Strength in Battle: Courageous Veteran Shares Her Story - United Hub
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Strength in battle: Courageous veteran shares her story

By Matt Adams, November 12, 2018

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.


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