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Business success with military discipline

December 2016

Doug Widdis, an NS operations service and support representative, in the OSS office at NS’ Midtown Atlanta operations building.


Norfolk Southern is recognized nationally as a Fortune 500 leader in hiring military veterans. Currently, more than 3,800 of the company’s employees are veterans – about 14 percent of the workforce. With their technical training, leadership abilities, and experience gained through military service, veterans bring skills and work traits essential to rail operations.

Doug Widdis, operations service and support representative, is one of NS’ valued veterans.

Air Force vet draws on military lessons to keep Norfolk Southern customers happy

In the U.S. Air Force, Doug Widdis worked on the flight line to maintain and repair radar systems, radios, and flight controls on high-tech fighter aircraft. Every detail counted, because any slip-up could be disastrous.

Since joining Norfolk Southern in 2008, Widdis has brought the same discipline and attention to detail to the railroad. As an operations service and support representative, Widdis plays a key role in troubleshooting day-to-day service issues and ensuring that NS meets its customers’ needs – essential to the railroad’s business success.

“We’re the first point of contact for customers,” Widdis said of OSS reps, who are based in Atlanta and manage assigned territories over a digital network system. “It’s our job to keep the customers happy, or at least let them know what we can do or when we can fix a problem. I’m interested in building a good rapport with the customers.”

Tracking the freight

Widdis conducts much of his work by computer, tracking customers’ freight over NS’ Thoroughbred Yard Enterprise System, called TYES. Using train data stored in the TYES database, Widdis and other OSS reps help ensure that rail cars moving across the network make the right yard connections for on-time delivery.

At rail yards across NS, rail cars are sorted and added to train consists according to destination. As a train departs a yard, it passes by scanners that trigger alerts in TYES if a car is missing or is added by mistake to the consist. OSS reps notify the appropriate NS employees if they spot such discrepancies, contributing to the timely and safe delivery of freight, Widdis said.    

“We track the consist of every train,” he said. “You have to keep an eye on the big picture, but you still need to make sure nothing gets forgotten or lost. Being able to multitask and pay attention to detail comes from the military background.” 

A brush with terrorists

Widdis served 20 years in the Air Force, retiring as a technical sergeant. As an avionics specialist, he worked on F-111, F-15, and F-22 fighter jets. For three to six months each year, he deployed with his units to Saudi Arabia, Italy, and Turkey to maintain aircraft at U.S. bases in support of national security operations.

In June 1996, while deployed to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Widdis was injured when terrorists detonated a 25,000-pound truck bomb outside the Khobar Towers military complex where U.S. airmen lived. The blast killed 19 and injured more than 350 American Air Force personnel. Widdis, who sustained a concussion and several stitches after being struck by a large chunk of falling concrete, initially refused treatment as he assisted more seriously injured airmen. The blast occurred around 11 p.m., but Widdis kept going until about 5 the next morning, when he finally got stitched up.

For his selfless actions, Widdis earned an Air Force Achievement Medal with Valor. “My wing commander saw me carrying people and doing first aid and helping the wounded,” Widdis said. He also received a Purple Heart for being wounded in action.

Like railroading, military service runs through generations of many families. Widdis’ father was an Air Force pilot. In 1969, when Widdis was 4 years old, his father, Lt. Col. James Widdis Jr., was declared missing in action after his plane was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War. His father’s remains were recovered and identified nearly three decades later, and, in 1996, he received a burial ceremony at the Air Force Academy Cemetery in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“I thought the Air Force was something I could make a good career out of and honor my family,” Widdis said, noting that his wife and her father also had military careers. “I thought my dad would be proud if I did.”

Like military, like railroading

After retiring from the Air Force in 2005, Widdis landed a job with Parsec Inc., one of NS’ largest intermodal partners. Widdis worked with Parsec at intermodal facilities on NS lines in the Atlanta region and in Columbus, Ohio.

“Getting the job done and getting the job done right is stressed so much in the military, and that’s stressed here at Norfolk Southern in our work.”
- Doug Widdis, OSS representative

In 2008, a souring economy that became the Great Recession led to layoffs at Parsec, and he lost his job as part of a management restructuring. Well-known at NS by then, he applied for a job and immediately was hired in central yard operations, later reorganized into the operations service and support group.

The railroad environment shares similarities with military life, which is why veterans make good railroaders, Widdis said.

“I came out of a flight line environment, which is much the same as a rail yard,” he said. “You have large, heavy objects moving around that can kill you in a half-second if you don’t pay attention. You don’t make it in the military if you don’t pay attention to detail and have the ability to follow and implement orders. Getting the job done and getting the job done right is stressed so much in the military, and that’s stressed here at Norfolk Southern in our work.”

In 2012, Widdis was a founding member in Atlanta of the employee resource group VeteraNS. The group supports veterans at NS and offers professional networking and educational opportunities for veterans and nonveterans alike. It also takes part in community events to raise awareness that NS actively recruits veterans and cares about the issues faced by service members and their families.

“We’re looking for community outreach that looks good on the company and gives us something to do – a purpose beyond work,” Widdis said. “That’s a good thing to see happening.”