Honoring One of UScellular's Own for National Armed Forces Day
At UScellular, we are incredibly proud of our veteran and military community. We have established an associate resource group, Veterans & Associates Leading Organizational Results (VALOR ARG) which provides insights, support, guidance, and resources dedicated to assisting the successful recruitment and transition of veteran associates and their families to UScellular's culture. This year, our VALOR ARG sponsored one of our associates, Mark Phelps, an Iowa sales manager to be a guardian on an honor flight accompanying his father, his brother, and his uncle, all veterans, in celebration of National Armed Forces Day.
The third Saturday in May is National Armed Forces Day, a special holiday established in 1949 by President Truman, designed for people all over the world to come together to honor and thank the members of all five branches of United States Armed Forces. An “Honor Flight” is conducted by non-profit organizations dedicated to transporting as many United States military veterans as possible to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials of the respective war they fought in at no cost. We sat down with Mark to hear his thoughts about this holiday, the honor flight, and his perspective on the VALOR community at UScellular.
Question: What does National Armed Forces Day represent for you?
Mark Phelps: It is probably the most undercelebrated holiday we have. We should be celebrating our men and women who are or have served in our military and the contributions they have made to our country and the world. I feel the best way to celebrate is to always take the time to thank veterans and current military people for their service whenever the opportunity arises. It only takes 30 seconds of our time but means the world to them.
Q: The UScellular VALOR ARG identified an opportunity to sponsor you for an honor flight. What did it mean to you to know that there is a group within UScellular that focuses on supporting our associates in the military and their families and that they offer opportunities such as this one?
MP: I would not have been able to go on this honor flight if it were not for the sponsorship I received from VALOR and UScellular. I’m so blessed to work for a company who cares so much for their employees and our veterans. I feel our ARG programs are amazing. I would encourage all employees to find an ARG that speaks to their heart, join it, and get involved. It could change your life or someone else’s.
Q: How did you feel when you first stepped off the bus at Arlington National Cemetery Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?
MP: It’s very hard to put the feeling into words. I felt great reverence being present on hallowed grounds. Seeing all the headstones of those who passed had me awestruck. Then I pushed my dad to the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier just in time to catch the changing of the guard and a wreath laying ceremony. This happened while I was surrounded by veterans, all of whom would have laid down their lives for this country. It was impressive and hard not to get emotional. I looked around and saw many of these harden veterans, these men and women of uncompromising valor having tears roll down their faces. At that moment, I knew I was in the company of greatness, both from the veterans who made this trip and those who were buried there. I would not trade this moment in time for all the gold in the world. I will cherish this memory forever.
Q: What was your experience like at the Air Force Memorial?
MP: This was our last stop but was the most anticipated for my dad and uncle as they both served in the Air Force. My dad and uncle were completely exhausted by this point, and so was I. It’s a very long day that is physically and emotionally draining. However, when we arrived, those two senior citizens hit their second wind and were all over the place. I couldn’t keep up with them. I took a photo of them standing in front of these eight-foot-tall marble slabs that were engraved with the Air Force credo. What I realized after I took the photo is that my dad and uncle’s reflection are clearly visible in the slab dedicated to “Integrity,” which is truly amazing considering I have never known anyone with more integrity than these two men. They are the reason I am the man I am today.
While heading to the bus to return to the airport, I met a volunteer at the Air Force memorial named Tony. We were able to have a short conversation and I found out Tony is a Navy veteran and the son of a Tuskegee Airmen and a real-life barrier breaker. His father passed away four months prior, which is truly a loss for this country. I asked him if he would mind getting in a photo with me and he happily agreed. I thanked him for his and his dad’s service to our great nation to which he replied, “Thank you for letting me serve!”
Q: Can you tell us about the welcome home?
MP: This was extremely emotional and rewarding. It started on the flight home. Once we reached a safe height and they turned off the “fasten seatbelt” light, the Greater Peoria Honor Flight had a surprise in store for the veterans, called “mail call.” If you have served, you know how big of a deal it was to get letters from home during mail call. They had worked for two months prior collecting “thank you” letters from local schools, politicians, businesses, and so on. Guardians were asked to collect letters from the vet’s family members, friends, churches, and anyone else prior to the flight. When they started handing out these hand-stitched mail bags, I asked my dad and my uncle, “Do you think there is one for you?” to which they both replied “no." Low and behold, there were bags for them, as every veteran gets their own bag. The look on my dad’s face when they called his name was absolutely priceless and could only be matched by the look on my uncle’s. These bags were filled with hand-drawn thank you cards from school children that were so touching to the vets that many of them cried, especially the Vietnam vets. Most of them said things like, “We are finally getting our welcome home.” However, none of the veterans had a clue what was waiting for them at the airport.
We got off the plane to about 20 current military personnel, including high-ranking officers, and first responders greeting us at the gate; My dad was floored. He was almost speechless and that’s really something. They held us up just before the security checkpoint and had three women sing the national anthem. We went through the checkpoint and were greeted by about 2,000 cheering people with signs, bag pipes, mascots, and Abraham Lincoln - well the great-great-great-great grandson of old Abe and he looks just like his grandpa. There were three news stations present, conducting interviews with the veterans. When we exited the building, my dad said to me, “Wow! That was just great and almost enough to give a guy a heart attack.” This is dad’s way of being a comedian as he is a former heart patient.
Q: As a UScellular associate and the son of a veteran, what did this experience mean to you?
MP: I would say that it was an experience of a lifetime. I heard stories from a lot of the veterans. We shared jokes and tears. Most importantly, we made memories that I’ll be passing on to my grandchildren to pass on to theirs. I am so blessed to be the son, nephew, and brother to three of the veterans on this trip and I would not have made it without UScellular and the VALOR ARG.
A local news station traveled on the entire trip. Once they found out about my dad and uncle being brothers and my brother and I being their guardians, they did a news story, fittingly titled “Band of Brothers.”
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