'A true patriot': Northwest suburban Army vet Jill Morgenthaler dies
Decorated Northwest suburban veteran Jill Morgenthaler -- who was among the first women to enter Army boot camp and later had a dramatic staredown with Saddam Hussein -- died unexpectedly Saturday while vacationing in the Dominican Republic, family and friends said.
An avid scuba diving enthusiast, Morgenthaler, 64, of Mount Prospect, was on a group trip when she returned to the boat, became sick and fainted. She was unable to be revived, said her daughter, Jamie Chambers.
Family members suspect Morgenthaler may have suffered a heart or circulatory problem, since she experienced a pulmonary embolism 15 years ago. Her cause of death is still pending an autopsy.
Morgenthaler, who retired as an Army colonel after more than three decades of active and reserve duty, was one of 83 female cadets to arrive at boot camp at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, in 1975 as part of the inaugural class of women in the Army, according to her online biography.
She rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the first woman battalion commander in the 88th Regional Support Command, and later the first woman brigade commander in the 84th Division. She was awarded the Bronze Star in 2004 after serving 10 months in Iraq, and upon retirement in 2006, the Legion of Merit.
"Colonel Morgenthaler devoted her life to helping others be all they can be," said U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a fellow Iraq War Army veteran from the suburbs and friend of Morgenthaler. "A true patriot, she was a leader and decorated officer who knocked down barriers in the military and motivated a generation of women through her service and her inspirational speeches."
A common anecdote in those speeches was the time Morgenthaler was handling press operations during the trial of Hussein. The shackled former Iraqi dictator was leaving the courtroom when he began to stare at her. She stared back, until he finally averted his eyes, and shouted in Arabic, "Kill her."
Morgenthaler came from a military family that often moved around the country -- her dad was a career Marine officer who served in Vietnam -- and she ended up going to seven different schools before attending college at Penn State.
But it was during the height of the Vietnam War -- while the family was living in New Hampshire -- that sister Terry Morgenthaler said she realized "there was a very special person in my family."
She recalled an elementary school assembly that began with the national anthem. No one except Jill, then in eighth grade, stood up.
"I looked behind me and I saw my sister rise and put her hand over her heart. She stood there during the entire time," Terry Morgenthaler said. "She was never one to be a slave to what the trends were. She was such a solid citizen and a true patriot."
Her military career took her to Germany and South Korea in the 1980s, and Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, when she earned a humanitarian service medal for helping to resettle Kosovar refugees.
She worked for Argonne National Laboratory for 14 years in public affairs, community outreach and as assistant division director and emergency response manager.
In 2005, she became the first woman to run Illinois' homeland security department under then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Making her first run for public office in 2008, Morgenthaler was the Democratic challenger to Republican Peter Roskam for the 6th Congressional District, in which she won 42 percent of the vote.
But it was during that unsuccessful campaign that she "discovered her voice," her sister Terry said.
Kitty Kurth, Morgenthaler's former campaign spokeswoman, said after the campaign she talked about going on the international speakers circuit to tell her story. Morgenthaler went on to give keynote addresses and seminars on leadership, and in 2014, wrote "The Courage to Take Command: Leadership Lessons from a Military Trailblazer."
"When we started working together when she was a newbie candidate for Congress, she was fine, but I watched her through the course of the campaign get better and better," Kurth said. "During the campaign she saw how effective her story could be to motivating people, then she wanted to build on that."
Morgenthaler, who was also president of the National Speakers Association Illinois and a member of the National Speakers Association and Toastmasters International, had a slate of speaking engagements scheduled through this year.
"I got to live my vision of saving lives and bringing freedoms, whether it was fighting communism in (Korea and Germany), whether as a peacekeeper in Sarajevo or facing down (Hussein) in Iraq," Morgenthaler said in a 2013 TEDx Talk, "Fake It 'Til You Make It," which now has some 54,000 online views. "It's your turn. What is your vision? Find your vision. Share your vision. Lead with your vision."
Morgenthaler and her husband Kerry moved to Des Plaines in 1991 where they raised their two children. After major floods in 2008 and 2012 near their Big Bend Drive neighborhood, the couple relocated to Mount Prospect. She was a member of St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Des Plaines, where she sang in the church choir.
"We called her a superwoman," Chambers said. "She jumped full on into anything she remotely cared about."
Funeral arrangements are pending.