As we sit glued to our TVs watching the Rio 2016 Olympics, some members of the United family are watching the action a little closer. They have competed at the highest levels themselves and know well the incredible sacrifice and heart that it takes to represent their country. In fact, several of our employees are former athletes or have family members striving to make it to the Games.
Captain Dave Walters
Chicago based 777 Captain Dave Walters
“I still enjoy following the Games as a spectator. I know what those guys are going through and I can empathize with the journey that they have traveled to get there because I've been on that journey, too," said Chicago based 777 Captain Dave Walters, who qualified for the 1988 U.S. Olympic Team Trials as a marathoner. After watching the 1972 Olympics, he immediately knew it was something that he wanted to pursue and he dedicated two decades of his life to get there. Job changes in the early 1980s forced him to scale back his training, so Dave didn't attempt to qualify for the 1980 or 1984 Games. But finally, in 1986 he qualified for the 1988 Trials. “When I got my qualifying time I had a smile on my face for weeks. That's as close as most people ever get to The Olympics. Making it into the Trials meant that I could give it my best shot, and that's all that I wanted."
The Trial race took place in Jersey City, New Jersey in April 1988 on a brutal course full of hills. Out of 130 participants, only the top three racers would qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team. Dave was the 126th seed. “On top of everything, I had a fever that day – I was on the verge of catching a flu. But, in spite of that, I still managed to finish 36th, and I was honored to be there."
His Olympic experience was the culmination of a lifetime of focus, dedication, motivation and discipline. “Just to make it to the Trials was a dream come true. It put an exclamation point on my athletic career," Dave said.
Remarkably, Dave still adheres to that focus and discipline, running between eight and twelve miles every day. In fact, last year he achieved the triple crown, winning his age group in the Chicago, New York and Boston marathons. “I still get the same kick out of running that I did in the '80s. It's not quite the 'knife fight' that it used to be," he said laughing, “but it's still competitive and I enjoy that."
Captain Bruce Conner
Chicago based 747 Captain Bruce Conner
Pushing age 60, Chicago based 747 Captain Bruce Conner lives by a simple philosophy: try to do a little better today than you did yesterday. It's a philosophy that drives him in every aspect of his life and work, throughout his 31 years as a United pilot and his five decades as a world-class athlete.
“There's a common belief that as we get older, we get slower," Bruce said. “I want to break down that self-limiting mindset. It's more about having realistic goals." Bruce got into sports over 50 years ago as a gymnast alongside his brother, who would go on to become a three-time Olympian and two-time gold medalist in gymnastics. “After about two years, I realized that my little brother was a lot better than me, so I thought 'Maybe I'll find a different path,' and I turned my attention to speed skating."
That turned out to be a good choice. By the time he was a teenager, Bruce was a member of the U.S. National Team. In the fall of 1975 he traveled to Holland to train for the upcoming U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the 1976 Olympic Winter Games, but he experienced a setback. “I was skating well in Holland, but I was so motivated that I over-trained. By the time I went to the trials in December, my times were getting slower."
Bruce fell short at the trials and did not make the 1976 Team. It was a devastating blow and the disappointment subsequently led to him walk away from the sport. It wasn't until he reached his mid-twenties that he began to feel the pull of competition again, but in a slightly different way.
“I started running and competing in 5ks, 10ks, half marathons and triathlons," he said. “I really enjoyed it and it helped me maintain my fitness level. At age 40 I still competed in races, but I noticed that I was always just in the middle of the pack." That's when he decided to give skating one more shot.
He began commuting once a week between his home in Illinois to a rink in Milwaukee to train and participate in open races. When he made a trip to Calgary for a race at age 48, he realized, to his amazement, that he was faster than he had ever been. “When I got back home, I hired a coach and started taking it more seriously. Then I wondered if I could qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. I knew that if I skated a good race, I had a chance to be in the top 25 in the U.S."
He trained six days a week and qualified for the 2005 Trials with his times in the 500 and 1000 meter races. Four years later he did it again, with even faster qualifying times than he had previously skated. Bruce seemed to be getting better with age, and in 2013 he qualified for a fourth time – at age 57.
Bruce continues to compete and published a book called Faster as a Master, which details his life in speed skating and his philosophy of continual improvement.
First Officer Joe Oka and son Peyton Oka
Chicago based 777 First Officer Joe Oka
It only took Chicago based 777 First Officer Joe Oka 45 years to discover that he possessed a unique talent. Now, he's using that ability to help youngsters pursue their Olympic dreams.
More than a decade ago, Joe — who has been a United pilot for 21 years — became a backyard archery enthusiast after a friend gave him his first bow and arrow set. When a city ordinance in his hometown of Fort Mitchell, Kentucky threatened to ban archery in neighborhoods, Joe became embroiled in local politics to save his newfound sport. While doing so, he met the man who changed his sporting life: Darrell Pace.
“When our town banned archery, I tried to fight city hall," Joe said. “In the course of that, I started working with Darrell. One day he said to me 'You're pretty good. Why don't you try competition archery?' and that's when I started taking it seriously."
To understand why Darrell's encouragement was so important, you have to understand who Darrell Pace is and what he means to the archery community. Darrell was called the world's greatest archer during his years as a competitor in the 1970s and 1980s, winning individual gold medals at both the 1976 and the 1984 Olympic Games. In 2011, he was declared the Men's Archer for the 20th Century by the International Archery Federation.
From that point forward Joe trained and competed tirelessly, even turning his attention toward coaching and starting a varsity archery program at a high school in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. He worked out regularly at a local range and qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials but said the experience taught him that archery at that level isn't a part-time hobby. “You really can't have a day job and compete with athletes of that caliber — for them, archery is their profession and their life." While he didn't make the U.S Olympic Team, he walked away from the trials with valuable insight that made him a much better coach.
As Joe's son Peyton grew older, he encouraged him to pick up a bow as well. Soon enough, Peyton was following in his dad's footsteps, winning the U.S. Nationals at age 11. Now Peyton is eyeing a spot on the U.S. National Team for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games . “He's working hard in his division," Joe said. “By the end of this year, he should be top 15 in the country."
It's been an interesting road for Joe and his family, hopefully one that ends up in Tokyo four years from now.
Captain Tom Connor and son Reed Connor
San Francisco based 787 Captain Tom Connor
We know the many miles that these competitors will have traveled by the time they touch down in Brazil, but perhaps no one knows that more so than San Francisco based 787 Captain Tom Connor. Tom has supported his son Reed, a distance runner, who competed for a spot on the U.S. Track and Field Team in Rio.
Tom and his wife Karla first noticed Reed's running abilities when they lived in Guam 20 years ago. At the time, he was only six years old but he was able to keep up with kids twice his age. “Part of the school curriculum was the President's Fitness Challenge, which included a running component. We watched all of the kids take off and when they came back around toward the finish line, Reed was right up front with the bigger kids. I thought he had cut through and I told him 'It's not okay to cut,' but he said 'Dad, I didn't. I ran the whole way.' I was shocked."
A few years later the Connor family moved to Houston where Reed continued his athletic endeavors on the basketball court. Then, a chance encounter with a track coach prior to his freshman year in high school changed all of that. “Reed was running with the basketball team, and Dan Green, head coach of the Woodlands High School track team noticed him. He told Reed 'If you run for me, everybody is going to know your name.'"
From that point on he excelled as a high school distance runner, culminating in a record-breaking run at the Nike Cross National Championship in 2008 After high school Reed competed for the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he achieved first-team All-Big Ten and All-American honors. Since graduating from UW, Reed continued running, averaging close to 100 miles each week, and qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Oregon. He ran a strong race in the 5000 meters but, unfortunately, fell just short of making the finals. Tom said that Reed was disappointed, but he was glad to have experienced the trials.
Reed's running career has taken the Connor family all over the country and the world. Thankfully, Tom is in the right business. “We couldn't have done it if I didn't work for United," said Tom. “We've been fortunate to have the chance to follow him around the world and cheer him on. Last year we were even able to go to Edinburgh, Scotland to watch him."
Right now, around the world, brave members of America's armed forces are on duty, defending our freedom and upholding our values.
When not laser-focused on the mission at hand, they're looking forward to the day when their service to our nation is fulfilled and they can reunite with their families.
They are also imagining how they can use their hard-earned skills to build an exciting, rewarding and important career when they return home.
I want them to look no further than United Airlines.
That's why we are focused on recruiting, developing and championing veterans across our company, demonstrating to our returning women and men in uniform that United is the best possible place for them to put their training, knowledge, discipline and character to the noblest use.
They've developed their knowledge and skills in some of the worst of times. We hope they will use those skills to keep United performing at our best, all of the time.
That's why we are accelerating our efforts to onboard the best and the brightest, and substantially increasing our overall recruitment numbers each year.
We recently launched a new sponsorship program to support onboarding veterans into United and a new care package program to support deployed employees. It's one more reason why United continues to rank high - and rise higher - as a top workplace for veterans. In fact, we jumped 21 spots this year on Indeed.com's list of the top U.S workplaces for veterans. This is a testament to our increased recruiting efforts, as well as our efforts to create a culture where veterans feel valued and supported.
We use the special reach and resources of our global operations to partner with outstanding organizations. This is our way of stepping up and going the extra mile for all those who've stepped forward to answer our nation's call.
We do this year-round, and the month of November is no exception; however, it is exceptional, especially as we mark Veterans Day.
As we pay tribute to all Americans who have served in uniform and carried our flag into battle throughout our history, let's also keep our thoughts with the women and men who are serving around the world, now. They belong to a generation of post-9/11 veterans who've taken part in the longest sustained period of conflict in our history.
Never has so much been asked by so many of so few.... for so long. These heroes represent every color and creed. They are drawn from across the country and many immigrated to our shores.
They then freely choose to serve in the most distant and dangerous regions of the world, to protect democracy in its moments of maximum danger.
Wherever they serve - however they serve - whether they put on a uniform each day, or serve in ways which may never be fully known, these Americans wake up each morning willing to offer the "last full measure of devotion" on our behalf.
Every time they do so, they provide a stunning rebuke to the kinds of voices around the world who doubt freedom and democracy's ability to defend itself.
Unfortunately, we know there are those who seem to not understand – or say they do not - what it is that inspires a free people to step forward, willing to lay down their lives so that their country and fellow citizens might live.
But, we – who are both the wards and stewards of the democracy which has been preserved and handed down to us by veterans throughout our history – do understand.
We know that inciting fear and hatred of others is a source of weakness, not strength. And such divisive rhetoric can never inspire solidarity or sacrifice like love for others and love of country can.
It is this quality of devotion that we most honor in our veterans - those who have served, do serve and will serve.
On behalf of a grateful family of 96,000, thank you for your service.
Each year around Veterans Day, Indeed, one of the world's largest job search engines, rates companies based on actual employee reviews to identify which ones offer the best opportunities and benefits for current and former U.S. military members. Our dramatic improvement in the rankings this year reflects a stronger commitment than ever before to actively recruiting, developing and nurturing veteran talent.
"We've spent a lot of time over the past 12 months looking for ways to better connect with our employees who served and attract new employees from the military ranks," said Global Catering Operations and Logistics Managing Director Ryan Melby, a U.S. Army veteran and the president of our United for Veterans business resource group.
"Our group is launching a mentorship program, for instance, where we'll assign existing employee-veterans to work with new hires who come to us from the armed forces. Having a friend and an ally like that, someone who can help you translate the skills you picked up in the military to what we do as a civilian company, is invaluable. That initiative is still in its infancy, but I'm really optimistic about what it can do for United and for our veteran population here."
Impressively, we were the only one of our industry peers to move up on the list, further evidence that we're on a good track as a company.
The question of where David Ferrari was had haunted retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major Vincent Salceto for the better part of 66 years.
Rarely did a week go by that Salceto didn't think about his old friend. Often, he relived their last moments together in a recurring nightmare. In it, it's once again 1953 and Salceto and Ferrari are patrolling a valley in what is now North Korea. Suddenly, explosions shatter the silence and flares light up the night sky.
Crouching under a barrage of bullets, Salceto, the squad's leader, drags two of his men to safety, then he sees Ferrari lying face down on the ground. He runs out to help him, but he's too late. And that's when he always wakes up.
Italian Americans from opposite coasts – Salceto from Philadelphia, Ferrari from San Francisco – the two became close, almost like brothers, after being assigned to the same unit during the Korean War. When Ferrari died, it hit Salceto hard.
"After that, I never let anyone get close to me like I did with Dave," he says. "I couldn't; I didn't want to go through that again."
When the war ended, Salceto wanted to tell Ferrari's family how brave their son and brother had been in battle. Most of all, he wanted to salute his friend at his gravesite and give him a proper farewell.
For decades, though, Salceto had no luck finding his final resting place or locating any of his relatives. Then, in June of this year, he uncovered a clue that led him to the Italian Cemetary in Colma, California, where Ferrari is buried.
Within days, Salceto, who lives in Franklinville, New Jersey, was packed and sitting aboard United Flight 731 from Philadelphia to San Francisco with his wife, Amy, and daughter, Donna Decker, on his way to Colma. For such a meaningful trip, he even wore his Army dress uniform.
That's how San Francisco-based flight attendant Noreen Baldwin spotted him as he walked down the jet bridge to get on the plane.
"I saw him and said to the other crew members, 'Oh my goodness, look at this guy,'" she says. "I knew there had to be a story."
The two struck up a conversation and Salceto told Baldwin why he was traveling. She got emotional listening to him talk and made a point of fussing over him, making sure he and his family had everything they needed.
About halfway through the flight, Baldwin had an idea. She and her fellow crew members would write messages of encouragement to Salceto and invite his fellow passengers to do the same.
"We did it discreetly," says Baldwin. "I asked the customers if they saw the man in uniform, which most had, and asked them if they wanted to write a few words for him on a cocktail napkin. A lot of people did; families did it together, parents got their kids to write something. After the first few rows, I was so choked up that I could barely talk."
When Baldwin surprised Salceto with dozens of hand-written notes, he, too, was speechless. He laid the stack on his lap and read each one. At the same time, the pilots made an announcement about the veteran over the loud speaker, after which the customers on board burst into applause.
"It seems contrived, and I hate using the word organic, but that's what it was; it just happened," Baldwin says. "Mr. Salceto was so loveable and humble, and what he was doing was so incredible, it felt like the right thing to do. And you could tell he was touched."
On June 27, Salceto finally stood before Ferrari's grave and said that long-awaited goodbye. As a trumpeter played "Taps," he unpinned a medal from his jacket and laid it reverently on the headstone.
"I had gotten a Bronze Star for my actions [the night Ferrari died] with a 'V' for valor, and that was the medal I put on Dave's grave," says Salceto, pausing to fight back tears. "I thought he was more deserving of it than I was."
For the first time in years, Salceto felt at peace. His mission was accomplished.