“A Reason to Put Your Shoes On In The Morning” – An Air Force Pilot’s Thoughts on Memorial Day

Happy Memorial Day! What does everyone have planned for this weekend? As I take this time off for Memorial Day, I’ll be thinking of the service men and women who gave their lives for our freedom and safety. But I’m also happy to work with a number of men and women at HP who have spent time in the military and have shared their experiences with me. One of those is Don Zimmerman, who spent years with the U.S. Air Force before joining HP. I sat down with him for a conversation this week about what this Memorial Day means to him:

Christina Morrison: Don, tell us a little bit about your background serving our country, and what you are working on today.

Don Zimmerman: I’ve been with HP now for five years. Not long before I joined HP, I retired from the Air Force after twenty years of service. I graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1985, went to pilot training and then flew B-52s for about eight years and was deployed in support of Desert Storm during that time. Then, in the remaining twelve years, I taught and flew at the Air Force Academy, and thanks to HP I’ve been able to keep the family here in Colorado Springs, so that’s something that I’ve been real pleased about doing. At HP I’ve been able to serve Army customers in the capacity of a field sales rep for the past few years, and that really is a privilege.

Earlier today I came back from Fort Carson where I was on the phone in the CIO’s office with two service members for the infantry division that are deployed in Iraq – it’s been a real privilege to be able to work with folks like that who are coming and going from deployments.

Christina: Tell us about some of the experiences you’ve had interacting with people who find out about your involvement with the Air Force, whether in a public setting or while doing business.

Don: It happens relatively often, and I see this also in my travels throughout the country no matter where I am. When I need to show an ID, I show my military retiree ID, and whether it is a TSA official at the airport, someone behind the cash register at a retail location – they’ll look me right in the eye and say “thank you for your service,” and it is things like that that really touch you – it makes a difference.

In the last 10 years or so, we’ve seen such a dramatic increase in the deep appreciation that people that you run into day-to-day have for you. Of course we find this even with our friends – an old friend of mine, his son just graduated from the Air Force Academy and we were at his graduation party, and even there with friends that we’ve known for years, because it’s Memorial Day, they’ll say thank you for our service.

One of my friends at that event was talking to my wife about the graduates and how nice it must have been that we’ve paid for their Air Force Academy education as taxpayers so they go to school for free –And my wife looked at him and said, “It’s not exactly free – when my husband had to deploy to Desert Storm I was carrying our first child – and I wasn’t sure whether he was going to come back. So, there is a price to that education.” Those are the types of conversations that I often have, and you sense this real genuine appreciation from people that you know and those who you meet in passing at the airport or for business, just saying thanks.

Just last week, I was getting ready to board Continental Airlines, and they have the practice of letting uniformed military personnel board first, even ahead of first-class. A two-star general and her Command Sergeant Major were dressed in uniform sitting right across from me, and when Continental invited the members of service to board first, another lady sitting next to them began to applaud and she was wiping away tears. That’s something that I’ve seen in Houston, I’ve seen it here in Colorado Springs, I’ve seen that kind of thing in Denver where people will go out of the way to say thanks to uniformed personnel, and it really does make a difference.

Christina: What are you doing this weekend for Memorial Day, and what do you think we should be doing this weekend to enjoy and celebrate this holiday?

Don: A few years ago I marched in the Memorial Day parade, and that was fun because my daughter was wearing her Girl Scout uniform, and I was wearing my Air Force Uniform. That was very neat. Just waving to people, and having people stand up and clapping and saying thank you. That was a very meaningful experience.

With our family this weekend, we’ll just be getting together and enjoying a day off. I’ll also be giving my dad a call. He served for much longer than I did in support of Desert Storm – he was deployed for six months, and I’ll talk with him and remind him that I’m thankful for what he did.

When I think of ways that people can commemorate Memorial Day, just beyond the picnics and the well-deserved time off that we all need, it is really about talking to our kids and our young relatives that we come in contact with that day, just to let them know on a personal basis what Memorial Day is all about. We’re thankful for people that have put their lives on the line, and on Memorial Day we think of those who actually gave their lives and gave us the chance to sit around on a beautiful day like this and not have any fears. We don’t live in fear here in the United States, and that’s not something that you get everywhere. I think that a very short personal message, when it comes from the heart, it can make a lasting impact and can lead to a greater spirit of patriotism in the younger generation.

Christina: I certainly agree Don, as parents or teachers, teaching the next generation about what it means to be patriotic is so important.

Don: Exactly – on the front page of today’s newspaper here in Colorado Springs, it mentioned that at Fort Carson, they’ve lost 321 soldiers in the actions against Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003. That’s more than any other single place. It really hits home. When you see those soldiers wearing that 4th Infantry Division Patch, you know they really are walking into dangerous places so that we don’t have to.

I’ve gotten to know a guy on a very personal level at my church who is in a unit that will actually be deploying this Monday, on Memorial Day. Instead of celebrating, he’ will be deploying – he’s such a wonderful guy and my heart goes out to him.

Christina: Something that I’ve planned for my Memorial Day, is I’m actually attending a going away party for a close friend in the Navy. He is being relocated from Virginia Beach back out to San Diego. But they’re in a similar situation to you and your wife – when their little girl was born, he was deployed, and his wife was home alone welcoming a new life into this world. His daughter was six months old when he first met her . His wife, who was a Navy wife for 15 years at the time, has even said they were the hardest six months of her life. So, it’s not only about the sacrifice of the member who has enlisted, but also about the entire family.

Don: Absolutely – the effort is spread across the family – it really is a commitment on the part of the spouse, as well as everyone who really supports the family. There are a percentage of our troops who are single parents, so when they deploy, they have to find ways for their kids to bei raised by somebody. What a sacrifice that is – I have so much admiration for what they are doing.

Christina: I know that for me, working at HP, It has been great to get involved with a lot of events and programs to support veterans and our different military members that we’re thinking about this weekend.

Don: That is definitely one of the things that I am most thankful for. After four years at the academy and 20 years as an officer, you don’t want to go work for a company that doesn’t fulfill that deep sense of duty and mission and purpose that you’ve grown accustomed to. It’s so good that where I am in HP Federal Sales, whether it’s supporting defense contractors, who are helping to strengthen the company through the various company programs that they lead, or folks like me who work directly with uniformed military personnel, you have a reason to put your shoes on in the morning. What we’re doing is providing a better product that is measurably better in terms of its quality and durability. I love being able to speak with soldiers about how HP is equipping them to better accomplish their mission. As the CIO of the Army says every time I hear from her, “the U.S. Army cannot go to war without effective information technology,” and HP is at the very heart of that. I love the fact that I get to serve the U.S. Army after having served in the Air Force for so long.

I also love all of the philanthropic ways that we have of taking HP’s commitment to supporting our national defense very seriously – I love the fact that HP, starting in 1939, our first million dollars as a company came from our sales to the U.S. Army back in the early 1940s. I look at this as a part of my heritage now, as someone who is able to serve HP and the U.S. government. Not to mention that Dave Packard served as the assistant secretary of defense from 1970-1972 – that means something to our Army customers. We’re not just another OEM – in terms of our philanthropy, our legacy and our day-to-day interaction with the Army and DoD customers, it’s extremely meaningful work.

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Jeff Ribeira

Great interview! Thank you Christina for posting this, and thank you Don for a life of service and giving back to your country!