Lisle, Illinois~ “Hooah!” Jill Morgenthaler energetically erupts as a crowd of nearly 600 responds “Hooah” at Benedictine University’s annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast.
Explaining that “Hooah” is Army talk for “I got you. I understand. OK. It will be done,” Morgenthaler, a retired U.S. Army colonel from Des Plaines, encouraged the crowd “to go out and have the backs of other Americans, whether black, white, gay or Muslim.”
She recounted some of the verbal abuses she received as a woman while going through basic training in the U.S. Army.
“I was called every vulgar name in the book and I had to stand there and take it,” Morgenthaler said.
However, during a few of the more abusive tirades by her superior officers, she felt a presence behind her. Each time she sensed this presence, the abuse would stop. One day she turned around to discover that the shadowy figure was an African-American sergeant who was looking out for her and wanted to ensure she was being treated fairly.
Morgenthaler took the fortuitous relationship with the sergeant as a call for her to do the same, should she have the opportunity. One day, she offered counseling and support to a group of African-American lesbians who were facing a dishonorable discharge because of their sexual orientation. At the time, U.S. military law did not allow homosexuals to enlist, so Morgenthaler recommended they not disclose their sexuality.
“The women told me, ‘Capt. Morgenthaler, we can’t hide the fact that we are women and we can’t hide the fact that we are African-American, but we sure can lie about us being lesbian,’ and they did and went on to have great careers in the Army.
“That day I disobeyed an order, but that day I also did the right thing,” Morgenthaler said.
Morgenthaler, who is white, put her own struggles into perspective as she tried to understand the struggles of African-Americans across the nation, and particularly African-American soldiers in her command.
“I told them, ‘I don’t see you as African-American soldiers – I see you all as soldiers,’ Morgenthaler said. “They told me, ‘If you don’t see me as an African-American soldier, then you don’t understand the depths of my pain.’”
Morgenthaler warned that not talking to the other (meaning groups different than ourselves) not only creates societal disharmony, but at its worse, leads to violence. She mentioned how clashes between different racial and ethnic groups led to bloodshed during the civil rights movement and the Bosnian and Kosovar wars.
“Start the conversation,” she said.
Morgenthaler was one of the first women to train as an equal with men in the collegiate Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship program at Penn State University. She served as the first woman battalion commander in the 88th Regional Support Command, was the first woman brigade commander in the 84th Division of the U.S. Army Reserves and was also Illinois’ first Homeland Security advisor.
The King Breakfast is one of the largest events of its kind in DuPage County. A portion of the proceeds benefits the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Fund at both schools. Two Benedictine University students were honored as recipients of King scholarships, which are awarded based on a number of criteria including community service.
Benedictine students awarded a King scholarship were Maraea D. Mason, a senior Communication Arts major, of Lombard; and Sydney Van Alstyne, a sophomore Health Science major of Island Lake.
The Rt. Rev. Dismas B. Kalcic, O.S.B., of St. Procopius Abbey, offered the invocation. Musical entertainment was provided by the DuPage AME Church Choir.
Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has a branch campus in Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls more than 5,000 students in undergraduate and graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the eighth consecutive year in 2018. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.org). For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ben.edu.