By Maj. April McLaren, Illinois Army National Guard
When Brig. Gen. (retired) Chris Lawson retired in 2020 from the Illinois Army National Guard after 33 years, he had no idea what was in store the next 18 months.
World-wide pandemic. Marriage. New wife with colon cancer. His own life-saving liver transplant.
Yet his positivity and personal life lessons from multiple significant moments in his military service got him through.
“I believe perpetual optimism is a force multiplier,” he said. “The world is a dangerous and complex place with wicked, seemingly unsolvable problems everywhere. When problems are difficult and these solutions are wrong, it all comes down to people. Kindness, compassion, civility and gratitude matter. These things are not earned. They should be freely given to each other to get the most out of all of us.”
Lawson’s culminating military assignment was the Vice Director J5 for the National Guard Bureau in Washington, DC. Prior to that, Lawson served as the Chief of Sustainment for 3rd Army, U.S. Army Central, Chief of Staff of the National Guard Joint Staff for National Guard Bureau (NGB) and the first Chief of the Joint Staff for the Illinois National Guard (ILNG). Lawson also had multiple successful Illinois Army National Guard (ILARNG) commands with the 634th Forward Support Battalion, 66th Infantry Brigade Logistics Integration Support Team, Illinois Army National Guard Recruiting Command, 108th Sustainment Brigade, and as deputy task force commander of Task Force White Eagle of the Polish Land Forces.
As retirement approached, Lawson was a nominee for the J5 Director for the U.S. Southern Command as well as the Chief of Staff for the Army Futures Command. Understanding the time considerations for the nominations and dealing with several unresolved medical issues, Lawson retired Aug. 31, 2019.
“Chris has always been the type of leader who connects with people on a personal level and works to connect people together,” said Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, Illinois National Guard Adjutant General. “Those connections along with his talents as an innovative leader and visionary has had significant long-lasting positive effects on the Illinois National Guard.”
Upon retirement, Lawson married his soul mate, Heidi Parker. Two months later he found himself in the emergency room with a multicomponent, complex liver disease requiring a liver transplant. Before Lawson was ultimately put on a liver transplant list in January 2021, he endured weekly treatments at Walter Reed and multiple hospitalizations fighting the disease. He was hospitalized for emerging renal failure and the development of ascites, which required removing more than 10 liters of deadly fluid each week.
“As time went on, he got weaker and weaker. It was really hard on him because he’s a doer,” Heidi said. “But the biggest thing we had was a lot of love and respect for each other. We told each other, no matter what, we’ll get through it together. Our inner strength of love made us stronger and stronger.”
As Lawson fought for his life with enough mental, physical and emotional strength to be considered for a liver transplant, Heidi was diagnosed with colon rectal cancer in December 2020. This required an immediate eight-hour surgery and continued care. This also meant Heidi could not be Lawson’s primary care giver, which was a requirement to be considered for a liver transplant.
As Heidi was on the road to recovery, their family and friends provided the physical and emotional support they both required. Then just two months after Lawson was on a national transplant list, he got the call.
He grabbed his go bag with a three-hour notice of the surgery.
“I underestimated what all this meant,” Lawson recalled, as he prepared for surgery in the middle the COVID-19 pandemic. “Heidi didn’t get to go in the hospital for surgery prep or even a visit. It was a significantly emotional experience for her and (me).”
When Heidi was in the hospital, Lawson created a friends and family text chain to keep the love, support, and positive energy flowing to support her in the hospital. Then Heidi expanded these text chains just four months later to support her husband during his surgery and recovery.
As Lawson was in surgery, Heidi patiently waited for updates from the doctors, expecting an eight-hour surgery and at least two days before she could actually speak to her husband. To her surprise, the doctor called her after six hours to let her know it was a “beautiful” surgery and everything went as good as it possibly could. By the next morning, she received a Facetime from Lawson.
“All I could do was cry,” Heidi said. “His throat was raspy, but he said he just had to call to tell me he loved me. I can’t describe the elation of feelings of love that overcame me.”
During his immediate recovery, Lawson stayed over a week in the hospital with only seeing family and friends via Facetime and personal videos. Preparing for this moment, Lawson knew he was a people person who craves personal interaction. So he made a deliberate effort to learn the names, families and favorite colors of fellow patients and the hospital staff.
“They were my guardian angels,” Lawson said. “I built friendships in a week. It was beautiful and it kept me sane.”
His long-time military friends and family around the world kept him going, too. Lawson said he wanted to be private and felt vulnerable to share his story on social media. However, he decided to step out of his comfort zone and post a video about his disease, transplant and road to recovery. Over 1,000 people watched his video and provided encouraging comments.
“It was a reason to live,” he said. “It reminded me of my purpose and that my connections were intimate and meaningful.”
Maj. Travis Turner ILNG Bilateral Affairs Officer in Poland, first worked for then Col. Lawson when he was a lieutenant and Lawson a colonel. Turner said Lawson is an energetic leader who knows how to build his team while truly getting to know his people.
“The one memory that hits me the hardest, is after a flood (state active duty), he gave me a handwritten card that said ‘you’re a rock star,’’ he said. “I still have it in my office today.”
When Lawson was the first ILNG Joint Chief of Staff, he assigned then Maj. Lenny Williams, as the first Interagency and Intergovernmental Affairs Liaison in Chicago.
“He took the train up to Chicago (from Springfield) on my first day to personally give me his guidance through a white board session. Essentially, we built the plane while it was in the air for this position,” said now Col. Williams, ILARNG Chief of Staff. “He gave me the autonomy to develop and execute the strategy for the position and his vision for our Chicago partnerships.”
Williams said he appreciated Lawson’s leadership style because he gave his vision and parameters for his team to execute while keeping his focus on the long-term and strategic goals of the organization.
As he reflected on his military career, Lawson’s intimate and meaningful connections with those he served beside lead to many life lessons…
Retired Brig. Gen. Chris Lawson’s personal memories and life lessons
Where: Fort McCoy, Wisc.
Situation: I was a Second Lieutenant and acting commander of a medical company during a mission essential task list evaluation. The evaluators were from another state, loyal to units from their home state and viewed out of state units inferior. The senior evaluator was a Lieutenant Colonel. I kicked his team out of our company command post for being rude unprofessional and not qualified for the assessment. I informed my battalion and brigade commanders. Both gentlemen were upset and supported me in this assessment. We later received a letter of apology from the 47th Infantry Division Deputy Commander.
Lawson’s Life Lesson: “Stand up for what was right, support your people, and as a leader back your subordinates when they're honest, true, and selfless.”
Where: Heidelberg, Germany
Situation: Then Major Mark Jackson (now a Major General) told me he went two days without thinking about his son. It crushed him. I went to comfort him and he said he could fix this, but then said “What if my son went two days without thinking about me?” This thought was unbearable for Mark and changed him deeply.
Lawson’s Life Lesson: “This military service is hard and especially hard when you live as a civilian most of the time in the guard. As a leader, you must make time and create activities to stay connected back home so it prevents soldiers from becoming disconnected and disillusioned.”
Where: Kirkuk, Iraq
Situation: An altercation occurred at an Iraqi Army base when a Kurdish training officer disrespected an Arab trainee. The altercation escalated quickly with weapons and ammunition, so the Kurdish base commander asked for assistance from the U.S. advisor team. We arrived with 2 U.S. advisors, all with combat gear and weapons. After I assessed this was making the situation worse, I instructed the U.S. team to sling arms, take off their Kevlar helmet and take a knee. Everything stopped and all the trainers and trainees were staring at the U.S. team so we could start to negotiate a resolution.
Lawson’s Life Lesson: “Passively doing the unexpected and not trying to establish dominance is well received during a time of crisis. Smiling in negotiation lets everyone think you know what is going on, even if you don't.
Where: Ghazni Providence Afghanistan
Situation: Our coalition unit of Polish and U.S. forces were attacked by the Taliban in a large-scale complex attack. The attack included a 3,000-pound improvised explosive device (IED), RPGs, rockets, suicide bombers, and incinerator materials. The IED exploded approximately 100 meters from my building where the roof and the doors dislodged and took off hinges, while rockets and RPGs were flying and fires emerged. I ran to the joint operations center approximately 70 meters away, I narrowly missed an RPG that hit an air conditioning unit behind a company command post adjacent to my building where I was running. I took cover there for several minutes while checking for injuries. I realized I had some ringing in my ears and no physical damage to my body. I got up and started to run towards the joint operation center and a few coalition Soldiers saw me and later asked me why I was smiling during the middle of this attack.
Lawson’s Life Lesson: “It was this day, I realized that you do not decide when it's your day to die, so don’t wait. Live your days and don't just try to survive them- celebrate life and the connections you make with enlightenment, education, friendship, love and honor.”