PITTSBURGH -- When Chris Phillips’ family gets together during the holidays, there are plenty of war stories – and they are authentic.
Phillips spent six years in the U.S. Marines and is now a diversity specialist in the human resources department of PNC who recruits and hires military veterans and people with disabilities.
Being in the military is a generational thing in my family. My uncle flew combat jets in World War II. My aunt is a retired colonel who led the U.S. Army nurse corps during the Korean War. She came to my ceremony when I was promoted to sergeant and pinned on my rank. It was a great moment.
Phillips combines her military experience and passion for helping veterans to succeed in her day job and it carries over to charitable work by her family to bring holiday cheer to vets, their spouses and children.
Phillips joined the Marine Corps out of high school, beginning six years of active duty in the United States. Although never deployed overseas, she was part of the original operation to liberate Kuwait. As a certified diesel and hydraulic mechanic, she worked on equipment used for the fighter and combat jets. She was also a self-defense instructor and finished her active duty career as a squadron administrator for the executive officer, in charge of 600 Marines.
Phillips also stood out as one of the 46 of 120 women in her series who graduated from basic training.
“Being a woman in the Marines during the 1980s was unusual. Thirty years ago, we were wanted and needed, but women were seen as administrators. No one believed we would be deployed or see combat, but at the end of the ‘80s into the ‘90s, all of that changed. My group raised the bar and changed the way people look at women in the Marine Corps.”
After her active duty, Phillips went on to work for a major car manufacturer and healthcare provider. She also returned to the federal government in the Department of Labor working with senior citizens and persons with disabilities. She was hired by PNC in 2012 to expand PNC’s hiring of veterans in large part because of her experience as a Marine. She helps convey the message that the next great wave of talent is “coming out of a uniform and into a suit.” Today, PNC’s workforce includes more than 1,000 veterans.
Phillips, who was named among the top four in the country for excellence in veteran employment, is extremely active in the veterans’ community in Pittsburgh. She is on the Duquesne University Veteran’s Advisory Board, the Board of Directors for the Veteran’s Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania and the G.I. Jobs Advisory Board.
She also invites PNC’s newly hired veterans and their families to her home for Thanksgiving. There is a catch for the newest guest, though, as he or she must mash the potatoes.
With 35-50 family and friends as guests, Phillips and her family – mom, brothers and grown daughters, Tawnya and Tawsha -- serve turkey and filet mignon as the main course. With the feast, they go through 15 loaves of bread, 12-15 lbs. of potatoes, lots of traditional family dishes and minimum of eight pies – along with plenty of stories.
“Its absolute chaos. We have children under the table, but it’s the traditional holiday kickoff for our family. When you come to PNC, we talk about work-life balance and integrating those individuals who have just moved or are transitioning out of the military. A holiday meal is a great way to welcome those employees and their spouses who are new to the company and the area.”
In addition, Phillips and her family started a program called Camo Kids at Christmas in 2011. Various veterans’ organizations help to identify 1-3 wounded warrior families in need then Phillips and her family will “adopt” the children for the holiday. These are families with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or serious injuries and either cannot find work or are unable to work.
Because most organizations take care of the broader holiday staples such as meals, Phillips and her family take care of the children, and they make it much more personal. They ask the “adopted” children to write a letter to Santa and then shop for the kids’ wish list. No gift is off limits except for anything dangerous or live, like a puppy. When the children are not home, the gifts are delivered to the parents. This allows the parents to be involved and part of the holiday magic.
“It’s great to be able to provide these families with the holiday spirit,” Phillips said. “It truly is a family effort. I’ve had my mom on the hunt for a specific baby doll, my brother looking for a superhero scooter and my niece picking out snowsuits."
One of Phillips’ favorite memories is a woman with three little girls who did not decorate for Christmas since her husband had just returned from deployment. The Phillips brought them a tree and pink and purple decorations to trim it with. The mom said it brought the family together because her husband actually came down the stairs and laughed with the girls as they opened the boxes of decorations.
The idea is that the children still believe and that’s what it’s all about and why this is so important to our family. It’s the minimum we can do to give back. As a veteran and as a family with a veteran, I know it’s not enough, but the holiday pictures we get from the parents make everything worth it.
Being in the Marines has helped me recognize what I was meant to do and that is to promote and serve the veteran community.
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