Stephanie Gerber knew while growing up on the family farm in Arvada, Colorado, she wanted to see the outside world. Her vehicle to get there was the U.S. Army.
“I wanted to travel. I wanted to see the people,” Gerber said. “I just developed a love for the world and knew if I joined the military, I would be able to serve my country and go all over the world.”
After nearly 27 years of service and multiple tours in Operation Desert Storm, Iraq and Jordan, Gerber and her family moved to Amherst County from Midlothian last year. While developing relationships with the Amherst community, she became the first female member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9877, which immediately made her feel welcome.
“I’ve really enjoyed it,” said Gerber. “There is that special camaraderie. You do care about your comrades in arms.”
Taking part in Post 9877 with her husband, John Neblett, and her son, Jack, who also joined, she said she is proud to be the first woman to join and hopes many more will follow in her footsteps.
“They do great work,” Gerber said of the Amherst-based group. “I strongly encourage anyone in the community to join.”
Gerber graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in anthropology through a military scholarship with the ROTC, taking advantage of an opportunity she said she couldn’t get anywhere else. She attended Airborne School and was stationed in Germany before taking part in the Gulf War, where she met her husband.
“The first 90 days, there were 3,000 men and 11 women in our division,” Gerber said. “We were the first division who made contact with [Saddam Hussein’s] forces. You prepare for death, this great battle, all these emotions … it’s the unknown … you trusted buddies. And you just keep moving forward.”
She remembers traveling across the desert with minimal supplies and the three months without showers or bathrooms. After about 10 months, she went back to Germany and later worked at a medical dispensary and various other jobs.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, she was doing sit-ups while getting ready for a physical exam in Midlothian when she watched news coverage of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“Our leadership has done an amazing job of making sure nothing like that happened again,” Gerber said during an interview on the 19th anniversary of the event.
Having joined the Army Reserves, she said serving overseas again following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks at times was heartbreaking because she needed a long-term plan for her children to be taken care of while she was serving.
“The family members of those in the military, they are the ones who make the greatest sacrifices of anyone in the United States,” said Gerber. “It’s very emotional. My heroes are my kids. They’re tough kids. They persevered. It’s very difficult not knowing if your mom is going to live or die.”
Gerber honors the memory of her late daughter, Delaney, who died in 2014.
She described the challenges of staying committed to service to country and her family at the same time, explaining a time she had to leave a meeting because her daughter, Cheyenne, was on the phone upset because she couldn’t find her shoes.
“I was going to help my daughter find her red shoes,” Gerber said.
She recalled losing a close friend while serving in Iraq.
“We were mortared and shot at, but it was not the majority of the time,” she said of the experience.
She retired from the Department of Defense and has owned her home in Amherst County for just more than a year.
“We love it,” she said of her family’s love of Amherst County’s rural charm. “We were looking for years. We believe God sent us here. It’s a great hometown. We feel safe and loved within these mountains. It’s a wonderful place.”
Gerber said she loves sunsets on the family’s 200 acres and helps give old animals a retirement place.
“Amherst is about new beginnings,” Gerber said, recalling visiting the VFW Post the first time. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
The men in the group are funny and have a deep affection for each other and their community, she said.
“COVID-19 has not stopped the VFW,” Gerber said of the group continuing to meet during the pandemic. “This group is dedicated.”
She has enjoyed building friendships with veterans who served in Vietnam, Korea and other conflicts.
“We have people from all walks of life,” Gerber said.
Jack Mays, who serves as membership co-chair for the group alongside Gerber, said he’s enjoyed getting to know her. Mays said Gerber is an asset to the group of mostly senior citizens.
“She’s a breath of fresh air. She’s super,” said Mays. “She’s a go-getter. We’re doing projects that should have been done years ago. She’s a joy to work with.”
Mays said he also hopes more women in Amherst County will consider joining the post.
Gerber said she is passionate about the group’s outreach, including the Patriot’s Pen, a youth essay contest open to sixth, seventh and eighth graders in any school setting or background. The local post is reaching out to local youth to take part in the patriotic exercise by the Oct. 31 deadline.
Gerber said it’s important to foster love of country among young people and give them an outlet to express feelings on the “greatest place in the world” and ask themselves what they are willing to fight for or die for.
She said more than 10 years ago her mother gave her a lifetime VFW membership and taking part has been fulfilling.
“It’s just about taking care of each other and trying to make the community a better place.”
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