Schaumburg Air Force vet aims to raise profile of female veterans
Having just completed a two-year stint as commander of Schaumburg's American Legion Post 1983, Air Force veteran Cindy Byrd hopes to serve as an inspiration to women in the military and fellow female veterans to remain involved in their communities.
"I'm on a one-woman mission to put a female face on the word 'veteran,'" she said.
When Byrd signed up for the Air Force during her senior year at Chicago's Taft High School in 1977, only about 2% of military personnel were women. While that percentage is much higher now, Byrd said she wants to see the increase reflected more in membership of the American Legion and other organizations that assist veterans.
Not only do these organizations provide the camaraderie that can be lost after leaving the "biggest team in the world," but their fundraisers -- like sales of the remembrance poppy -- help support veterans' needs with an emphasis on health care, Byrd said.
Byrd moved to Schaumburg with her husband and fellow Air Force veteran Jim in 1989 to raise their young family. She later found a natural fit as a civilian employee of the village's police department, from which she retired in March 2020 after 20 years.
She said that feeling of belonging almost certainly came from her military background, which has so many parallels in the structure of a police department.
Though she'd only lived in the city of Chicago before her postings in the Air Force, Byrd said she and her husband felt an instant comfort in Schaumburg while scouting out a suburban home. And the insight on the community she gained from her time in the police department reinforced that first impression.
"I felt like I had my finger on the pulse," Byrd said.
After two years as a school crossing guard, Byrd moved into the department's records division and ultimately retired as patrol division secretary.
Her husband, who was older and served two tours in Vietnam, died in 2010. He's memorialized with a commemorative brick at Veterans Gateway Park, on the southwest corner of Schaumburg and Roselle roads.
Byrd said her three children still joke about growing up amid the "tight ship" run by two veteran parents, though the younger of her two sons did become a U.S. Marine.
In a community like Schaumburg, Byrd believes that not enough teens consider the military as a positive option for their future. For her, there had been little doubt in spite of her rarity as a female recruit at the time.
"I was the seventh of nine children," Byrd said. "College wasn't really an option for me. I wanted to do something that made a difference. ... I was active duty for 10 years and loved every minute of it."
Her husband never talked much about his tours in Vietnam, but served for years after the war before meeting Byrd when they were stationed together in the '80s. She wishes now that she had picked his brain more about Vietnam, but knows the military was ultimately a positive experience for both of them.
"I'm a very proud veteran," Byrd said. "I can't emphasize enough that it was the biggest influence on my life. Even when I got out, I wasn't ready to give it up."
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