American Legion to establish post at Illinois

Vincent Lara-Cinisomo

Long before she joined the American Legion, long before she became the first woman to command the Legion’s 19th District in Illinois, Cheryl Walker knew what one of her first official acts would be.

On Wednesday night, she moved closer to accomplishing it.

At a ceremony at Illinois’ Chez Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education, the American Legion signed a charter to establish a post at the university. That post will be named in honor of the late Shawna Morrison, the first female Illinois National Guard member killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom and an Illinois student at the time of her death.

Sgt. Morrison, 26, and another member of the 1544th Transportation Company, Spc. Charles Lamb, 23, were killed on Sept. 5, 2004, in a mortar attack on their base near Baghdad. Walker served in the 1544th with Morrison and credited Morrison with helping her acclimate to military service.

Walker was 34 when she enlisted, just short of the maximum Army National Guard age.

“When I first came to the unit, Shawna was one of the first people that I had met,” Walker said. “I didn’t know anybody in 1544th, and she looked out for me. When I came there, I didn’t have my beret or anything, and she got me everything that I needed. She was just a very sweet person and so I knew when I became an officer in the American Legion, that was one of my missions. That if I ever got an opportunity to start a post, that I’d do it in her honor.”

American Legion William F. Earnest Post 559 has served Champaign-Urbana since 1925, but this new post will be based on campus and will hold occasional meetings at the Chez Center, Walker said.

“It’ll be the type of post (in which) meetings will be videotaped, and there’ll be a website (from which) notes will be sent out to veterans,” Walker said, adding that that includes some students, some alumni and veterans who have moved out of the area.

Walker said it was important to establish the post at Illinois because the arrangement is mutually beneficial.

“The university has an opportunity to do more community service in the Champaign-Urbana community and I would like to see them have a bigger footprint in the community,” she said. “Teaming up the American Legion and the University of Illinois is an awesome way for each. It benefits both the University of Illinois and the American Legion. They’re both very unique in their own right. But it gives the University of Illinois the opportunity to do more community service. Today’s veterans are sprouting up on college campuses.”

The post will be the 54th in the American Legion’s 19th district, and while Walker oversees all of them, it is undeniable that the Illinois one, named for Morrison, will have a special place in her memory.

“Shawna was very patriotic person. She was a soldier’s soldier, and she would give you the shirt off of her back. I just felt like she was very loving and kind. She had a smile on her face and she talked to me and was very welcoming.

“It’s a way to honor Shawna, a very service-oriented person, and the American Legion has some very awesome programs.”

Click here to see the full podcast transcript.

VINCE LARA: Hello. This is Vince Lara, media relations specialist at the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today, I spend a few minutes with Cheryl Walker, commander of the American Legion's 19th District. The American Legion signed a charter recently to establish a post at Illinois's Chez Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education. Cheryl, tell me about Shawna Morrison, and why you wanted to establish this post in her honor.

CHERYL WALKER: She was a soldier's soldier. She would give you the shirt off her back. And I just felt like she was very loving and kind. And when I first came to it, Shawna was one of the first persons that I had met. And I didn't know anybody in the 1544. And she looked out for me, you know? When I came there, I didn't have my brigade-- excuse me-- I didn't have my beret or anything. She took me to the supply room and she got me everything that I needed.

And she had a smile on her face. And she laughed. And she talked to me. She was very welcoming and everything. And we ended up, when we got overseas and we got into theater, we ended up being in the same sleeping area.

And she was just a very sweet person. And so I knew when I became an officer in American Legion, that was one of my missions-- that if I ever got an opportunity to start a post, that I was going to do it in her honor.

VINCE LARA: Cheryl, why establish a post at the University of Illinois?

CHERYL WALKER: The University of Illinois, no one can say that they're not a very prestigious university. And the fact that they turn out very intelligent people-- and Shawna was a very bright person-- the university has an opportunity to do more community service in the of Campaign/Urbana community. And I would like to see them leave their footprint-- a bigger footprint here in the community.

And it's a way to honor Shawna, who was a very service-oriented person. And the American Legion has awesome programs that they do. And teaming up with the American Legion and the University of Illinois is a awesome way for each. It benefits both the University of Illinois and the American Legion. They're both very unique in their own rights. But it gives the University of Illinois an opportunity to do more community service.

VINCE LARA: Cheryl, you've talked about issues that people have identifying women veterans. Can you expound upon that a little bit?

CHERYL WALKER: They're easy to recognize-- a male veteran. And my husband and I both are veterans. But they'll look at him and pass me over. They'll say, thank you for your service to him before they will say, thank you for your service to me. And so I've gotten used to it. I don't even take offense to it anymore. I'm just saying, you know, it is what it is. As many casualties that we have, they just don't seem to-- they're not comfortable with it.

VINCE LARA: Right. Let me ask you also, is there going to be a physical representation of the American Legion within the U of I someplace-- whether it's at the Chez Center or someplace else?

CHERYL WALKER: That's something that we have to meet with the University of Illinois to discuss. Because I think they're still just getting used to the idea of the American Legion's presence. Because the American Legion post here, it's going to be the type of post that meetings will be able to be videoed. People don't necessarily have to be there. They're going to have a website that you can Skype meetings. And the notes will be sent out to the veterans.

Because we have veterans who are members of this post that aren't all local. We have some students, and then we have some faculty members. And then we also have some members who have graduated-- some alumni. So it's a combination of students, veterans, and alumni.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Cheryl Walker. This has been A Few Minutes With.