With a career Army father, the United States Army was a natural choice for Cheryl Gerdes. Of her decision to join the military, Gerdes says, “I was steered, pretty much, by my dad; he had done 30 years in the Army. Three wars. He was an Army guy. But, it was also coupled with the opportunity to find money for college.”
Gerdes served in the United States Army from 1989 to 1996 and is a veteran of the Persian Gulf War. As a young lieutenant, Gerdes received vaccinations as a standard part of her deployment but was also one of the almost 150,000 US troops to receive immunization against Anthrax, rumored to be weaponized by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
Gerdes recounts, “They believed Saddam Hussein would possibly employ a nerve agent, so they decided to immunize us against nerve agent. And in so doing, I ingested nerve agent. That and I was exposed to some things, I believe, when I was there. And from that, years later, things began to happen, and I was ultimately diagnosed with MS.”
Navigating the VA
Gerdes became acquainted with the Paralyzed Veterans of America through her visits to Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in the Chicago area. It was at Hines VA that Gerdes was instructed to contact the Paralyzed Veterans service officer to assist in her quest to file for benefits and receive compensation.
They gave me some hope.
For Gerdes, connecting with the Paralyzed Veterans of America resulted in more than a helping hand with navigating the complexities of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Gerdes says, “They gave me some hope in getting some compensation, or at least going through the process. The advisor here is Winston Woodard, and he, himself, is a paraplegic in a wheelchair. Seeing him, and his example and his ability to continue with life and to do it well was super, super motivational.”
Helping others comes naturally to Gerdes, with an Army career comprised of several people-oriented roles. Gerdes served as a medical evacuation platoon leader, liaison officer, and company commander throughout her time in the Army. “In the military, there are soldiers that come from all walks of life and you’re dealing with people from everywhere. I think that is the job. It requires dealing with people to get it done because we’ve got to accomplish our mission together.”