ALEDO — Honoring female veterans was the theme for the Veterans Day ceremony in Aledo on Saturday with the unveiling of a female soldier statue in Armed Forces Memorial Park at the VFW following a parade through downtown.
Mercer County’s oldest living female veteran, 95-year-old Jo Lawson, was honored during the ceremony. Ms. Lawson, was sitting in the front row surrounded by family and friends when she was surprised by the honor.
“It’s just amazing. I think it’s wonderful, surprising. Because women didn’t get recognition for so long.” She said.
Ms. Lawson joined the U.S. Coast Guard when she was 23 in 1944 and went to basic training at West Palm Beach, Florida. While in the service she learned Morse code and chose to be stationed in San Pedro, California, where she served as radioman, receiving messages about ship coordinates and fallen aircraft over teletype.
In 1946, she was discharged with the rank of 3rd class radioman and married Col. Dave Lawson in 1950; Dave passed away in 2015. Prior to joining the service she received her degree and was a teacher at Northside Junior High in Aledo for 15 years.
She said while in the military she never felt discriminated against and was always treated fairly.
Mercer County High School senior Brynn Bergen was tasked by Mercer County Women for Women with interviewing Ms. Lawson, under the guise of a homework assignment.
“(Jo Lawson) has lived a life of service to her community and her country,” said Ms. Bergen.
Colonel Michelle Ryan, a 1986 Aledo High School graduate, spoke about what it means to be from a community that supports veterans. She said Ms. Lawson is her hero, and she was honored to speak about her and witness a female memorial statue in her hometown.
“I matter, and women like me. … It’s almost impossible to overstate how much it means to me as a female service member, in particular.”
Illinois 74th District Rep. Dan Swanson, R-Alpha, Lt. Nick Seefeld, Mercer County Board Chairman Carlos Sarabasa, and Aledo Mayor Chris Hagloch presented Ms. Lawson with an American flag that has flown over the state capital and a certificate of authenticity.
Guest speaker U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline, commended the small community for turning out on a brisk November day to support veterans.
Last week, Ms. Bustos co-sponsored the Deborah Sampson Act calling for measures to eradicate gender disparity in the Veterans Administration.
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“When you look at the wait times for female veterans, many times it’s much longer than male veterans because the specialists that women need.” She said.
Where there are differences in women’s health needs, the measure calls for those to be addressed just like we address the male health needs.
The bill is named after the first known female veteran who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War.
Ms. Bustos said the bill is considered one of the top priorities for the Iraq-Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“We are constantly keeping on eye on wait times for veterans.” She said wait times are improving among the six veterans clinics in her congressional district. Every two weeks her office receives an updated report on the wait times.
Ways local clinics are trying to reduce wait times include using more tele-health, expanding hours and closing later.
Ms. Bustos said it says lot about the community that the money for the statue was raised in just 16 days, as described by Women for Women’s, Mary Louck, who read a long list of individuals and businesses that supported the endeavor.
The idea to erect a female statue came from Lt. Seefeld, president of the Police Benevolent Association. He said the total cost of the statue was $3,500 plus another $2,000 to complete the project.
“I did some research and saw there’s a huge lack of female memorials," he said. "We had the space for it. Why not put us on the map?”
It was a quick process from the time he first met with the Women for Women group, who raised the funding, to the time he drove to Kellogg, Minn., to pick it up.
“We actually had the statue before we had permission from the city to put it in,” he said.
Armed Forces Memorial Park began with Lt. Seefeld who designs, plans and facilitates each memorial. Funds leftover were donated to the VFW’s Kneeling Soldier Project.