Twice as hard
In honor of Black History Month, each week we will profile an employee who is helping to break barriers. Follow along throughout the month of February for these extraordinary stories of perseverance.
Not everyone is cut out to be a trailblazer. It requires just the right mix of guts, determination and, maybe most importantly, a thick skin. Lacking even one of those qualities is enough to stop a would-be pioneer in their tracks, sending them home in defeat. But for United Airlines First Officer Theresa Claiborne, losing was never an option.
"My mother always told me, 'You have to be twice as good.' That's why I was always so hard on myself," Theresa says.
You have to be twice as good. It's a phrase that many African Americans heard as children, foreshadowing the inequality that they were likely to face at some point in their lives. Theresa used that as her motivation to not only flourish over her 26-plus year career at United, but also in becoming the first African American woman pilot in the United States Air Force.
"I had no idea that I would be a barrier-breaker," she says. "When I was going through pilot training, a guy who had been in ROTC with me called me up and said, "Theresa, you're the first,' and I said, 'The first what?' We researched the records, and sure enough – I had the chance to be the first African American woman to fly in the Air Force."
Looking back on it today, Theresa is grateful that she wasn't aware of that fact until her training was nearly complete. "When I found out, I knew that people would be looking at me and wondering if I could do it. I'm glad that I didn't know until the last couple of months of training; flight school was already the most difficult thing I had ever done without that extra pressure."
While in college, Theresa entered the University of California-Berkeley's ROTC program, and it was there that she got her first taste of flying, riding along in an Air Force T-37 training jet. "That one flight is all it took; it was the best thing ever," she recalls with a smile. From that point forward, she knew what she wanted to do, but there was a major hurdle to overcome: At that time, the military only gave out ten pilot slots each year to women who were non-service academy graduates. By the time Theresa took the oath to join the military, those ten spots were filled.
But midway through her first year in ROTC, the Air Force determined that female trainees washed out at the same rate as their male counterparts (roughly a third fail to graduate from training).They increased the allotment to 30 women per year just in time for Theresa to accomplish the necessary prerequisites and be selected for flight training.
For the next 20 years - seven years of active duty and thirteen in the reserves - she flew the KC-135, a massive refueling plane dubbed the "stratotanker." Theresa flew missions overseas in the early-1990s during Operation Desert Shield and in the mid-90s over the Balkans during the Yugoslavian civil war. And in January 1990 Theresa joined United, at a time when she was one of only a handful of African American pilots working at the airline.
"In years past, you didn't really see many black pilots anywhere. Being hired by United was a big deal; African American pilots were a small group, and African American women pilots were an even smaller group. Over the years, younger pilots have said to me, 'Thank you so much, Theresa, for paving the way,' and that warms my heart. I always thank them, but then I remind them that it's up to them to continue to clear that path for the young people behind them."
To be sure, it wasn't always easy. "When I was in the Air Force, my co-pilot and I were planning a mission. Another crew walked in and their Captain went over the details with my co-pilot. When he was finished, my co-pilot looked at him and said, 'That sounds good, but maybe you should talk to the Commander' and he pointed at me. My co-pilot was a white male, and that Captain obviously thought that there was no way that I could be the Commander. We laughed about it, but it was an opportunity to educate that person."
Over the years, Theresa has seen gradual improvement in that regard. "I wasn't hired at this airline just because I was black, and I haven't lasted this long due to that fact, either. Thankfully, at this point, I no longer feel like I have to prove that I deserve to be here. But I also strive to do a good job so that the next person doesn't have to work twice as hard to get where I am."
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.