SYCAMORE – After two decades of service in the U.S. Army, leading a laid-back civilian life isn’t really Laurie Emmer’s style.
She’s been spending her days, instead, breaking glass ceilings. The U.S. Army sergeant first class who served in Afghanistan took up the post as state commander of the Illinois Veterans of Foreign Affairs in 2020. She was the first woman to lead the organization that serves veterans who’ve been deployed overseas.
Emmer has also taken up leadership positions here at home at Sycamore’s VFW Post 5768 and as a representative of District 4 in her second term on the DeKalb County Board.
Leadership looks different under her guidances, she said.
“The leadership roles with the state level particularly is very time consuming – a lot of fires to put out. I never, never, for a long time considered going to state,” Emmer, of Sycamore, said. “I think a big thing for me is there’s been this attitude of, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it,’ and I thought maybe it’s time for the new crop of leaders to move up and say, ‘We can do some things different, we can keep traditions.’
“Because we feel that if we want younger veterans to be involved, then we need to change. And I really wanted to lead the way on that.”
Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Maurice Bridges Sr. – current senior vice commander of the Illinois VFW – said the people who traditionally held leadership roles in the Illinois VFW didn’t want to see someone like Emmer in charge.
He was tapped by Emmer to be her chief of staff in 2020 and said he that under her leadership he has learned to have more respect for people with varying viewpoints.
“She was the first female commander in the VFW in the state of Illinois,” Bridges said. “So you have the older types, and what I mean by that – people back in the day did not want to serve women, didn’t want to promote women.
“So I learned to have more respect for people because everybody doesn’t think the same. Just because you feel this way doesn’t mean everybody else feels the same way.”
I think a big thing for me is there’s been this attitude of, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it,’ and I thought maybe it’s time for the new crop of leaders to move up and say, ‘We can do some things different, we can keep traditions.’ Because we feel that if we want younger veterans to be involved, then we need to change. And I really wanted to lead the way on that.”— Laurie Emmer
Emmer, a medic in the Army, said that before her yearlong tenure as commander, the Illinois VFW’s use of new technology was moving at a “slow, turtle’s crawl.”
Leadership was generally resistant to change.
She planned to create new assistance initiatives, and build toward a brand that wasn’t just bingo and beer halls, she said. When she was installed as state commander in June 2020, the world was holed up inside avoiding the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead of focusing on new events, Emmer and Bridges found themselves helping veterans survive.
“We found out there were more vets in need than ever,” Emmer said. “So we focused on a statewide food drive that mostly helped communities because we thought, ‘Well, the vets are having a hard time, you know everybody else is having a hard time.’
“What we said is, ‘Listen, don’t violate anything in the governor’s order, but if there is a way you can still get out there and do our mission to help veterans in our community, let’s just be creative.’ ”
Members of the Illinois VFW, under Emmer’s leadership, delivered food and supplies to the door steps of those who couldn’t leave their homes. Financial resources were used to help those in need.
Emmer’s leadership also helped bring new technology to the VFW.
The members of the organization who’d been slow to adopt technology found themselves needing to use Zoom to meet virtually because beer halls were shut down.
Bridges, who hopes to be nominated for state commander in 2024, said he learned lessons from Emmer – and the pandemic.
He said he was happy to be part of her glass-breaking moment.
“She was a leader. She worked hard – over and above as far as I’m concerned,” Bridges said. “[She was] not just doing the minimum [but] always trying to achieve and improve the process.”