Updated December 22, 2016
Beginning with Veterans Day on November 11, we are dedicating an entire month to honoring employees who have served in all branches of the military in appreciation for their sacrifice to our country and their service to United. Please follow along with us each Monday as some of our veteran co-workers share their stories about their service.
One conversation changed First Officer Stayce Harris's life
When Stayce Harris started college at the University of Southern California on an Air Force ROTC engineering scholarship, she wasn't initially planning to become a pilot. But one conversation with an ROTC instructor changed the course of her career.
"I'd honestly never considered being a pilot, I just wanted to be like my dad and serve in the Air Force," said Stayce. "My instructor suggested I compete for the pilot scholarship, and I thought, why not? Why be the passenger when you can be the pilot?"
After completing pilot training, Stayce flew C-141 cargo planes. "It was basically the airline of the military," she explained. Stayce had assignments across the country from California to Washington, D.C. After leaving active duty, Stayce joined United as a Boeing 727 flight engineer based in LAX (She is now a Boeing 747 first officer based at SFO). She wanted to continue serving her country, so she joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve, where she got to realize another one of her passions: leadership.
"I just had a passion for taking care of airmen," she said. One of Stayce's most memorable positions was as Commander of the 729th Airlift Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, outside Los Angeles, where she was stationed on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Although all civilian aircraft were grounded, military aircraft were still flying," she said. "The C-141s from my squadron were flying firefighters and their supplies to New York to assist with recovery."
Throughout her career, she has had assignments at the Pentagon, U.S. Africa Command, Air Mobility Command and as commander of the 22nd Air Force. This diverse background led her to her current position. Stayce is now on military leave from United and back on active duty, serving as the Assistant Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, where she holds the rank of lieutenant general.
"I have a unique opportunity in this role. I was recalled to active duty, which is the first time a reservist has been chosen to do this for this specific role, so I want to do a really great job serving all the airmen of our Air Force."
As a female pilot and service member, Stayce has not allowed herself to be held back by stereotypes or biases.
"The beauty of flying is that the plane doesn't know whether you're male or female. It doesn't care – the plane wants to fly and I want to fly it. And as long as I know in my heart that I'm doing my best for the Air Force and taking care of the airmen in fulfilling my role, at the end of the day, I'm good. People will accept you or not, and that's for them to decide."
She has some advice for veterans making the transition to civilian life: "Veterans offer valuable operational, leadership and life experiences along with the core values of integrity, discipline, responsibility and respect. These are key strengths that every business needs. It is very competitive though – whether you're a pilot, or an engineer or an administrator. It takes preparation, homework and perseverance to translate your work experience to a civilian employer. United understands and values the skill sets of our veterans and has been especially supportive of me and of all our veterans; it makes me very proud."
After a career that has taken her all over the country, you might think Stayce would rather stay home than travel. Not so.
"I still just adore traveling, even after 34 years of flying. Until recently, I would always travel someplace I'd never been for my birthday, from Romania to South Africa, to Brunei. My favorites are Sydney, Australia, and Cape Town, South Africa."
Stayce plans to return to United when she has finished her position. Of all the aircraft she's flown – including C-141s, C-130s, KC-135s, Boeing 757s, 767s and 777s – her favorite is the 747.
"I just love that aircraft; it's a majestic airplane to fly."
Ooh Rah: Tech Ops' Don Larson carries
on Marine past
On the fifth floor of the Tech Ops Maintenance Service Center at O'Hare International Airport, above the ratcheting sound of planes getting tune-ups, is an office of which Uncle Sam would be proud.
A platoon of G.I. Joe-esque figurines stand guard atop file cabinets and shelves, U.S. and Marine Corps flags decorate the back wall, pictures of military vehicles and missions past line the side walls, mementos of service time and military citations of the Bronze Star medal and Legion of Merit with the combat distinguishing "V" devise for valor are proudly displayed on the desk, and a grenade-shaped coffee mug and meal ready to eat decorate a table.
Welcome to Don Larson's office.
Don retired from the Marines in 2000 as a Chief Warrant Officer – a highly skilled position of leadership and responsibility – after 24 years of service that spanned more than 30 countries, all seven continents, a dozen separate combat operations and security duty for President Ronald Reagan. He and his wife moved 13 times during those years, and he missed 17 Christmases at home. You'd think he'd have taken a break for a bit after that, but no – 25 days after his retirement, he had his first day on the job with United. Don works as a line maintenance administration manager.
"If it's not turning a wrench or fixing an airplane, then we handle it," says Don, who handles administrative duties for ORD Tech Ops employees.
The impact of Don's military past is just as evident in his work as it is on his walls. Lessons learned on how to most effectively work with others, and building and managing relationships while fighting in Iraq, Kosovo, Somalia and other war-torn locales have helped him in his current role. Don and the others who work on the fifth floor have a team motto: mission always, people first.
"In the military, you have to deal with people of different ages from different places," Don says. "This helps, because in any job, you have to know your people and look out for their well-being."
The job helps him maintain his own wellness, as he suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress, multiple traumatic brain injuries and surviving cancer. To stave off head and neurological pain, he keeps the lights relatively dimmed in his office, and sometimes, if sleep is hard to come by, he'll come to the office in the middle of the night to start working, which helps occupy his mind.
"He is a remarkable individual to work with, and he never misses a beat with his work," ORD and DEN Maintenance Hub Managing Director James Montgomery said. "He ensures every member of his team learns everyone else's role, so that anyone can cover for anyone else if needed. The flexibility that creates is awesome, and they all love working with him."
Don learned during his service that humor can be a coping mechanism, so he likes to make people laugh at work.
He misses the 24/7 camaraderie of the military, but says, "The job has to get done – anything less is not an option."
Recently, his wife of 37 years asked him when he, 57, plans to retire. No sniper's scope can find that target date.
"As long as I add value through the work I'm doing and make a difference in the lives of the people I'm working with," Don said, "I'm going to continue."
From ORD to Afghanistan and back
Ryan Melby may be best known at United by the title he holds at the Chicago Corporate Support Center: director of airport operations ramp planning and airport services. What you may not be as familiar with is the title that he carries when he's away from the office – battalion commander as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.
Ryan, a former active duty solider and current Army reservist, joined United in 2005 through a military leadership recruiting program as a ramp supervisor, and has since worked his way up through the ranks of the company. Today, among other things, he oversees our below-the-wing policies and procedures, station openings and Airport Operations contract strategy.
"The Army taught me a lot about leadership, but I feel my experiences at United have helped me evolve as a leader," I learned as much working at O'Hare as I did in the military."
Ryan was first commissioned as a lieutenant through the ROTC program at the Marion Military Institute in Marion, Alabama. He finished college at Embry – Riddle with a focus in aeronautics before going onto active duty. He left the active service and became a reservist in 2001 so that he could pursue a civilian career as a pilot. But when the September 11th attacks occurred, he was called back into service.
"I was a captain responsible for preparing reserve units for deployment," Ryan said. "I was also part of an exercise in Germany that worked through the plans and 'war gamed' the Iraq invasion."
Over the next ten years, he served in the Army Reserves and worked in a variety of roles at United while he and his wife started a family. Then, in 2011, he received some surprising news: With only a month's notice, Ryan was deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan.
"I had three small children at home – my daughter was only three months old at that time – so it was a real tough experience leaving them, but that was the commitment that I made."
His deployment coincided with the ongoing U.S. troop withdrawal, and Ryan's unit was responsible for managing the logistics of sending vehicles and equipment back to the U.S. After the year-long deployment he returned home to open arms. "United was really understanding throughout my time in Afghanistan, and welcomed me back to my old position. I appreciated all of the support my co-workers provided while I was away."
It's those kinds of experiences that Ryan relies on in his leadership position at United. "In the Army, you're taught to always finish the mission no matter how difficult it is. If you have a can-do attitude, you really can accomplish anything."
'Semper Paratus,' at sea and at United
Network Operations Principal Engineer James Taylor proudly served in the United States Coast Guard for four years, an experience that he still leans on today in his role helping to keep our IT operations running smoothly.
James enlisted right out of high school as an eighteen-year-old. His lifelong love of boats and the open water initially attracted him to the Coast Guard, coupled with the fact that, as he says, “Back then we were in peacetime, but the Coast Guard was still busy – they were doing search and rescues and drug traffic interventions. It seemed exciting."
After completing basic training in Cape May, New Jersey, James found himself stationed in an unlikely place for a Coast Guard Seaman: Keokuk, Iowa. During his time there, his team patrolled the Mississippi River down to St. Louis, maintaining buoys and keeping the water cleared for barges.
Looking for a new challenge, he attended Coast Guard “A" school (advanced school) and became a radarman, transferring to the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Mellon, a high-endurance cutter based in Seattle. The Mellon's crew was tasked with patrolling the Pacific Ocean for months at a time, from Alaska down to Guatemala.
“We had two objectives, depending on which way we went out of Seattle," James said. “Going right (north) meant sailing to Alaska and handling fishery patrols; going left (south) meant looking for boats trafficking drugs."
Those missions at sea provided James with memories that he still appreciates to this day. “Of course I remember the month we spent training in Hawaii," he said, laughing, “and I'll never forget seeing porpoises and sea turtles in the Strait of Seward near Alaska and volcanoes erupting in the Aleutian Islands."
But it's not just the memories of the people and places that James carries with him; his time in the service made a much larger impact on him as a U.S. citizen and as an employee of United.
“Being in the military gives you a deeper pride for the U.S., and it instills in you a devotion to duty, respect for others and respect for authority," he said. “It also prepares you always to be ready for anything – and that's part of my job today. If our IT systems go down, it can lead to flight delays, so I'm always thinking about a back-up plan. The Coast Guard's motto is Semper Paratus – Always Ready – and that's what I live by."