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, John Mee, Highmark manager of member experience and customer service, discusses how his career as a military helicopter pilot prepared him for a role promoting excellent customer service.

John Mee corporateOnly one year removed from almost a quarter century in the military, John Mee — a manager of member experience and customer service at Highmark — admits he likes to give his employees “mission-type” orders. Sure, improving customer service efficiency might not have the same stakes as a combat-zone rescue operation, but Mee leads his team at Highmark with the same passion and gravity that made him a successful U.S. Marine.

Mee manages a team that assists customers who’ve bought their own insurance from Highmark (as opposed to getting health coverage through their employers). Mee is in charge of directing Member Service supervisors on how to deliver excellent service, making sure that each customer his team works with is satisfied.

Admittedly, this new position presents a remarkably different set of challenges than his last job. Prior to his employment at Highmark, Mee was division chief of NATO Policy at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. — the culmination of a globetrotting military career. There he assisted the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for all NATO matters affecting the U.S. military, reviewing NATO policy and working alongside the Department of Defense, the State Department and the White House. Despite the stark change in his career, Mee says he’s able to draw on his experience to find solutions with his Highmark team.

“For example, being able to solve the member’s problems in a more efficient fashion,” he says. “Let’s try to come up with some strategies that can reduce an individual’s time spent on the phone — then let’s see how the results pan out over time.”

“I had a great career in the military — I achieved everything I wanted to and more,” Mee adds. “I was looking for a different challenge. I’m passionate about health and health care. To me, it seemed like a very natural fit. It’s no secret that one of the hallmarks of the military is that we’re generally a pretty healthy bunch.”

Combating Unhealthy Lifestyles

Mee knows as well as anyone how important a healthy lifestyle is. During his military service, he was required to maintain a healthy body mass index (BMI) and weight. He also worked with military doctors and dentists who cared for Marines in his unit.

He notes that one-third of America’s youth are overweight, rendering them ineligible to serve in the military. “We need to turn that around,” he says. “When you already take a third of our nation’s young people out of the picture, that’s a huge chunk of the population — besides being a personal health issue, that’s a national security issue.”

Like any good leader, Mee practices what he preaches. Most days, he bikes just over 8 miles to downtown Pittsburgh from his home in Ben Avon Heights. Then, he gets in a quick workout at the Highmark gym before arriving at his desk.

Mee encourages anyone who lives within 8 to 10 miles of their workplace to give biking to work a try. “It really makes a big difference when you get to your desk,” he says. “Pittsburgh is becoming a much more bike-friendly place, and Highmark is actually helping with that.”

Taking Flight (and Finding a Place to Land)

When Mee was a freshman in college at Northern Illinois University, he saw an ad that (to the best of his recollection) read, “If you want to fly, join the Marines.” He had a military background in his family tree already — his grandfather served in World War II, and his father joined the Marines right out of high school. The young history buff began speaking to a recruiter between classes.

He eventually enrolled in the Platoon Leaders Class program with the U.S. Marines, straight out of college. “At that point, there was no dissuading me,” he recalls. “I wanted to be a Marine F-18 pilot.” (Mee describes the F-18 combat jet as the “high performance sports car” of the aviation world.)

Once he arrived at flight school and flew the T-34C Turbo prop trainer, however, an unforeseen obstacle forced Mee to rethink his path.

“I did everything I could do to keep my lunch in my stomach,” he admits. “[But] I learned pretty quickly that aerobatics probably wasn’t for me. Straight and level was fine, but barrel rolls and spins were a bit much.” Instead, Mee trained to become a helicopter pilot, still fulfilling his dream to take to the skies as a Marine.

John Mee in IraqOver the next 24 years, he would accumulate approximately 4,600 hours flying CH-46 helicopters for missions in every corner of the globe. During U.S. combat operations in Iraq in 2003, Mee led medical evacuation missions for both U.S. service members and injured Iraqis — transporting casualties back to hospitals and aid stations where they could be treated. He even provided backup support when President Obama visited Indonesia in 2010.

He supported typhoon relief efforts in the Philippines — twice. For two years, he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan as a squadron commander of the Flying Tigers. While in Japan, he also assisted the U.S. Armed Forces in Operation Tomodachi to support Japan’s response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, as well as the subsequent disaster at the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant.

Over the course of his military career, Mee also spent time in Africa, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Australia, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh, and a dozen other countries.

“And if I was 22 again, I’d do it all over in a second,” he says.

A Life of Service

Needless to say, Mee’s service to our nation required years of sacrifice for him and his family. He once had to spend more than eight months away from his wife Tanna and sons John Jr., Sean and Gavin.

Even when they were together, the Mee family was often on the move. His wife and sons followed him around the U.S. to various military posts on the mainland, and when Mee was stationed in Japan for two years, his family came with him.

“My wife’s a super trooper,” says Mee, whose family relocated to Pittsburgh when he started working at Highmark — his first non-military job since college. “So far, they really like Pittsburgh. They’re enjoying being able to stay put.”

Mee and his family, who moved from the Washington D.C. suburb Vienna, VA, last September, are well on their way to making themselves at home. For one, Mee — a Chicago native — is now an avid Pittsburgh Pirates fan. His oldest son, John Jr., is attending West Virginia University this fall to study business, and his younger sons, Sean and Gavin, entered 12th and 7th grade, respectively.

Now at Highmark for a full year, Mee’s transition to civilian life is eased by the parallels he sees between his military career and his current work. “A lot of it is related to customer service,” he says. “You work with people. You try to understand their needs. Then you figure out the best way to service their needs. Whether it’s flying in somebody’s cargo, or taking casualties back during combat operations, it’s all customer service related.”

“Leading people is leading people,” he adds. “In the military, we call it ‘leadership.’ Here, we call it ‘management.’”