Nerves of Steel Were Forged in Fire
| by Carol Best firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s ironic to Tammie Jo (Bonnell ’83) Shults that the world has called her the pilot with nerves of steel, after successfully landing Southwest 1380 with one engine. While she knows she can focus and perform her duties now, she remembers a time when her nerves were practically debilitating. As a young girl, Tammie Jo dealt with anxiety over the pressures of elementary school. A doctor told her parents she was simply “too high strung.” He recommended medication. Her parents decided to take another approach.
“They made sure there were pressure relief valves built in if it looked like I was getting anxious about something,” she recalls. “I look at that now and here I am getting praised for nerves of steel and calmness. Isn’t God interesting how he does that? You know David would never have been famous if Goliath hadn’t been a giant. So, I see God’s hand, not just in what’s obvious to the world, but in showing me that he can use a kid the doctor has declared too high strung to handle life.”
Tammie Jo credits her parents, God and life experience with the ability to do her job during that emergency landing when the plane’s left engine blew, throwing shrapnel into the fuselage, resulting in one passenger’s death and injury to others.
Raised on a cattle ranch near Tularosa, New Mexico, she and her three siblings led a simple life of school, church and chores. Her upbringing has a lot to do with who she is today.
“When you are given a lot of responsibility at a young age, along with the authority to make it work, things will go wrong and you’ll have to figure out how to fix them,” she says. “If you left the gate open and 200 head of cattle get out and wander a mile down the road, then you go get the horse saddled and you go get them back in the pen. So, when you are given a lot of responsibility and then left alone with it, I think that is a building block.”
At Nazarene church camp when she was 13, Tammie Jo says she began to understand her faith.
“I had tried to be good and could never quite do it,” she says. “So, I’d make a deal with God and then I’d blow it and then make another deal and blow it. At 13, I finally figured it out. God didn’t call me to be good. He called me to believe.”
She says she was always in trouble more than her siblings.
“I was constantly in Huckleberry Finn trouble,” she laughs. “When I finally got the message that I wasn’t called to be good, it changed my life. I had such a different perspective.”
This eternal perspective is another of her building blocks.
After high school, Tammie Jo, who had dreamed of flying with the Air Force, chose to attend MidAmerica to study pre-med.
“I found out the Air Force wouldn’t let women fly, so I thought, ‘I’m going to need a job,’” she says.
Deciding she wanted to be a veterinarian, she did some research.
“I found out MNU had never had a graduate who did not pass the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) on the first attempt,” she says. “Even though it was a small school, it was exceptional.”
So, she and her older brother Dwight, headed to Kansas. When they drove onto the campus, it was their first time to see it. Though they had one another to lean on, Tammie Jo felt quite homesick as she navigated the transition from home to college. A roommate convinced her to go out for track & field in her second semester and that changed everything.
“Coach Curt Ammons is probably the only reason I stayed in school,” she says of the now retired coach. “He has such a calm demeanor and spending every spring afternoon throwing discus or javelin or shot put—it was such an oasis in the world of college pressure and studies.”
With hard work and perseverance, Tammie Jo excelled. The only female thrower on the team, she achieved the honor of NCCAA 1st Team All-American in javelin. She and Ammons are still close today, visiting one another’s families as often as possible.
Working two jobs most of the time, she still got involved in all sorts of activities at MNU. Tammie Jo was also a cheerleader, on the volleyball team, in student government, a resident assistant and a Homecoming queen candidate.
Two years after graduating from MNU, Tammie Jo was commissioned as a Navy officer, but the achievement did not come easy. While the Navy allowed her to take the aviation exam, it took another two years to find a recruiter who would process her application. She met a lot of resistance from those who thought women didn’t belong there, but she never gave up.
Rising to the rank of lieutenant commander, she became an instructor pilot for both the EA-6B Prowler and F/A-18 Hornet. In fact, she was the first female pilot of the F/A-18 Hornet. She served at Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 34 in Point Mugu, California, as an instructor and also completed tours at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California.
It’s easy to see all this prepared Tammie Jo to react as she did when she landed flight 1380.
“Looking back, I see so many times when the trials that came my way absolutely forged the steel that we are all made of,” she says. “Those trials had their purpose. It’s like the forging of a sword. It’s put through the furnace, pounded, put through the furnace and pounded. Before that, it’s not all that hard or resilient.”
She remembers previous instances in her career when there was a problem and she had to think quickly to resolve the issue, then answer for her decisions.
“Even though I would not call those times pleasant, they certainly helped me face this with calm.”
Still, Tammie Jo agrees that her reaction was exceptional.
“It is not humanly normal, it is God,” she says. “It’s one of those extraordinary times that God says, ‘I will keep you strong because I have a task for you and I’m going to keep you on task and I’ve got this.’”
MNU In Her Own Words
One of the things I would say was so wonderful about MNU, that you won’t realize until you graduate and get out in the world, was that I didn’t have to fight against the culture of anti-God until I was out and four years older. Stepping out into the world, for most freshmen, it’s their first time away. What was nice at MidAmerica is that God’s name was honored. It was good for me to relax into studying and not have to deal with that.
No one in our family had gone to college yet. There was a lot of new territory. You’ve been in a bubble up until you go to college. Then in college there is no one there to look over your shoulder. You start building your own standards.
MNU helped solidify what God had started building in my home. I had no problem at all knowing what was right or wrong for me once I was in the Navy. What I learned at MidAmerica took away the question equation for me.
‘What’ we choose in life is always second to ‘Who’ we choose. God having His place as Lord, put life in good order. MNU was great for helping get my own standards settled.
Encouragement to Students
Determine your God-given strengths and get started. You may have to start over in a different direction more than once. But don’t wait for an audible command. He did not give us a spirit of timidity, but of power, love and self-control.