Early On, Ret. Col. Jill Morgenthaler ‘Worked Twice As Hard For Half The Recognition’

By Jennifer Weigel
Chicago Tribune.


“Comedian” and “Colonel” aren’t typically words one would use in the same sentence. But when it comes to describing Jill Morgenthaler, no other two will do.

“I always wear lipstick, because I look like a boy otherwise,” said Morgenthaler, 60, whose short red hair is almost as bright as her very purple lips. “Hey, who says you can’t be fashionable in the military and still be a great leader!”

The daughter of a Marine (the late Col. Wendell P.C. Morgenthaler Jr.), she signed up for boot camp with the U.S. Army in 1975 while she was pursuing a degree in economics at Penn State University. She graduated from college and boot camp in 1976 and was sent to Korea as a second lieutenant in 1977.

“I had to work twice as hard for half the recognition,” recalls Morgenthaler, who retired in 2006. “My dad would tell me to ‘fake it till you make it.'”

“Any time I faced a man telling me I couldn’t do something,” she says, “I thought to myself, ‘OK, well, not only do I have to do it, but now I have to do it better than him. I was as green as they get, but I held my own.”

Morgenthaler spent five years on active duty and 25 years in the Army Reserves. She has faced combat zones in Bosnia and Iraq, and has received two Humanitarian Service Medals, the Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit. She also was the first female U.S. Army military intelligence commander in the DMZ (the demilitarized zone) in Korea and Germany, and became the first female battalion commander in the 88th Regional Support Command and the first female brigade commander in the 84th Division.

In 2005, Morgenthaler was appointed Illinois deputy chief of staff for public safety and Illinois Homeland Security adviser by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. In 2008, she was the Democratic nominee for Illinois’ 6th Congressional district, losing to Republican Peter Roskam.

Today, she travels the country from her home in Mount Prospect, Ill., speaking about leadership, and has a brand new book, “The Courage to Take Command: Leadership Lessons from a Military Trailblazer” (McGraw-Hill).

She and her husband of 28 years, Kerry Chambers, have two children, Neal, 25, and Jamie, 21. The following is an edited conversation.

Q: What do you think describes good leadership?

A: You really need to know your team and recognize people’s skills. There was a soldier when I was a second lieutenant in Korea, we called him “Pee Wee” and he was kind of a troublemaker. I had written him off, and I remember the first sergeant coming to me and saying, “We’ve got this big project, let’s give it to Pee Wee,” and me going, “Are you nuts? He’s a goofball!” He said, “We need to give him a chance.” And Pee Wee did that job better than any of us would have; he just turned around. And that’s when I realized he was a brilliant young man, but when he’s bored he gets in trouble. So I couldn’t let him get bored. I realized I can’t write people off. I’ve got to recognize, and then use, their abilities.

Q: What’s the best advice your dad ever gave you?

A: Of course there’s “Fake it till you make it,” but I think the most important thing my father taught me was his example. Being a Marine, he was a very funny and caring officer. I like to think that’s my legacy, too, as an officer, of being funny and kind, and you don’t think of people in the military in those terms, but that’s who he was and that’s who I am.

Q: How hard was it to get men to listen to you in the military?

A: Oh, every day was a frickin’ fight. I found myself almost hiding in the office. I didn’t want to go out because it was another confrontation. Then I realized one day, “I have to fix this.” So when the next soldier didn’t salute me, I made him stand there and salute for about 10 or 15 minutes, doing it over and over and over. This was 1977. I never was messed with again.

Q: Were you ever sexually harassed?

A: When I started in the military, it (sexual harassment) was accepted as normal. It happened every day. Now there’s an awareness out there, but until the military starts prosecuting some of the commanders who are letting it take place now, it’s not going to go away. The sexual assault and the harassment that goes on is because the top down is either permitting it or not being watchful for it. When you see injustice, and that can be discrimination or harassment or racism or sexism, stop it. Don’t let it happen, because that destroys a team.

Q: Have you had women in the military thank you for what you’ve done?

A: Yes. In Iraq in 2004, I went to the mess hall and I saw some young second lieutenants sitting, so I went and joined them. After talking to them for a while, when I got up to leave, one of them said, “Thank you ma’am. I’m going to stay in.” And I looked at her and said, “Why were going to get out?” And she said, “I didn’t think I could be feminine and be an army officer, too.” So I really felt that I was meant to sit down that day with them and show them that you can be a woman who wears lipstick and still be a great leader in the military.

Q: Do you think women should be on the front lines of combat?

A: Oh, totally. The argument that comes up is, “Well, they can’t meet the standards,” but the standards are based on a man’s body, with big shoulders. But if a woman can meet the standards by carrying things on her waist, then she could do the job.
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I had no idea how strong my legs were, and I could carry everything I needed with the strength of my legs. They’re finally removing almost all the bars (for women to fight on the front lines). They’re making the transition now, and it should be complete by 2016.

Q: What lesson did you learn after losing the election for U.S. Congress?

A: I was shocked, even though the numbers were against me, because I really thought I was the better person. But I realized, “OK, this isn’t what I’m meant to do. There is something else I’m meant to do.” I couldn’t get job interviews because I’d worked for Gov. Blagojevich, (and) when he went to prison, we were all guilty by association. But what I could get were speaking gigs. People kept hiring me to speak, and then people asked me to blog on leadership. Then I realized, “I love what I’m doing!” I’m a speaker now and a writer. So sometimes our lives take these turns and things don’t work out, but maybe that’s because something better is coming.

Q: What advice do you have for people who are having trouble choosing a career path?

A: Invest in yourself. I took business courses, I took an improv class over in Schaumburg (a suburb of Chicago), and whenever I had the money, I took a course. If you don’t know what you want to do, then try things. Hang in there, your life is going to make sense. But for some of us it might take a while.

Q: How do you relax?

A: I want to scuba dive (around) the world. I’ve (dived at) about every shipwreck in Lake Michigan from Gary up to Milwaukee. I’ve done Hawaii and I’ve done Puerto Rico. When I dive, I feel like I’m back with nature. I’m not worrying about anything. I’m so rarely mellow in my life, and that’s when I just take a deep breath and I am at peace.

Q: Do you feel like a hero?

A: We (soldiers) were misfits before 9/11. After 9/11 we became heroes again. One of the best moments in my life was the day after 9/11, and I was up in Waukegan in uniform with my unit and nothing was happening, so I said, “Go home, be with your families.” I went to go pick up my kids in elementary school and I walked into the hallway; children saw me from the classrooms and they ran out, I almost cry when I tell this story, they ran out to get my autograph without permission. Some kids missed their bus. I had to take some kids home. That’s when I thought, “It’s a different world.”

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