C-U to pay tribute to slain soldier who 'wanted to make a difference in the world'
In her front yard outside her Paris home, Cindy Morrison leans over and pulls a weed from the memorial garden her family has created for her daughter, Sgt. Shawna Morrison, forever 26 years old.
It's a front-lawn garden she has carefully tended. A display case inside the house also shows memories of her daughter, a bright, athletic and caring University of Illinois student who lived in Champaign and worked at Radio Maria restaurant.
Sgt. Morrison died in battle in Iraq when a mortar hit her base in 2004. She was a member of Paris's 1544th Transportation Company, serving in communications. Spc. Charles Lamb, 23, of the 1544th also was killed, and 15 other soldiers from the Paris-based unit were injured in the mortar attack.
The Paris unit endured more than 100 mortar attacks. Five soldiers died, and 32 earned Purple Heart awards, then-company commander Brandon Tackett said at the time.
At her funeral in Paris, speaker after speaker praised Sgt. Morrison's life. Bagpipers lined the streets.
But the soldiers she deeply cared for weren't there.
"All her fellow soldiers were deployed. They didn't get to go to the funeral," says the sergeant's younger brother, Allan.
Paris has several memorials to Sgt. Morrison, including a street and a plaque at the National Guard Armory.
Today, the university she attended will have a major tribute to Sgt. Morrison with a military procession from the UI Armory to newly restored Lincoln Hall, where a plaque will mark her life for decades to come.
Sgt. Morrison was unique in the history of Illinois' flagship university.
A psychology major who made the Dean's List, she was the first full-time UI female student to die in combat and the first female National Guard soldier from Illinois and from the entire country to die in combat, according to A. Mark Neuman.
Neuman, a Champaign native who spends a lot of time in Washington as a retail industry consultant, never met Sgt. Morrison. But he grew up with a respect for American soldiers, who liberated his father from a concentration camp in 1945.
Neuman spearheaded the tribute to Sgt. Morrison after he realized that she was unique in several ways — and that Champaign-Urbana had never constructed a tribute to her because she was often listed as living in Paris.
In fact, Sgt. Morrison was a full-time student at Parkland College and then the UI, and she often worked two jobs here in Champaign, Neuman notes.
She had already put in her years of service when at 25 she re-enlisted, in full knowledge that she could be send to a danger zone.
The Iraq/Afghanistan campaigns were the first major overseas missions for the Army National Guard since World War II.
Family members, parents Rick and Cindy and brother Allan, remember how Sgt. Morrison, barely older than her National Guard "kids," felt empathy and responsibility for them.
Before her deployment, the family was at a restaurant when an older woman talked to Sgt. Morrison and told her "I need you to promise to take care of my boys."
A moving letter to a grandparent reveals the depth of responsibility she felt. Sgt. Morrison discusses her worries for them after a mortar attack — she would later die in such an attack.
"We had a couple of mortar attacks yesterday. Two were injured ... I hope the soldiers are okay. ... I feel as though our company is unlucky," she wrote.
"But maybe it is because we are that good! We take all the missions they give us no matter the situation. We face whatever they throw at us. I am proud of our soldiers, so many are so young."
She also cared about the locals in Iraq, her mother said.
Neuman told UI administrators he had discovered that Sgt. Morrison was the first female student and soldier at the university to die in combat operations — ever. (The News-Gazette contacted Lt. Col. Randall M. Epperson in the Office of the Secretary of the Army Manpower and Reserve Affairs, who verified Sgt. Morrison's unique status.)
In turn, the university stepped up with the plaque and a scholarship program that Neuman would like to see grow through donations.
President Robert Easter, himself a veteran, was moved by Sgt. Morrison's tragic sacrifice.
"Sadly, we live in a world where it is sometimes necessary to resort to conflict in defense of our nation, and the saddest consequence is that young lives are cut tragically short to protect our freedoms," he said in an email.
"Their sacrifice should never be forgotten, and I'm deeply grateful to Mr. Neuman for ensuring that Sgt. Morrison will be forever remembered by the generations of students whose lives have been touched by her service."
Neuman said the Lincoln Hall plaque will be in a spot where Sgt. Morrison, a member of the College of Liberal Arts and Science, would have frequented.
"In the north courtyard (of Lincoln Hall), she would have passed through to take classes there," he said. "Lincoln Hall is the crown jewel of the campus.
"The courtyard is sunny in winter — a spot where LAS students can take a break and read about what Shawna did for her country."
In Paris, Cindy Morrison tends memorials of her daughter.
She says her daughter was a catalogue of admirable traits: "intelligent, kind, responsible, giving, almost always upbeat."
"Shawna wanted to make a difference in the world," through psychology or her service, her mother says.
She followed a family tradition of service that includes the sergeant's father and grandfather.
But the collection in her house is a memory of Sgt. Morrison's life in full, not just her military career.
Sgt. Morrison ran middle distances in track at Paris High School. The school's yearbook indexes her in the French club, debate team and band as well.
Working in the food industry in Champaign, her mother says, Sgt. Morrison was a good friend who would take shifts for her co-workers at Radio Maria.
Pamela Crews, a co-worker at Radio Maria, helped raise more than $10,000 for a Shawna Morrison scholarship in 2004.
Crews says there were many sides to her friend's personality: "She was the kind of woman you look at and think, 'Army? No way!' She was as girly a girl as there ever was. She was extraordinarily nice and often seemed like something of a scatterbrain, although she was incredibly smart.
"(Sgt. Morrison) had a big, big heart, loads of friends, was always up for an adventure. She was fun and she was funny. She also did what she needed to do."
Letter from Sgt. Morrison
"We had a couple of mortar attacks yesterday. Two were injured. A couple of mortars hit our shower and latrine. I hope the soldiers are okay. They weren't one of ours for once. I feel as though our company is unlucky. But maybe it is because we are that good! We take all the missions they give us no matter the situation. We face whatever they throw at us. I am proud of our soldiers, so many are so young. Barely legal to drink, fresh out (of) high school. The kids are so eager to do their job and they do it so well, we actually are requested for many missions because of our reputation to give 150% to everything, and we complete all missions. ... We work so hard. I have to wonder if all this hard work will take it(s) toll. I think I know the answer. We are strong, and close, and we are a family. We will make it through anything."
Sgt. Shawna Morrison, in a letter to a relative, about her concerns for fellow soldiers, "kids," on the Iraq base where a mortar attack later killed her
If you go
Families are encouraged to watch an extremely rare military procession today in honor of fallen Sgt. Shawna Morrison of Champaign.
Members of Morrison's Paris-based Illinois National Guard unit, University of Illinois ROTC students and a military band will start the procession about 2:30 p.m. today at the UI Armory, 505 E. Armory Ave., C.
The group will head east toward the UI Library and enter the UI Quad.
A. Mark Neuman, who helped organize the tribute, said good views can be had from in front of the Quad's southeastern buildings, Foreign Languages Building and Davenport Hall.
At 3 p.m., a plaque honoring Sgt. Morrison will be unveiled in a courtyard at Lincoln Hall, 702 S. Wright St., U.
"It's something that families will rarely have an opportunity to see," Neuman said.