Steamboat Springs At 10:43 a.m. April 15, Frank Gerken’s plane touched down at Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden, where his wife, Mary, waited to greet her husband after his 493-day deployment in Baghdad, Iraq.
“It is hard when they leave,” Mary Gerken said this week. “The first couple months when he’d leave are really hard. You’re fearful, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You hope for the best and pray against the worst and try to keep positive.”
She won’t have to pray any longer.
Upon his return, Gerken, 49, retired from the Army National Guard as a lieutenant colonel after 31 years in the service.
He enlisted at age 18, looking to serve his country with the part-time commitment of a few weeks a year.
“I just wanted to be your citizen soldier,” said Gerken, who has lived in Steamboat Springs for 25 years.
After 30 years as a guardsman, Gerken reached his mandatory removal date, which forces him to choose between retirement and going on to be a colonel.
He decided he wouldn’t have time to attend the U.S. Army War College required for the colonel promotion because he wants to continue to run his business, Routt County Logging.
Mary said she’s proud of her husband and his dedication to his jobs.
“It’s an honor to have met someone like him,” she said.
Accepting a risk
Gerken first went overseas in 2005 when he volunteered for a deployment to Afghanistan where he would be an embedded trainer of Afghan National Army troops.
He could have spent his entire career in the National Guard stateside, but he didn’t take that option.
“Here I was sitting there in Cheyenne, not having been deployed, and I needed to raise my hand and go over there,” he said. “Having reservations is part of the job. You have to accept that risk. If you’re not willing to accept the risk of being deployed, you have no business being in uniform.”
His first trip overseas taught the Iowa native some indispensable lessons.
“The biggest thing I learned was that you have no idea how lucky you are to be American,” Gerken said. “Picture the most bankrupt, shot-up, most deprived society you can think of and you’re nowhere near what it’s like for the Afghans.”
But he found solace and hope for the country in the faces of the Afghan children who crowded around American troops, giving thumbs ups and clamoring to have their pictures taken.
“The Afghan children kept me sane,” he said.
He recalled a young girl named Hamida who spoke four languages and worked on her English with the troops. He remembered the way the children swelled with pride when the troops presented them notebooks and pencils donated by the Walmart in Steamboat Springs where Mary works.
Still, Gerken acknowledges that he was “damn glad to be back” when he returned home to Steamboat in 2006 and married Mary, who he had been dating before he left.
He told a co-worker he wouldn’t mind picking up another deployment before he retired, and that opportunity took only a few years to arise. In 2010, he was sent to Kuwait and then to a large base in Baghdad where he worked as a targeting engineer and a contracting expert.
During his 31-year career, Gerken has constructed buildings, designed roads, assessed potential targets, worked with plastic explosives and reached out to local children in war-torn countries.
“I think it’s been very rewarding because I’ve done things and had life experiences I never would have had otherwise,” he said. “And not just in Iraq or Afghanistan; I’ve met people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I’ve been to bases in Alaska to Texas, I’ve gone to conferences in Baltimore, Maryland and school in California.”
The next adventure
Jack Richardson, a Steamboat Springs resident who served in the Navy, said he’s known Gerken for 10 years.
“I think he’s an outstanding individual,” Richardson said. “It’s outstanding we have someone so dedicated to our country as he is.
“Anyone that serves your country, in my book, is top of my list, and I couldn’t have a better friend than Frank.”
Richardson and other friends and family gathered at Double Z Bar & BBQ April 22 for a welcome home party, but for Gerken, the work hasn’t ended.
As a retired Army guardsman with top security clearance, he still has the opportunity to work as a private contractor overseas. His wife said she’d think about going with him next time, once her 16-year-old son leaves home.
“On to the next adventure,” Mary said.
“Yeah, like straightening out the basement,” Gerken joked.
To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@SteamboatToday.com.