On Oct. 30, 2011, Afghanistan Engineer Distric-North Commander Col. Christopher Martin presenting the Bronze Star, Afghanistan Campaign Medal and The NATO Medal to Maj. Erica Iverson.

What was first viewed as a means toward an end set U.S. Army Major Erica Iverson on a path she never could have imagined.


She first got the idea of enlisting in the military shortly before she graduated from Vermillion High School in 1996. She was able to complete her studies – in a field completely different from what she planned originally – and she found herself back in the military.

Her stint in the U.S. Army has taken her to South Korea. She was among the troops that served as the “tip of the spear” when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

After spending time stationed at a U.S. military base in Germany, she chose to voluntarily serve in Afghanistan last year.

Last October, she received her second Bronze Star, along with the Afghanistan Campaign Medal and the NATO Medal for her service there.

Today, she is stateside, serving as a speechwriter for Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, chief of staff of the U.S. Army.

It all began as Erica, the daughter of Julie Stewart and Dwight Iverson, both of Vermillion, was planning her future during her junior year at Vermillion High School.

Mix of college and military “Back then, I didn’t really know what to do,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be a doctor, and during my junior year, I was at an awards ceremony at the high school, and there were a few seniors who received ROTC scholarships. I thought, ‘if they got a free education, maybe that’s something I should look into.’”

During her senior year at VHS, Erica applied for Army, Navy and Air Force scholarships.

“The Army was able to provide me with a full, four-year scholarship at the university of my choice,” she said. “I couldn’t pass that up.”

To become an officer, Erica could either attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, or be involved in four years of ROTC training while attending a college or university, or complete her university studies and then become involved in officer training.

Erica was involved in ROTC during the four years she studied at Creighton University in Omaha, NE, graduating with a degree in English in 2000.

“I sort of no longer wanted to be a doctor after having to take organic chemistry,” she said, with a laugh. “It sort of took me out of the count.”

She also had no plans to remain active in the military after receiving her degree.

“For a West Pointer, they call it ‘four years and then you cut and run.’ I had four years of free education,” Erica said. “In fact, I actually got paid to go to college. I received a stipend, my books were covered, housing was covered … with those four years of education, I was committed to do four years of (military) service.

“In 2000, there was no war in sight. And the pre-med thing had dropped off of my future plans. And the day after you graduate, you’re commissioned as a second lieutenant in a great big commissioning ceremony,” she said. “It’s your first day in the Army, really, and you have to choose which branch you want to be in. I could have chosen medical corps, but it would have been administrative work.”

Erica said she didn’t want a desk job, and going off the beaten path seemed appealing. So, she decided to become involved with engineering.

Her first assignment immediately after graduating from Creighton was at Fort Lewis, WA.

“Ever since then, that’s been my career,” Erica said. “At my very first duty station, I had to undergo training and take an engineer course. I got to blow stuff up, and I learned about how to build an airfield and all of the other things that engineers have to do. I had to do about a year’s worth of training.

Her first deployment, scheduled to last one year, from 2001 to 2002, was in South Korea.

Erica was preparing to travel to Australia when the terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Cell phones weren’t like we have now,” she said. “The planes hit and we were out in the field. So we didn’t even get the news until the day after. We didn’t quite know the extent of it until two weeks after 9/11.”

The United States began its war on terror in November 2011.

“That was kind of the onset, and it mainly involved Special Operations. That first year in Afghanistan was really a Special Operations fight, and was retaliatory for 9/11,” she said. “In 2001 and 2002, we were working on getting established over there.”

Erica discovered during her stint in Korea that she loved overseas duty. When her service there ended, she decided to do a threeyear U.S. Army tour in Germany. “I had only been there maybe half-a-year, and the war (in Iraq) started March 19, 2003. We knew that since we were stationed in Germany, we likely would be the first responders. We knew a few months before (it happened).

We were getting ready, we were getting our equipment and there was a lot of training that we were unofficially doing.

Erica’s unit eventually received its marching orders to go to war. She was the head of a platoon of 45 men.

“We prepared our families; we wrote our wills, and we didn’t know how long we were going to be gone.

We planned as if we weren’t coming back – that was our mentality,” she said. “Nothing was established, but we were told to bring along two months worth of hygiene products, and do other things to prepare. We got over to Kuwait in February 2003.”


Long way from home


The desert of the Middle East, she discovered, is a long ways from Vermillion.

“I was still pretty new; I was getting my feet wet in the military, learning the leadership,” Erica said. “It was a struggle to be in charge. I had 45 guys, and I was one of the youngest ones, so they had this young, little butter-bar (military slang for the gold bars worn by second lieutenants), this brand-new military person and I was supposed to lead them. There was a lot of pressure, but it was the unknown, too, that you had to deal with.”

She and her platoon members were given the opportunity to call their families the day before being deployed. “You couldn’t say anything specific; they didn’t know where we were, and all you could all them was that you’re safe,” she said. “It’s emotional, because you don’t know if it is going to be the last time. You write a letter and you stick it in your pocket, and I told my roommate if something happens to hand over the letter.

“You have to make peace with it all, but it’s what we do,” Erica said. “That day when we all raised our right hands 12 years ago (during enlistment), it wasn’t what I thought. Twelve years ago, I was all ready to get out of the military after four years. It was a means to an end, to pay for college. The war was an obligation.

We never questioned it. We were there, it was our job, they said ‘go to war’ and we did. We were the tip of the spear.”

Her first tour in Iraq lasted approximately nine months.

“Because we were the invasion force, it was a pretty tough situation.

It was pretty demanding,” Erica said. “For the first six months, we didn’t have water. We didn’t have toilets. It was take a shovel and toilet paper and go to the sandbox – you walk 200 feet away.”

Twice daily, her platoon had to burn all of its waste and trash in barrels.

“We slept on cots outside under the stars, and it was tough and a hardship for those nine months,” she said.

After her stint in Iraq ended, she volunteered for a second six month tour there, which began in November 2003.

In mid-2004, she returned to Germany. “We all had a chance to decompress. We all bought new cars, and we were living the high life. It was good to be back. Part of our compensation included time off, and I traveled everywhere.”

This return to civilization, in particular, served to set life’s priorities in order for Erica.

She arrived two days before the other troops, as she was part of an advance team that would plan their arrival. Erica and her boyfriend had just had a messy break-up, and she discovered the tires slashed on her car as her taxi pulled up to her apartment.

“It was about midnight, and all I wanted was some cold milk,” Erica said. “So I had the taxi take me to a store so I could get some milk, and then take me back to my apartment. The electricity was off. All I wanted to do was take a bath, and the water was cold, and it was brown.

“I remember sitting there, in this cold, brown water, with a candle and drinking milk right out of the carton and thinking, “You know what? I’m all right. Life is pretty good. I have flush toilets, I’m drinking milk, and I’m safe,” she said.

The next morning, she awoke to see a blue sky and the green of grass and trees that she had been deprived of for six months.

After 2004, Erica fulfilled several assignments for the U.S. Army, in Europe and in the U.S.

Best part of military career

Last year, after seven years away from the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, she decided to return.

“There are a lot of reasons to deploy. There are a lot of reasons not to, but for me, personally, it was time,” Erica said. “I had been in (Washington) DC for a few years, and I had pretty well rounded out my career, and I just thought it would be neat to have a deployment to Afghanistan to supplement my career and compare it to Iraq.”

Last year, she traveled to Afghanistan on her own. She wasn’t part of a unit. “I went as an individual augmentee, in which you tasked. Specific jobs are created.”

She served in Afghanistan for 10 months last year. “I was supposed to be there for a year, and come home in January (of this year),” Erica said. “But in October, the asthma that I had first gotten while I was in Iraq really made me sick. I got whooping cough and then pneumonia. Afghanistan is the most polluted country in the world, and so it was really terrible. I did all of the treatment I could do in country, but there was nothing I could do (to get better).

I was trying to do my job, but I was miserable.”

Two months shy of spending a year in Afghanistan, Erica was medevacked to a military base in Germany.

She is happy, however, to have been able to make some positive accomplishments while in Afghanistan.

“What I was sent over to Afghanistan to do originally changed a little bit,” Erica said. “I took on more responsibility once everyone was able to discern what I was capable of.”

She began a foundation for Afghan women.

“There was 75 women from young girls to older business-women, and they had never had bank accounts. They didn’t have ID cards. It was really sort of unbelievable,” Erica said. “And I was able to get involved with an orphanage and was able to do all of that outreach. I think it was the best part of my whole career.”

Last summer, her service in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan included assisting in the delivery of more than 4,500 textbooks by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to Nangarhar University.

She and other members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also paid a visit to some displaced Afghan boys and provided them with much needed school supplies, toys and treats during “operation backpack drop,” last May at the all-boys Ostad Khalil Ullah Khalili Orphans Education Center located in Kabul.

Each boy received a new backpack filled with pens, paper, pencils, notebooks, crayons, erasers, rulers, sharpeners, toys, a puzzle and candy.

Judging from a photo taken during the backpack drop, Erica quickly became friends with many of the boys there. It was especially meaningful, she said, to visit the young orphans on Mothers Day.

She was awarded her second Bronze Star last October for her 10 months of service in Afghanistan. She also received the Afghanistan Campaign Medal and the NATO Medal. The award citation states she received the awards “for exceptional meritorious service as chief of the capacity building a team and executive officer while deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. She also orchestrated a successful internship program between Afghan Engineers and the District. Major Iverson’s distinctive accomplishments reflect great credit upon herself, the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the United States Army.”

“Sitting in high school, I never would have imagined all that would occur after I joined the military,” Erica said.

Her most recent military experience, including her recent stint in Afghanistan, didn’t offer a clue of what eventually was awaiting her as she continued her military career.

“When I came back from Afghanistan, I was slotted to go to basically a desk job,” Erica said. “I had worked at that job for four days, and I got a phone call. The person on the phone said, ‘We want you to come to work as a speechwriter.’ And in 24 hours, I was the speechwriter for the top general in the Army, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno.”

In late February, Erica was in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, hunkered down in a hotel surrounded by Secret Service agents. “I’m looking out my hotel room right now and trying to write a speech for tomorrow morning. I’m sitting here in Ft. Lauderdale working for the Army’s top general. It’s very surreal. Everything that he (the general) says are my words.”

She may still be a long way from Vermillion. But Erica’s determination and ambition have her serving the U.S. Army – and the nation – in ways she never could had she studied pre-med rather than English at Creighton University.

She also found herself in some highly unique situations lately.

“I went to the State of the Union address with a member of Congress,” Erica said.

She was the special guest of U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano of California. President Barack Obama had encouraged members of Congress to bring Iraq veterans to the speech as their guest in honor of the end of the U.S. combat operations in that country.

“To sit there, and to be at the State of the Union, and to realize that he was my boss in the front row – it was really a turning point. It was pivotal for me,” Erica said. “I was able to realize that at one point, I was ready to cut and run, to do my four years and that would have been it.

“And today, I’m writing Congressional testimony for the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army,” she said. “Things have pretty much come full circle, and to be at this point fairly early in my career is pretty exciting.”

She is certain that the Vermillion community has helped make it all possible. It’s the little things that have counted the most over the years. The CARE packages from home, that everyone in her platoon would long for. The fact that every time Erica returns home for R&R and steps into a Vermillion tavern, there’s a cold beer waiting for her – sometimes purchased by someone who doesn’t know her personally, but knows she’s a veteran.

“My family has kept me humble, and people from this town – people I didn’t know – would send me packages when I was in Iraq,” Erica said. “The support from family and the town is amazing.”