Navy veteran Gigi Callaway of LaGrange Park has been installed as the first woman commander of the American Legion’s Fifth District Council overseeing 23 posts in the western suburbs and Chicago.
Q. What will it be like as the first woman at that level of leadership?
A. The men in the organization have been very supportive. They’re loving it. I’ve been a member of the Robert E. Coulter Jr. Post 1941 for 16 years and have been a delegate to the district meetings. I was asked to serve on the executive committee and as junior vice chair and then senior vice chair. The vote (for commander) was unanimous in May. What a wonderful feeling.
Q. What are your duties?
A. To promote our programs for youth, the community and veterans. At the Coulter Post, for example, we sponsor a Boy Scout Troop and host meetings for other scouting groups. I’d like to get the word out more for Boys State and Girls State scholarship program. The legion sponsors a week for high school juniors to go to Eastern Illinois University and form a government to see how democracy works from the ground up. We partner with the Legion Auxiliary to sponsor Poppy Days around Memorial Day, and 100 percent of the donations go for veterans’ care.
Q. As American Legion members age, how do you intend to keep the organization thriving?
A. Recruiting new members is important; we have people 20 to 90 years old. The younger members with families might want to be actively passive, to pick and choose what they’d like to be involved in, or just be informed of what’s going on. The challenge of being a veteran is also what happens to them after their time of service
Q. How did you benefit from your military service?
A. It taught me as a woman to stand up on my own two feet. To get on a plane and go to a foreign country when I was 19 years old, I learned a lot, to have an understanding of a bigger world out there. I visited or resided on six continents, including Antarctica.
Q. What did you do in the Navy?
A. There are parts of my service for the first 10 years that are classified. In the second 10 years, I helped personnel follow through on their orders, making sure deployments went smoothly.
Q. What were some of the challenges?
A. My husband was in the Merchant Marines, so when he was gone and I was deployed, we had family in the La Grange area who filled in for my son. I retired when he was 10 years old. He gave a speech for me and said, “Sometimes my mom had to go, she had to deploy, but I thank her for the freedoms I have today.”
Q. How has the role of women changed in the military?
A. It has changed so much from 1977 when I first went in after the Vietnam War. Things started opening up 10 to 15 years ago, and opportunities for women to have a successful military career are abundant. We’ll see more women generals, admirals and commandants, a reflection of what we’re already seeing. And the American Legion is embracing women and their roles, too.