Strength in battle: Courageous veteran shares her story
The day she took off her fatigues for the last time and packed them away was the day the world stopped making sense for Operations and Military Recruiting Manager Michelle Saunders.
It hadn't taken her long after enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1996 to realize she had found her place in this world. Michelle loved the military, loved the sense of belonging and the sense of contributing to a greater good. It gave her an identity that she craved and she excelled, moving up the ranks to that of a non-commissioned officer in a short time. She was a soldier, through and through. Until, one day, she wasn't. On May 1, 2004, everything changed.
Six months into a deployment to Iraq, Michelle and her unit were patrolling the countryside west of Baghdad when they came under enemy fire, forcing them into a battle that raged through the night, costing them numerous casualties and 11 of the 22 vehicles in their convoy. When dawn broke, the shooting stopped but the unit was forced to take a more dangerous route back to base.
A few miles down the road, explosions once again lit up the sky. Gunfire rang out all around them, and a moment later, the vehicle in which Michelle was riding was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, peppering her with shrapnel. When the smoke cleared, she scrambled for cover, pulling a critically wounded soldier with her and rupturing two discs in her back in the process.
Doctors told her she might never walk again, but over the course of 22 months of physical therapy at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, Michelle proved them wrong. Still, her injuries left her no longer fit for military service.
Suddenly thrust into civilian life, Michelle was overcome with loss, feeling she lacked a purpose and value. She closed herself off from her family and struggled in every way, particularly when it came to finding work. Unable to make ends meet, she soon found herself homeless and couch surfing.
One day, a friend she had made at Walter Reed invited her to a town hall on veterans' issues in Washington, D.C. Michelle hadn't planned on it, but she felt compelled to speak, articulating the plight of veterans after they returned home from combat.
When she finished, a representative from the U.S. Department of Labor approached her and offered her a job leading military outreach. In the years that followed, Michelle became active in public policy discourse, advocating for veterans' rights. By 2008, she was testifying before Congress, helping secure millions of dollars in funding for a veterans' housing and rehabilitation center in her native Massachusetts.
"It was the most surreal and confusing time of my life," she said. "I should have died on May 1, 2004, but I began to understand why I survived."
In June 2017, Michelle landed her current role at United, heading up our Talent Acquisition team's military recruitment efforts. Meeting with prospective veteran employees, she helps them navigate the difficulties of transitioning to a civilian career. But it's not about hiring veterans for the sake of hiring veterans. The work Michelle does benefits the job seeker, but it's also tremendously valuable to our company.
"Investing in military recruiting makes business sense," she said, listing off the qualities that many veterans possess, things like a fully developed concept of teamwork, adaptability and leadership. Those attributes, as Michelle will attest, are particularly well suited to the airline industry.
Today, she has found new meaning leading soldiers in a different kind of fight, one that can feel just as daunting as combat for many. Michelle learned her way through trial and error; by hitting rock bottom, dusting herself off, and getting back up. Through her tireless efforts on behalf of United, she's making sure other veterans don't have to go through what she did, and she's making us a stronger airline for it.
You can send military veteran referrals to Michelle and her team by emailing them at VeteranRecruiting@united.com.
In the midst of mobilizing our cargo operations, our teams at New York/Newark (EWR) and Jacksonville (JAX) stepped in to assist Roche Diagnostics with transporting a vital component for an instrument being used for COVID-19 testing.
The component was stuck at EWR en route to the Mayo Clinic in Florida after another airline's flights were cancelled. A Roche employee contacted us asking for help and, within a few hours, our teams had the piece loaded onto a Jacksonville-bound aircraft, with arrangements in place to deliver it to the Mayo Clinic.
The item we shipped will allow the Mayo Clinic in Florida to process hundreds of COVID-19 tests per day. Mayo Clinic Laboratories has been on the front lines of increasing testing capacity to expedite caring for patients at this critical time and working to ease the burden being felt at test processing laboratories in a growing number of areas.
We are going above and beyond to find creative ways to transport fresh food and produce, as well as basic essentials from the U.S. mainland to military and their families in Guam/Micronesia. On Saturday, March 28, we operated an exclusive cargo-only B777-300 charter to transport nearly 100,000 pounds of food essentials to Guam to support our troops.
In addition, we move mail year-round all over the world. In response to COVID-19, and in support of the military members and their families overseas, we implemented a charter network, transporting military mail to Frankfurt, which is then transported all over Europe and the Middle East. Since March 20, we have flown 30,000+ pounds of military mail every day between Chicago O'Hare (ORD) and Frankfurt (FRA). On the return flight from Frankfurt to Chicago, we have carried an average of 35,000 pounds of mail to help families stay connected.
"Connecting products and mail to people around the world is the United Cargo mission," said United Cargo President Jan Krems. "Keeping our military families connected with the goods they need, and keeping them connected with loved ones to feel a sense of home, is of critical importance. As a company that has long supported our military families and veterans, our teams are proud to mobilize to lend a hand."
On average, we ship more than 1 billion pounds of cargo every year on behalf of domestic and international customers. For more information, visit unitedcargo.com.
To our customers,
I hope this note finds you and your loved ones healthy and well.
It is safe to say these past weeks have been among some of the most tumultuous and emotional that any of us can remember in our lifetimes. The impact of the coronavirus outbreak has been felt by individuals and families, companies and communities, across the United States and around the world.
The response to this crisis has been extraordinary; as much for what it has required from our society as for what it has revealed of us as a people.
Far from causing division and discord, this crisis and the social distancing it has required, has allowed us to witness something profound and moving about ourselves: our fond and deeply felt wish to be connected with one another.
The role of connector is one we're privileged to play in the moments that matter most in your life – weddings and graduations, birthdays and business trips, events large and small – and it's that responsibility that motivates us most to get back to our regular service, as soon as possible.
That is why it is so important our government acted on a comprehensive relief act to ensure our airline – and our industry – are ready and able to serve you again when this crisis abates.
I want to relay to you, in as deeply personal a way I can, the heartfelt appreciation of my 100,000 United team members and their families for this vital public assistance to keep America and United flying for you.
This support will save jobs in our business and many others. And it allows us time to make decisions about the future of our airline to ensure that we can offer you the service you deserve and have come to expect as our customers.
While consumer demand has fallen, we have seen the need for our service and capabilities shifted. And, we've adapted to help meet those needs.
Right now, aircraft flying the United livery and insignia, flown by our aviation professionals, have been repurposed to deliver vital medical supplies and goods to some of the places that need it most. We're also using several of our idle widebody aircraft to use as dedicated charter cargo flights, at least 40 times per week, to transfer freight to and from U.S. locations as well as to key international business locations. At the same time, we are working in concert with the U.S. State Department to bring stranded Americans who are trying to return home back to their loved ones.
While much remains uncertain right now, one thing is for sure: this crisis will pass. Our nation and communities will recover and United will return to service you, our customers. When that happens, we want you to fly United with even greater pride because of the actions we took on behalf of our customers, our employees and everyone we serve.
Stay safe and be well,
Together, we are facing an unprecedented challenge. United Together, we rise to meet that challenge.