For retired Brig. Gen. James Schroeder, service before self was instilled at a young age.
“When I was growing up, most of the people my age knew someone who had served in World War II or had brothers and sisters in Vietnam,” the Westmont native and Downers Grove North High School alum said. “I remember my dad telling me if we didn’t step forward and do this, who would? So that kind of planted the seed early.”
Schroeder became intrigued by the idea of flying planes after watching the movie “Airport” at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove when he was about 10.
Years later, he would join a Downers Grove-based Civil Air Patrol cadet squadron to take flying lessons. He paid for the lessons using money he earned while working for the local news agency.
“After paper routes as a kid, I started at age 12 putting sections together for the Sunday paper … later driving the latest editions to the stores and houses of paper route kids. They trusted us driving their new vans as 16-year-olds, [so I] learned trust and responsibility early,” Schroeder said.
After two years at the College of DuPage, he transferred to Western Illinois University.
“I came back from WIU every Friday, had flying lessons on Saturday and then delivered just over a thousand Sunday papers before resting and driving back for classes on Monday,” Schroeder said. “The pay was 12 cents a copy and they were thrown into driveways along my given route. Easy dough to pay for the lessons and the planes we rented. A couple of times the owner let me take one of his planes to school in Macomb. That was cool and a welcome break after the grind of classes during the week.”
After graduating from Western Illinois University with a Bachelor of Science in industrial technology in 1981, Schroeder received his commission as a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Officer Training School the following year.
“I served on active duty for just over seven years, then transitioned to the Air National Guard,” Schroeder said.
He was hired as an American Airlines pilot around the same time.
“Service in the air guard required me to blend the two schedules together,” Schroeder said. “Luckily, the airline worked well with the military, and although not easy, the candle always burned at both ends.”
Early in his military career, Schroeder assisted in the initial setup of the aerial refueling training operation at NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen in Germany. His involvement helped pave the way for the ongoing rotation of Air National Guard refueling units to the base.
During Operations Desert Shield/Storm, he was recognized as accumulating the most flying hours of any member in the expeditionary wing.
“It was pretty exciting flying over Desert Storm. But also kind of a shock. You’d be there having stuff shooting up at you in the air and two days later you’re home,” Schroeder said. “It was kind of like getting on a merry-go-round and doing a couple of spins and getting off again.”
He racked up hundreds of missions during his career.
“Local flights [were usually] for training and we did occasional deployment trips depending what the military needed to do around the world,” Schroeder said.
Additionally, he flew Combat Air Patrol sorties in support of Operation Noble Eagle and deployed to fly combat support missions for Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
In 2007, Schroeder became chief of staff for the Illinois Air National Guard, where he was responsible for assisting in command, control and operations of all plans and programs for more than 3,000 Illinois airmen located in Peoria, Springfield and the Scott Air Force Base.
“I got qualified to carry out numerous activities at the state and national levels,” he said.
During that same time, Schroeder was assigned as the interim deputy director of operations at NORTHCOM/NORAD at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“I worked directly for Gen. Frank Grass, who later became chief of the National Guard Bureau and Joint Chiefs of Staff member,” Schroeder said.
In 2010, then Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn appointed Schroeder as the assistant adjutant general for air for the Illinois National Guard, completing the term of retiring Brig. Gen. John P. Hughes, which ended in 2011.
“The biggest thing I worked on with Gov. Quinn was getting the $38 million funding and groundbreaking going on the new Lincoln ChalleNGe Academy in Rantoul,” Schroeder said. “Our Illinois Air National Guard is in charge of the Challenge program, a 22-week course to help at-risk youth or dropouts get back on track and obtain a GED.
“It is one of my favorite things the National Guard is involved in and I’ve been there to visit many times over the years.”
He also accompanied Quinn to the Army National Guard Training Area in Marseilles when the president of Poland visited on a side trip from the NATO Summit in Chicago in 2012.
“He came in for a tour of the training base as Illinois is a partnership state with Poland for military/civilian cooperation,” Schroeder said.
After moving his way up the ranks to brigadier general, Schroeder retired in 2013. The married father of three retired this past July from American Airlines, where he spent almost 35 years.
James P. Homan, retired Lt. Col. of the U.S. Air Force and the Illinois Army National Guard, got to know Schroeder when they served together at the Illinois National Guard’s joint force headquarters.
He called Schroeder “forever my lifelong friend, mentor and boss.”
“He proudly shaped minds and souls as he worked to make the world safer,” Homan said. “Gen. Schroeder values loyalty, honesty and authenticity in his relationships. Gen. Schroeder has an amazing sense of humor and a strong laugh. His wit is razor sharp. He is known to say a subtle thing in hopes of helping you see a new perspective.
“He believes in autonomy and dignity of all and in a person’s right to choose the life they want. He is fiercely independent and private, yet always there for those who need him. He loves his many friends. He worries about them, roots for them, protects them, suffered for them, forgave them and always keeps loving them.”
Schroeder is happy to have spent his career in aviation.
“I always thought, ‘It beats working for a living,’ ” Schroeder said. “If you do something you like, no matter what you’re doing, it’s not really work. And you get the best office window of anybody basically.”
Now a Geneva resident, Schroeder keeps busy these days by spending time with his wife, Beth, and their two grandchildren. He continues to serve in volunteer organizations including the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a Department of Defense organization, and Mission: Readiness, a division of the Council for a Strong America.
“I’ve been very fortunate and managed to have a lot of fun over the years,” he said.