The first female member of the Illinois National Guard to die in combat operations overseas was honored this weekend on the University of Illinois' Urbana campus. Shawna Morrison of Paris, Illinois was killed nine years ago this month in Iraq. Illinois Public Radio's Jeff Bossert reads this story reported by Sean Powers:
It's a packed house in the University of Illinois' Lincoln Hall Theater... the U of I's Black Chorus performs in honor of Sergeant Shawna Morrison.
SINGER: "...And as we bend our knees to pray, may we find a way to say thanks to the hero for today...."
Morrison was a student at the University of Illinois when she died. In fact, she was the first female student at the U of I killed in a military operation in any war or conflict. She majored in psychology, and planned to enter Officer Candidate School. She died in a mortar attack in 2004... one of five members of the 1544th Transportation Company out of Paris killed in combat that year.
"Nine years just doesn't feel like nine years. They say that time heals all wounds, but I'm here to tell you that it doesn't."
Brandon Tackett was Morrison's commander. Speaking during Sunday's ceremony, he says there isn't a day that goes by when he doesn't think about what happened on September 5th, 2004.
Tackett says Morrison embodied what it means to be a citizen solider.
"Soldiers like Shawna Morrison are absolutely, and ready to commit themselves to a higher cause. These soldiers serve as guiding lights to the rest of us. They are a special reminder of what really matters in life. "
U of I President Robert Easter, a veteran himself, links Morrison's dedication to serving her country to the values of the architects of the Land Grant Act, which led to the creation of the University of Illinois.
"They required that the new campuses provided training in military tactics; training that has been a part of the curriculum on this campus since our inception. Sergeant Morrison shared that land grant ideal in a sense and her commitment to duty that will serve as her enduring legacy."
Thomas Lamont attended the U of I, and is now a U-S Assistant Secretary of the Army. He says the university has a long history of students, like Shawna Morrison, serving - and sacrificing their lives -- in the military.
"Today we pay homage to Shawna Morrison. Like those whose names are etched on the pillars of Memorial Stadium, her memory will forever live long, and let us pray that this ceremony to honor a fallen member of our Illini family will be our last."
Lamont says the best way to honor those sacrifices is to care for and give opportunities to those who have served. He credits the U of I for taking the lead to offer support for students with disabilities, and moving forward with plans to build a center for wounded veterans who are in college. Speaking after the ceremony, Shawna's mother Cindy says she's overwhelmed by the tributes to her daughter.
"You know, Shawna was a soldier to us and she was our daughter, but I was amazed at all this recognition for one child when there's thousands...I mean of course we knew her, but I didn't realize the importance like this. It was humbling, really humbling, and I'm just thinking Shawna's up there looking down. "
A courtyard that's part of Lincoln Hall is now dedicated in Shawna's honor. There's a stone marker bearing her name...picture...and a short biography - a lasting memory of one soldier who paid the ultimate price.
Support Your Public Radio Station