By Paul Wood
URBANA — Newly elected Cheryl Walker is the first female commander of the American Legion’s 19th District and, with husband Robbie Walker, who had the position earlier, the first couple to have headed the district.
She said she’ll try to get the best out of the 53 posts in the district, “each one unique,” and stress the four pillars of the American Legion: veterans affairs and rehabilitation, national security, Americanism and services for youth.
The American Legion is celebrating its 100th anniversary, she noted.
Since about 1925, American Legion William F. Earnest Post 559 has served Champaign-Urbana.
The post was named after the first casualty from Champaign in World War I.
Walker wants more recognition for female veterans as well as better facilities. She notes that most centers for veterans have almost no quarters for women.
“We all served together,” she said.
And rehabilitation has a personal meaning for her after an injury from a mortar attack in Iraq in 2004. She still lives with it.
“Loud bass music can give me a seizure,” she said.
“I’d like to have other veterans get the help I did,” she said. “I am the face of PTSD.”
Walker is efficient and appears confident — in part because she is dedicated to the Legion and has a vision of its future.
She had an unorthodox entry into the military, joining at the last chance, at 34, when she already had children. She was inspired by her husband’s service.
He has recently retired from the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs in Urbana.
She was a member of the National Guard’s Paris, Ill.-based 1544th Transportation Company, which shipped out to Fort McCoy, Wis., in 2003 and to Iraq two months later. Cheryl Walker was in the most dangerous parts of the early years of war in Iraq.
So dangerous that, on the second day she was there, the mortar hit her transportation base, wounding her.
“Invisible wounds,” she said, adding that she has a traumatic brain injury. She prefers to be with her husband when she goes out.
“Civilians don’t know these things,” she said.
The 1544th Transportation Company suffered heavy losses overseas, including mortar and IED attacks.
Five from the company lost their lives: Sgt. Shawna Morrison of Paris and Champaign and Spc. Charles Lamb of Robinson, killed in a mortar attack on their base; Sgt. Ivory Phipps of Chicago, killed soon after the unit got to Iraq; Spc. Jessica Cawvey of Mahomet, who died when a bomb went off next to her truck; and Spc. Jeremy L. Ridlen of Maroa, who was killed by an improvised explosive device.
The Legion has always tried to support military personnel not only at home but in action, she said, including with safety equipment.
For instance, Humvees in Iraq and Afghanistan were reinforced against attack with some Legion funding.
“The principles of the American Legion are the best form of patriotism and commitment to honor,” the district’s new leader said.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.