” she said, and would give her enough confidence to eventually master Chinese, get a master’s degree from Harvard University, and return to graduate school to pursue a second career in finance.
Cannon had intended to land a job in the equine industry. Instead, military flight school beckoned. From there, she served in a battalion in the 3rd Infantry Division in Germany, led a Black Hawk assault helicopter platoon there, and served in an air traffic control battalion in South Korea. During Desert Shield, she deployed a Black Hawk platoon to Cyprus. Once Desert Storm commenced, “we had to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Beirut,” she said. At Fort Carson, Colorado, she commanded a Black Hawk assault helicopter company in the 4th Infantry Division. Subsequent jobs entailed helicopter maintenance company work at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and flying VIP’s on the east coast.
Cannon loved the variety, challenges, and different environments involved with flying. She flew over the Alps, Rockies, California desert, and the Mediterranean Ocean. She described her experiences in poetic terms. “I’ve flown in snow and clouds of dust, and blacked out on moonless nights skimming through the trees with night vision goggles. We inserted troops by parachute, ropes, and even jumping into water. We’d sling load HUMMVs, cannons, and fuel bladders, you name it. There was always something new. That responsibility, knowing my soldiers’ lives were literally my responsibility, was terrifying, but it was also incredibly meaningful and rewarding,” she said.
Flying is inherently risky, even outside of combat, and particularly during training flights. To that end, Cannon faced her fair share of difficult moments. She had an engine catch fire. Once, she came just inches away of striking a wire and crashing into a river. “That potential wire strike was the most scared I have ever been,” she acknowledged.
In combat, she said she was mostly “too busy” to be afraid. “To a certain extent, the Army trains you through repetition how to respond and and work together when everything goes wrong.” So, you intuitively fall back on that and get to work,” she explained. “However, rocket and mortar fire did make me angry,” she said. In Iraq, a rocket landed about 25 meters away from the portable toilet she was using. She’d be damned, she thought, if she was going to die covered in blue toilet water and raw sewage. “It turns out this is a common fear among soldiers; no one wants to go out that way,” she quipped.
The work was challenging in other ways, particularly in ways that specifically targeted her gender.
“It wasn’t just that I didn’t have any role models. I was clearly serving in ‘this man’s Army.’ When it was time for me to get a promised Black Hawk helicopter platoon at my first duty station, I heard through the grapevine that it was going to another lieutenant,” Cannon said in her commencement speech. She was told the brigade commander “didn’t want a female in that job. I left his office infuriated. In the end I did get that platoon, but I knew every day that my boss had fought to keep me out,” she said. Her female contemporaries also experienced discrimination.
Other problems complicated matters. Cannon said that while she loved flying and leading troops for the Army, her marriage was falling apart and would soon end, and her company would deactivate due to a planned troop drawdown. The era that involved flying Black Hawks and being a platoon leader and commander was ending. What’s more, she despised her boss.
“One dark night in the desert we stood chest-to-chest, him towering over me, ordering me to change my tactics because that wasn’t the way he had done it. I felt the overpowering urge to haul off and hit him. I literally made a fist. Instead I growled, ‘yes, sir’ and stomped off,” she admitted.
Therefore, Cannon’s decisions to go to the Defense League Institute to learn Mandarin Chinese, earn a master’s degree in East Asian studies at Harvard, and then live and work in Asia, were bittersweet. The new possibilities excited her, but “it also felt like quitting. Like I failed. Like I was slinking away from my responsibility to lead and serve soldiers,” she maintained. She considered leaving the military altogether. Instead, she served in a different way, as an Army Foreign Area Officer (FAO), again pursuing fascinating work that appealed to her intellect and curiosity. Her work in China involved advising on strategic issues for the Department of Defense, serving as a Chinese military analyst, and as an Army attaché in Hong Kong. While an FAO, she also served two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan at Task Force and NATO headquarters
Prior to this she hadn’t even known anything about China, other than what she saw during a trip from Germany via the Trans-Siberian Railway. The country seemed “so strange, part time capsule, part alien planet,” she said. “Living and working there seemed like it would be the ultimate adventure.”
Cannon credits her grit and perseverance to her upbringing. The brutal New York cold, “doing hard labor on a dairy farm as a teenager,” and her family’s expectations of her were transformative. “I think the (family’s) expectation was always that I would succeed, despite obstacles and difficulties that came up. Failure didn’t seem to be an option,” she said.
Although she wonders what might’ve happened, Cannon doesn’t regret not staying the aviation course. What she does regret: isolating herself, including from other women. “We were living and working in a man’s world and I internalized the ideal soldier as a brave, strong, square-jawed man,” she said. “…I struggled alone to prove I was just as good, or better than, the men. I was afraid that identifying too much with female soldiers would project weakness. And I missed out on opportunities to draw from their strength and see us all succeed.
“I wish I hadn’t tried to go it alone so often…,” she concluded “When I felt inadequate I didn’t see that I had anything to offer someone else. I didn’t see myself as a mentor, or as a champion of someone else. I wish I had put myself out there more and encouraged others to learn from me, including my mistakes.”
These days, Cannon finds herself coming full circle, pursuing goals that she set while at UF. “I’m really enjoying being (literally) back in the saddle again,” she said. “I have three horses at home right now and have been competing in three-day eventing. I qualified for the national championships this year, which was a blast, and placed both individually and in team competition. And, I have just moved to training level, so everything is bigger, faster, more complex, and even more fun,” she said.
Professionally, Cannon is also facing the unknown yet again. She is back in school studying finance to become a Certified Financial Planner and launch her own business. “Though I often chaffed working under someone else, I never viewed myself as a solo entrepreneur, so this is both exciting and a bit terrifying,” she said.
What she fears the most, however, is failure, which she acknowledged “is strange. I have failed, stumbled and fallen so many times and come back for the better, you’d think I’d be over it by now. I guess the fear of failure motivates me to do better, be better,” she said.
To that end, Cannon is now fully embracing the philosophy of connection that she spent so many years struggling to recognize. “I value honesty, kindness, persistence, service and sacrifice,” she concluded. Those who impress her are individuals who are willing to share their mistakes, struggles, and successes while mentoring others. “That inspires me to do the same and be a better person,” she concluded. “It’s important to me to be the kind of person I can be proud of and help improve the lives of those around me.”