Cheryl Walker has been a member of The American Legion for 15 years. In that time, she’s risen through the ranks to her current position as commander of the Department of Illinois’ 19th District.
And along the way, she’s kept her eyes focused on a very personal goal: starting an American Legion post on the campus of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to honor her friend and fallen Illinois National Guardsmen Shawna Morrison.
On Feb. 6, Walker saw that goal become reality with the chartering of Shawna Morrison Collegiate Post 2019. Sgt. Morrison, the first female member of the Illinois National Guard to die in combat in Iraq, was killed during an enemy mortar attack in 2004.
Morrison was studying psychology at the University of Illinois before deploying in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. She served alongside Walker in the 1544th Illinois National Guard Transportation Company.
“Shawna Morrison was somebody I admired, and I think it would be a good way of honoring her memory,” said Walker, a current member of American Legion Post 559 in Champaign. “She was a person who served her community. As long as I have been working with The American Legion … it’s been something that I’ve wanted to do. This is the best thing that I’ve ever done: using this platform with The American Legion to be able to facilitate the start of this post.”
Walker hopes the post provides an outlet for student veterans seeking to continue serving. “The university has really intelligent, bright veterans here, and I really don’t know what their footprint is in (Urbana) as far as community service,” she said. “I would really like to see the veterans here get involved with the (community’s) youth. I know what The American Legion does. Teaming them up with The American Legion will be a good opportunity for us both to do tremendous work here in our community.
“I really want to work with the other post here in town, Post 71. They do a lot of community service. I want this post to do the same thing. I want us to be able to look back over the year and say ‘We did this. We did Children and Youth.’ Whatever the passion is for the students here. I want to be able to say, ‘This is what we did. This is how we helped the community.’”
Post 2019 is housed in the Chez Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education, which opened in 2015 and provides residential and non-residential support services for military-connected students. The center regularly hosts Department of Veterans Affairs doctors, psychologists and counselors to assist disabled veterans with their needs, while providing all student veterans with career guidance through résumé writing and job interviewing classes.
“It is a privilege for the college to host the (Chez Center),” said Cheryl Hanley-Maxwell, dean of the College of Applied Health Sciences in which the Chez Center is located. “But it’s an even greater privilege to be able to allow us to host this post.”
Department of Illinois Membership Director Chad Woodburn attended the charter ceremony and said that the Chez Center agreeing to host the post “is a great partnership that hopefully will go a long way.” Woodburn also said the collaboration is one necessary for The American Legion to reach out to, and assist, younger veterans.
‘I think it’s extremely important to get on college campuses nationwide,” Woodburn said. “The younger veteran, as we are finding out, isn’t as knowledgeable about The American Legion. By getting a college campus post, it gets the word out about what the Legion is, and how we help the community and help veterans. Hopefully in the long run that will aid in getting membership.”
Department of Illinois Commander Michael Carder also was on hand for the ceremony and praised the new Legionnaires for their dedication. “You guys are going to make a difference,” he said. “What you guys are doing is setting a whole new precedent. I’m so proud of you.”
Post members include current students, area veterans and even Shawna’s father, Richard Morrison. Marisa Schultz, who lives in Effingham and served alongside Walker and Morrison in the 1544th, was contacted by Walker about joining and didn’t hesitate. “It’s in honor of Shawna,” Schultz said.
Even before volunteering to serve as Post 2019’s first commander, Schultz, 40, was already going to make herself available to serve as a mentor and leader to the younger members of the post. “During deployment I was actually one of the older females,” she said. “You had your 18-, 19-year-old girls, and I turned 25 while we were in Iraq. I’ve always been kind of the girl they go to to talk things through. And they still call.”
Mentoring also is something that 29-year-old Titus Thames plans on doing as a member of Post 2019. A current graduate student who served in the Army National Guard from 2008-17, Thames already has an undergraduate degree in community health from the University of Illinois.
“I know when I first came to college I struggled with the age differential,” Thames said. “People didn’t understand my way of thinking. And I really didn’t understand the younger kids. It was kind of a culture shock. To help someone out with that, to introduce them to people to help them feel comfortable and adjust to college, that would be something I’d be interested in doing.”
Thames said a sense of obligation toward other veterans played a part in his decision to join the post. “We all owe it to each another to be there for one another. No one’s going to care about veterans if veterans don’t care about veterans,” he said. “Veterans helping veterans: that’s the big thing. Being there for one another. And it kind of coincides with my major. Being a community of people. Benefitting from one another. Being there for one another. That’s what it’s about.”