Veteran Voices is a series that gives our veteran-employees a chance to discuss their time in the military and how it prepared them for their careers with Highmark Health companies. In this post, Highmark Health HR consultant Christine Keyser talks about the impact of her time as a Marine Corps Officer Candidate and her ongoing commitment to helping those who serve.
Christine Keyser has always believed in challenging herself.
A Lancaster, PA native, she enrolled at nearby Millersville University in 1999, and was committed to earning a college degree. But when she grew bored with her regular studies and felt a little “lost,” she decided to challenge herself — by applying to Officer Candidate School for the United States Marine Corps (USMC).
“The requirements to get into the officer program are rigorous,” Christine explains. “For example, you need to score a 115 or above on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test, much higher than the 31 needed to enlist. You also have to be a college graduate or in college with a certain GPA, get letters of recommendation, meet with a special recruiter who handles officer candidates, and pass physical requirements that are much more demanding than for a non-officer.”
Christine was one of only 51 women (and 901 people total) accepted into this elite program. Unfortunately, during the first of two intensive six-week officer boot camp sessions that combined classroom time, weapons training, and fitness, her opportunity was cut short by fractures to both her legs.
“I have flat feet, and osteoporosis runs in my family,” Christine says. “As part of training, you need to be able to run 10 miles. Before getting to Quantico, VA for boot camp, I spent time training with enlisted people and reservists I knew, including running 10 miles a day. I started experiencing a lot of pain, but I kept at it right into boot camp. When I was finally seen by a military doctor, it turned out I had fractures above both ankles. I was sent home a week later.”
In the Marine Corps officer training program, anyone being considered for discharge for any reason must go before an Executive Officer. “You’re asked if you wish to remain in training to become a Marine,” Christine explains. “I consistently replied, ‘Sir, this recruit wishes to stay.’ Unfortunately, the Executive Officer said, ‘Look, I’d love to keep you here, but you can barely walk. You can’t heal.’”
Christine went from running 10 miles a day to not being allowed to exercise standing up at all. (More than a decade later, she is still not able to run and regularly has pain in her shins.) She was ultimately given an honorable medical discharge.
The timing of all this — her fractures were diagnosed shortly before September 11, 2001 — made it even more emotionally difficult. Having been drawn to the military to protect the country, Christine says it was devastating to not be able to serve while friends and comrades from her boot camp shipped out.
“The hardest part is that I could not be there to have their backs as they’d had mine,” Christine says. “Had I been healed, and permitted to serve, I would have eagerly gone back. Many people I knew went to Iraq or Afghanistan. For the next couple years I constantly checked the KIA (killed in action) list. My captain went and lost guys in his unit. One of my closest friends, who’d started college at the same time I did, spent two years in Iraq.”
In true Marine Corps spirit, Christine bounced back from her injury and disappointment to not only finish her bachelor’s degree, but also go on to earn an MBA from Elizabethtown College. For all her academic achievement, she says that her time as a USMC Officer Candidate had a deep and lasting impact on her overall attitude and confidence, as well as teaching her valuable interpersonal and leadership skills. It also impacted the direction of her career.
“My first job after college was in recruiting even though my bachelor’s degree was in communications and PR,” she points out. “And my interest in recruiting and HR really started when I was training with enlisted Marines before officer boot camp. They often brought me along on recruiting visits — my enthusiasm was a plus, and I think it was reassuring, especially to parents, that a female of my size was excited and not intimidated. I enjoyed those interactions — helping someone make a very important decision.”
As an IT recruiter, she said she took note of people with military experience, both to help clients find the right person for the right job — and to help returning veterans.
“That was the beginning of something I’ve been passionate about my entire career,” she says.
“I realized that even though I couldn’t fight alongside those serving in the military, through my HR work I could fight for them when they returned to the civilian workforce.”
She emphasizes that there are real advantages to hiring someone with a military background.
“You can’t have the ‘that’s not my job’ attitude in the military,” she says. “In the military, lack of preparation can mean that someone dies, so you become very careful about being prepared. You also develop an ability to stay continually engaged, to constantly learn, and to step up into a role and take responsibility — all desirable qualities.”
While most people know the USMC motto — Semper Fi, or “always faithful” — Christine explains that USMC officers have their own motto: Ductus Exemplo, or “leadership by example.”
“I believe that truly great leadership inspires others to do their best and to be their best,” she says. “As someone who was hoping to lead Marines, I did not want to lead simply to have a title; I wanted to lead people so that they could do great things and be their best.”
She also believes in the saying that, “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.” She says her work at Highmark Health as an HR consultant (currently specializing in process excellence), as well as the corporate culture in general, are more about working together with a common focus on customers than about individual advancement. That attitude has served her well in helping the company through many challenging projects, including developing contingencies for avian flu, a reorganization after the creation of Allegheny Health Network and the Highmark Health parent company, and special project work.
No matter what projects she’s involved with, Christine retains her deep commitment to helping veteran-employees. One of her many accomplishments in this area was to help launch a Highmark Veterans Symposium in 2012 while she was part of the Diversity & Inclusion team.
“The first symposium was in Camp Hill, PA, and we’ve had two more in Pittsburgh, with more planned,” she says. “The idea is to bring together colleges, companies, and government organizations like Veterans Affairs so that veterans can come and talk with them. Several Highmark business areas are represented, but it’s also about the bigger picture — when colleges and businesses do a good job of attracting veterans to the area, we all benefit.”
Her work with the Diversity & Inclusion team directly involved outreach to veterans, but in her current position she still finds many opportunities to help veterans. Because of her background, she says she is often able to connect people just out of the military with appropriate services and make them aware of their options.
“Veterans, and their families, don’t always realize what’s available,” she points out. “One example is requesting workplace accommodations for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Accommodations are commonly requested for employees with disabilities. If someone with PTSD has a trigger related to someone sneaking up on them, a simple accommodation request might be to put them in an office or cubicle where no one is behind them, or even just put up a mirror in their cubicle. Something like that can be enough to help someone work more successfully.”
In her work with veterans, and in general, Christine is quick to emphasize that she was a Marine Officer Candidate, not a Marine. She explains that you only become a Marine by completing training and receiving your Eagle Globe and Anchor (EGA) pin. Because her time in the military was cut short, she says she struggles sometimes with even referring to herself as a veteran. “I get a lot of reassurance from other vets, but either way, for me the most important thing is focusing on how I can help veterans. My military training created an awareness and passion for helping veterans when they come back. If I help those folks, that’s how I’m doing my duty for my country.”
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