Military Trailblazer: Col. (Ret.) Jill Morgenthaler

Military Trailblazer, Col. (Ret.) Jill Morgenthaler, discusses what she has learned as a leader in her 30 years in the U.S. Military. She shares stories of courage, the adversity she faced as a woman in a male-dominant environment, and the balancing act of being a great leader in her new book, The Courage to Take Command: Leadership Lessons from a Military Trailblazer. We revisit the conversation.

Col. Morgenthaler spent five years on active duty and 25 years in the Army Reserves. She has received two Humanitarian Service Medals, the Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit. In 2005, she was appointed Illinois Deputy Chief of Staff for Public Safety and Illinois Homeland Security by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. In 2008, she was the Democratic nominee for Illinois' 6th Congressional District, losing to Republican Peter Roskam. Col. Morgenthaler lives in Mount Prospect and travels the country as a public speaker. She is married to Kerry Chambers and has two adult children.

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Read an excerpt from her book.

There aren’t many kids who get to say that one of their parents is a spy. It’s the stuff of television shows and movies and games kids play with each other. But for my father, it was a career. He was an infantry officer who conducted military intelligence operations for the United States Marines at the Pentagon. I thought his job was the coolest thing ever.

He would disappear on secret missions that he never told the family about. Even my mother didn’t know where her husband was going or what he was doing when he got there, and she was supposed to just deal with that kind of uncertainty until he showed up again. For her, I’m sure it was nerve-racking. Although I missed my father when he was gone, I didn’t worry—I was too naive to realize the dangers involved, and young enough to have a very romanticized view of what spy work was all about.

I imagined him as one of the dashing heroes on my favorite TV shows and movies: The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, Get Smart, and of course James Bond. More likely, my dad was doing research and analysis, but in my mind, he was calculating angles so a bullet would ricochet off a bottle and whiz right past a villain’s ear, scaring him into spilling the secret code needed to defuse a bomb about to go off in a theater.

There were, of course, pluses and minuses for me with a Marine officer for a dad. The first minus was that he missed my birth because he was off fighting in the Korean War. Luckily, I don’t remember that. What I do remember is that I had a sheltered life growing up on military bases. All our needs were covered, and we didn’t socialize with nonmilitary kids.

Many military wives wore their husband’s rank, and bases were well segregated—officers with officers, enlisted men with enlisted men. Our housing was separated according to this hierarchy, so I could only socialize with other kids whose fathers were around the same rank as my father’s, and it translated to a certain snobbery. The wives of colonels looked down on the wives of majors, and so on. My parents weren’t like that, though. I remember going to the beauty parlor after my father had been promoted to major, and the ladies in the shop asked me who my mother was.

“Joyce Harvey Morgenthaler,” I told them.

“She’s the nicest woman here!” one of the beauticians exclaimed. “She never treats us badly because our husbands are enlisted.”

The other ladies nodded. I was very proud of my mother that day, and it taught me something about the kind of person I wanted to be—the kind who would make people want to speak enthusiastically about me behind my back.

I was never much of a girly girl growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Luckily, both my parents were feminists and never expected me to conform to society’s “rules” for girls. But as parents, their gender roles were pretty standard: He barked out the orders that she followed, and if I wanted emotional support, I’d better talk to my mom, because my dad wouldn’t put up with any feelings. “Suck it up” was the general theme.

“Daughters of Marines don’t cry!” he would tell me. Later, it became “Daughters of Marine colonels don’t cry!”

And Dad was never wrong.

Except that one time.

I was about 14, and we were sitting at the dining room table for dinner, with the television in the background showing the rerun of a boxing match. Later, my dad mentioned the winner of the match—except he named the wrong guy.

“He didn’t win,” I said.

“Of course he did!”

“But . . . I just watched it on television. The other guy won.”

“It’s in the newspaper,” he said gruffly. “Go to the living room and go get the paper and look it up and you’ll see I’m right. GO LOOK.”

I turned to the sports page, and I was terrified . . . because I was right. I knew how to deal with my father when I was wrong, but how was I supposed to break the news to him that he was about to lose his always-right streak?

“WELL?” he boomed from the dining room in his Marine voice. “WAS I RIGHT?”

“No,” I said in the tiniest voice I could manage. “I was.”

I looked down at my feet as I brought in the newspaper. He grabbed it. For a moment, his face was serious, and then he burst out laughing. From then on, we were allowed to say that Dad had been wrong only once in his life.

That’s why it was confusing to me when he told teenage me, “You’re going to go further in life than I ever did.”

Dad was wrong only once, so . . . could it be true? Read the rest of Chapter 1 here.

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