SYCAMORE – After spending 23 years in the Army, Sgt. 1st Class Laurie Emmer retired to Sycamore in 2005. Her husband, Michael Emmer, was also in the Army at the time and was deployed in Iraq.
“I bought this house when he as gone and I just waited for him to get out so we could settle here,” she said.
Emmer was born and raised in California and her husband grew up in Virgil and Sycamore.
“I’m still getting used to the snow,” she said with a laugh.
Shortly after moving to Sycamore, the veteran of the 82nd Airborne division got involved with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, quickly rising in the ranks to become the post’s first female commander.
She is now seeking office in the VFW’s district leadership, and she remains active in veterans causes like coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide prevention and high unemployment rates among veterans. She is also studying history at Northern Illinois University in order to make a second career of teaching.
Emmer sat down with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg to discuss her life in the Army and her retirement in Sycamore.
MidWeek: How were you selected to speak at the Veterans Day event at Sycamore High School?
Laurie Emmer: I missed a VFW meeting, but the DeKalb County Veterans Assistance Commission Superintendent Herb Holderman brought it up to my husband.
MW: You mentioned in your Veterans Day presentation at Sycamore High School that you are writing a paper about women in the infantry.
LE: Yes, I was fascinated because I have heard this discussion about trying to get women into the infantry and I realized that it has been 35 years since they integrated women into the all-volunteer Army. …I thought it was fascinating that we have been talking about it (the proposal to allow women into the infantry) for so long but it really hasn’t been a subject we have been writing about very much. It’s so controversial and so emotional, even now.
MW: How did you decide to join the Army?
LE: I enlisted in 1982. I was in college at the time and I was just fulfilling a family legacy. I was going to go in for three years and then go back to college.
MW: How were women treated in the military at that time?
LE: I didn’t really notice it (discrimination) until I went to the 82nd Airborne division. I wasn’t thinking much of it when I went in, to tell you the truth.
MW: What was it like at Airborne school?
LE: There were hardly any women there and we could really feel that we were different. I didn’t go to break down barriers or to stand out, I just thought it would be cool to jump out of airplanes. We could tell we weren’t wanted; it was an infantry school. Most women did not make it through the (jump) school. I barely made it myself. When I went to the 82nd Airborne division I was told my orders were a mistake and that I did not belong there. I just recently found out that I was one of only 20 women there. I just felt great to be a part of this great, historical division.
MW: Did you enlist with the intention of being a paratrooper?
LE: No, I heard about it from somebody I had dated and I thought, “Wow, I want to jump out of airplanes,” but when I asked about it, the recruiter said, “You can’t do that.” I asked about it in training when I was in medic school, and they said, “You can’t do that.” But I was dating someone who was in Special Forces medic training at the time, and he said, “We had women in our jump school. Don’t let them tell you that. You drop our name.” So I went back and told my cadre, and then they let me put in my paperwork but they said, “Fine, but you probably won’t make it.” There were three women in our course who put in their paperwork to go but I think only two of us graduated from jump school, and I was the only one to go on to Fort Bragg to go to an airborne slot to be able to jump out of airplanes.
MW: At what point did you become a jumpmaster?
LE: It’s something that you have to start thinking about as you go through leadership – especially if you are a female – because anyone who is a jumpmaster can bounce you out of your leadership position when you are in the 82nd Airborne division. I had a hard time getting a jumpmaster slot and there was a point where I was in a leadership role and every day I was under this threat. I always wanted to be a jumpmaster anyway. …Finally I fought and kicked and I finally got to go into the course.
MW: What is the role of a jumpmaster?
LE: A jumpmaster is a person who has the responsibility to ensure that jumpers get out of the aircraft safely, they inspect the jumpers and the parachutes before they get on the aircraft, and they also have the responsibility of checking the jumpers while on the aircraft. Their ultimate responsibility is the safety of the jumper.
MW: Did you ever parachute before you enlisted?
LE: (Laughs) No.
MW: Did you ever consider becoming a recruiter?
LE: I came up for recruiting orders but then my orders were deleted and I ended up going on a tour to Korea instead.
MW: Where have you gone on your tours?
LE: I did my first tour in the 82nd Airborne division, then I went on to Alaska for four years. I was a medic for a support company. Then I went back to the 82nd Airborne division… I went to Korea for one year, and I had to leave my kids. Then I went to Fort Benning, Ga. and worked in a hospital. That was actually my worst assignment ever because I didn’t like being cooped up in a hospital. I didn’t even get to work with patients because by then I was a sergeant first class and it was all administrative duties.
MW: How hard was it to leave your kids when you went to Korea?
LE: I did that a lot in my career. A lot of times you have to leave – sometimes a couple months here, sometimes three months there. I left my oldest daughter when she was two months old for three months – that was tough. 9/11 hit when I was in the hospital (at Fort Benning). I was working in the command section. …I went back to Fort Bragg and five months after that, I went to Afghanistan.
MW: What was it like on your base during 9/11?
LE: I had the only TV in the command section and all the high-ranking officers were there. …They put us on notice to set up an emergency operation center. …When they bombed the Pentagon, a lot of the people we worked with knew someone there. There was a lot of screaming and “Oh, my,” and a lot of crying. Then the phones started going off with orders to get the emergency operation center up now. We all knew a general who had just worked at Fort Benning who was in a meeting at the Pentagon. We knew when all the meetings were. …We had to get guards and get everything locked down. It was a tough time but we had to tell everyone to get their emotions in check because this is an emergency. …For those of us who had been in field units before, sure enough, we started to get our orders in.
MW: Where were you in Afghanistan?
LE: I ended up at Kandahar. I was on the third rotation and we saw the Rangers’ handiwork. …We were still picking up their bullet casings off the runway so aircraft could land.
MW: What kinds of casualties were you seeing then?
LE: When I went in, I think most of the casualties were Afghans-on-Afghans. We were getting two medevacs a day of those. We were getting some Special Forces casualties in because they would ambush our Special Forces. We had a big clinic with an emergency room and an operating room set up.
MW: What is the civilian equivalent of an Army medic?
LE: It’s kind of an EMT, or an EMT plus. Maybe it’s between an EMT and a paramedic. There are things that medics do that EMTs on the outside can’t do. One of the complaints that medics have when they get out is that can’t get jobs because of credentialing. They can give IVs as medics but when they get out, they aren’t credentialed to do anything on the outside (civilian world). They have to go back to school all over again.
MW: That doesn’t help much with the unemployment rate among veterans.
LE: Yes, very high. I have been to Congress three times with a group I work with to talk to members of Congress about transition and employment issues.
MW: What can you tell me about Clay Hunt?
LE: I worked with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and the first time I went on Storm the Hill (Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.) he was one of the guys I went with. He was a Marine. We were talking a lot about the (Veterans Administration) and their backlogs. He was a really nice guy. We talked about (post-traumatic stress disorder) a lot. On my second trip to Congress, I was on Facebook at 6 in the morning and (my roommate and I) were reading posts on his Facebook from his family saying that he took his life. We both said “What? What?” …He had issues with unemployment, he had trouble finding a job, he had PTSD, and he just wasn’t getting anywhere. The veteran suicide rate is still high. In fact another veteran I served with in the 90s took his life three weeks ago. It’s just not something that’s being dealt with. …That’s one of the reasons I was going to Capitol Hill to push the employment issue.
MW: What do you think is the root cause of unemployment among veterans?
LE: There are translation issues. One of the problems I had was that I was considered over-qualified. I had eight different resumes out there at one time. …On some resumes I would drop (management experience) but then they would ask, “OK, what did you do for 20 years?” I think trying to translate my time of supervising of personnel and eight ambulances, and supervising a clinic with 40 personnel and being responsible for doctors and nurses – I think that was an issue. “Well, OK, what does that bring to us in a corporation?” I was lucky I was hired in some places, but I was lucky. I think more often than not, my military time was counted against me. I have had people tell me that there’s a stigma out there about a veteran being PTSD’d out with mental illness.
MW: What are your career plans now?
LE: I enjoyed teaching when I was in the military, and I think that teaching would be something I would enjoy. I don’t think that me being a veteran would be held against me. When I do go into schools, that seems to work and I’m enjoying it so far and it’s something I can use my GI bill for.
MW: How did you end up being the commander of the VFW post in Sycamore?
LE: I was brought into the VFW and I joined it, and I started getting involved and I started getting voted up in the leadership positions and ultimately commander, which I held for two years. I am running for district junior vice-commander now.
MW: Did you ever cross paths with Gen. David Petraeus during your career?
LE: Yes, he was my ex-husband’s brigade commander in the 82nd Airborne division, so I had run across him in the past. I was in support for the unit he was commander of. He was an outstanding commander and I had utmost respect for him. …It was just so sad to hear the news.
MW: Do you find yourself personally relating to a lot of news stories about the military or events in Iraq or Afghanistan?
LE: Ah, Afghanistan – everybody forgets about it. They are winding down but I still remember the troops there. I watch “This Week” on ABC on Sundays and they still list the casualties. Afghanistan is still going on and troops are still dying there.
MW: They are dying and being maimed. Were IEDs a big factor when you were there?
LE: They were testing them out when we were there. …We had a couple people get Purple Hearts because their vehicles got hit by IEDs. …I think they perfected them in Iraq and then moved them over to us again.
MW: Do you ever miss the military?
LE: I miss it a lot. There are things sometimes you don’t miss, like when you wake up in the morning and realize, “I didn’t have to get up at 5 and run this morning.” …I miss the camaraderie and I do miss that life. I spent so long in it, at this point, it was half my life.
MW: Do you recommend a career in the military to others?
LE: It’s not for everyone. It’s really not. I think it’s a great life to have, but it’s not for everyone. My son is in the reserves. I told him, “You have been raised around this your whole life. You have seen the down sides, and you have seen the up sides. Just be sure this is what you want to do.” My oldest daughter went in for three years and she misses it.
MW: Do you have specific advice for girls or young women who are considering careers in the military?
LE: It’s a lot easier for women now than when I went in. I think over time a lot of attitudes have changed. When I went in, there was a lot more sexual harassment and a lot more resistance to women going in. Now they have regular training on how to treat women. I tell them No. 1, “You have to be able to hold your own. You can’t expect people to do things for you.” If you ask someone to do something for you, you’re not going to have respect. I have seen that happen.
MW: You must have witnessed the whole spectrum of attitudes about gays in the military during your career.
LE: Major changes! Like with women, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” reflects how society changed. People are more accepting of things. …You can go back to the 50s with (racial) integration – the sky didn’t fall. Then there was women – the sky didn’t fall. Then “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (repeal) – the sky didn’t fall.