Leadership. Grit. These women have it. Today's post is the first of several the Grit Project will feature this summer highlighting women who are not serving in the military, but still serve and wear the uniform with pride.
Gea Leigh Haff is a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue diver and a special operations flight medic. She is also an exquisite blend of brains and brawn, built out of the southern California desert mountain scape where she was raised.
“We lived on a forty-acre horse ranch, and for many years we had no electricity or telephone,” she says. “I was surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness and all kinds of wildlife: deer, coyotes, and mountain lions. It was a tough place to live, but it was beautiful.”
Toughness and beauty have shaped her life since those childhood days. After majoring in humanities and going on to earn a masters in women’s studies in religion, Haff thought she might continue her education and go into academics. Life intervened.
“I started to feel more of a desire for action and adventure, to be in the world instead of reading about it,” she says. Moving to south Florida for her husband’s job put even more restrictions on pursuing an academic path. Then she noticed an EMT training poster.
“I’d wanted to take a first aid class so that I knew what to do if somebody was hurt,” she says. “I signed up for a First Responder class and was immediately hooked. I loved the trauma and the action and the excitement and I loved even more that I could make a difference in someone’s life. I knew from day one I wanted to go on to be an EMT and a paramedic. Miami Dade Fire Rescue is one of the finest Fire Rescue departments in the South Eastern United States, and I wanted to be a paramedic with them, which meant becoming a firefighter as well. So I did.”
The love that had been kindled with her very first class only increased on the job.
“I was fresh from MDFR’s fire academy, my third shift out in the field, when we had a ripping house fire in the dead of night. I remember standing before the back door, masked up and ready to go in. Black smoke was streaming out the door, and I could feel the heat of the fire. I was already sweating in my bunker gear before I'd done any work.
My captain, who'd barely talked to me all day, looked at me and said "Slow your breathing down." Suddenly I could hear the rapid thrum of my mask. I was hyperventilating. We stepped inside.
That night, my officer took me under his wing and had me do everything— search for victims, climb a ladder, cut the roof with a K12, fight fire from the roof. It was all so much cooler than anything we’d done in training. I remember standing on the roof, looking down over a neighborhood lit up like a movie set by a battalion of trucks while steam drifted up all around me. I could not believe I was being paid to do this job. @@That night I fell in love with fire.@@ It actually caught me by surprise.”
Like the other women in The Grit Project, succeeding at the skills of her profession was only part of Haff’s education. Haff had to learn not only her job, but how to work with challenging people as well, especially as the only woman in the battalion. She sends me a graphic with her motto on it: “@@Do no harm, but take no shit!@@”
“I entered the fire department in great shape, highly motivated, and with a strong work ethic,” she says. “But I didn’t know how to deal with some of the guys. I wasn’t accustomed to the hostility firefighters can inflict on each other and I didn’t know how to stand up for myself, especially to a difficult superior. I’d been studying spiritual systems for years, including Buddhism, and it wasn’t in my nature to be aggressive with people. I’d try to let it go or endure patiently, when I should have responded to disrespect immediately and put an end to it. It took me years to learn how to do it, but once I became prepared and willing to fight fiercely for myself, the need for it vanished.”
Haff has learned from the school of hard knocks, and taken away a number of specific lessons.
“Alpha males (I haven’t experienced this with women) will constantly test your boundaries and search for weakness. They only respect what they view as “strength.” The hostile alphas, the bullies, view compassion and gentleness as a weakness when it comes from a female. Don’t try to win them over. Don’t try to kill them with kindness. It doesn’t work. There are some people I can be kind and gentle with and some people I can’t. You have to know the difference and act accordingly. I learned to respond to alpha males firmly and communicate simply and clearly with them. @@Do not tolerate disrespect from anyone, no matter how senior they are. @@Fight for yourself.@@”
Leadership is another area where Haff has learned more than a thing or two, and like the other leaders profiled in The Grit Project, her number one lesson has nothing to do with the ferocity and activity evident in her other experiences.
“Communication is one of the most important skills for officers,” she says. “When things go to hell, communication is usually a big factor. Good communication, especially over the radio, takes practice. Listen, study, and practice.”
She knows from her education and professional training about studying, too, and applies it directly to learning about leadership.
“Study leadership,” she suggests. “Read about it. Analyze it. I’m often amazed at how little thought officers seem to give to real leadership. @@Having a badge doesn’t make you a leader. Real leaders make the people around them stronger.@@ They are uniters, not dividers. @@Help your people become the best version of themselves they can be.@@ That’s how you build loyalty. And integrity matters. It’s hard to respect people without integrity.”
When I ask Haff what she would tell others just getting started, she says: “You are physically capable of much more than you know. Do not mentally limit yourself because of your size or because you are female. Humans are much stronger than we realize— women and men both. @@If you want something, work hard and go for it!@@”
Grit is part and parcel of what Haff lives, every day. “Grit is a refusal to quit or surrender despite how painful, discouraging or humiliating something becomes,” she says. “Grit is continuing through the pain and hardship despite being lashed, blinded and driven back by a sandstorm. Grit is Mattie Ross in True Grit, out-manned and out-gunned and not backing down.”
She remembers one of her hardest lessons wearing the uniform coming early in her training as a Special Operations Flight Medic. It was a three-month training program, and she had waited five years for the training. She was forty years old and married, and despite being on birth control she was only a few weeks into the training when she discovered she was pregnant.
“I couldn’t tell anyone except my husband who was shocked and uncomfortable with my pregnancy,” she says. “I couldn’t tell my classmates or instructors because I was afraid I would be removed from the program. My doctor warned me against doing Air Deployable Diver training but there was simply no way I was going to pass up my opportunity to be a flight medic. I’d dreamed about it for years. Physically and mentally I was exhausted. I really wanted this baby, but I wanted the training too.
“Halfway through the program, on a Sunday, I had a long and painful miscarriage. The next day I had to show up and perform an open water night hoist— the hardest hoist of our training yet. Showing up drained and depressed was really hard, but I did show up, and to my utter shock, I performed quite well.”
Half finished the class, graduating to become a relief flight medic with Air Rescue. She acted like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Meanwhile, she was devastated by her miscarriage.
“It was hard not being able to talk about it to anyone,” she says.
Haff attributes her strength and grit to her childhood.
“If I could survive adversity as a child, I can survive it as an adult,” she says. “Whatever happens, I know I can get through it.”
The Grit Project has a strong personal resonance for Haff, too.
“After I was born, my mother saw the movie True Grit with John Wayne and always loved it,” she says. “She mentioned it to me on numerous occasions and said that one of the reasons she moved us to the ranch was because she wanted me to be like Mattie Ross. So for a long time I’ve had an understanding of that word— GRIT— and how it applies to my life.”
What about others building grit? Haff feels strongly about this.
“@@Grit is a choice@@,” she writes to me, putting the words in italics.
“Grit can be fostered and honed. You have to make a conscious decision to believe that you will survive and continue on through the pain. It’s telling yourself that you are tough and you can handle it. Even if your body dies, it’s knowing your spirit will prevail in its will. It’s a refusal to submit to the forces that want to conquer or destroy us. @@It’s a choice to carry on, made over and over and over again.@@”
It’s no surprise that Haff is most proud of her experiences, all requiring grit, but she finishes the list of accomplishments and education with pride in fostering the fierce intention to @@NEVER, NEVER, NEVER quit.@@”
WANT TO READ MORE ON GRIT? DOWNLOAD THE GRIT PROJECT PUBLICATIONS THE PILOTS, THE TRAILBLAZERS AND THE GENERALS
Haff’s thoughtfulness is evident in her considered reflections on her career as a firefighter, paramedic, rescue diver and special operations flight medic. Both brain and brawn are evident in her reading list, too, and influence the writing she does in her free time. Her novel Anne Bronte: Nightwalker comes out this fall from Firefox Press.
“I love to read,” she says. “I love resiliency lit!” It’s not a term I’ve heard before, but I love it immediately. Here’s her list of reads.
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. Ree Dolley is one of the toughest girls in literature. She willingly undergoes a brutal journey in order to protect her family and land without once ever feeling sorry for herself. Author Daniel Woodrell is the king of Grit Lit.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Despite being orphaned, impoverished and abused, Jane refuses to succumb to self pity. No matter how intense the temptation or pain, she remains true to her inner voice and her own personal integrity. Jane is one of my spiritual heroes because she doesn’t break and she remains true to her higher self.
The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell. This is a brutal story about a young girl who has grown up after the end of civilization and must continually kill in order to survive. Temple is a true spiritual warrior who sees beauty and God in almost everything Reapers is a story of survival, resiliency, violence and deep spirituality. Temple has true grit.
The Epic of Gilgamesh- The first and ultimate hero’s journey. It begins with Gilgamesh terrorizing his kingdom in Ancient Iraq and ends with him stumbling home after a long and arduous journey to become the greatest and wisest king the Ancient Near East has ever known.
Beowulf— an Old English epic written over a thousand years ago about a warrior king who battles monsters and dragons and is willing to sacrifice himself in order to protect his people. This timeless masterpiece beautifully captures the warrior mentality.
Do you know someone who would find inspiration in The Grit Project? Send this along!