Service to America Defines Career of Lander Alumna, Lt. Gen. Maria R. Gervais
Story by Karen Petit
Leadership often is quiet, represented not by words, but by action.
The three stars that Lt. Gen. Maria R. Gervais, a Lander University alumna, wears on her uniform designate her post as a senior officer in the U.S. Army. The stars speak volumes about her commitment to our nation.
Lt. Gen. Gervais, now in her 34th year of military service, has devoted her life to the U.S. Army, a time spent building a legacy of duty that lives through the thousands of men and women whom she has led and trained in her U.S. Army assignments and with whom she has worked in posts around the world.
While the stars command attention, it is the general’s demeanor and words which bring everyone to attention. Reserved and dignified, Lt. Gen. Gervais is quick to smile and laugh, exuding a warmth most people may not expect from a high-ranking officer. But when Lt. Gen. Gervais speaks of patriotism, duty and service, her message is powerful.
Lt. Gen. Gervais visited Greenwood recently on a whirlwind trip that included visits to area high schools, Piedmont Technical College and the Chamber of Commerce. At the Greenwood County Veterans Center, Lt. Gen. Gervais met with veterans, toured the military museum and was honored with the “Great American Award” by Rosalind Burke, director of the Greenwood Veterans Affairs Office. She was joined by her husband, retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Chris Gervais.
She also met with Lander University officials, a meeting followed by a visit with ROTC cadets from Lander, Newberry College and Presbyterian College.
“You are the future of our Army,” Lt. Gen. Gervais told the cadets, “and you are in the best leadership program.”
She speaks from experience. Lt. Gen. Gervais is the Deputy Commanding General/Chief of Staff for the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) and is stationed at Fort Eustis, Va.
In the military, “we do leadership every day,” she said. “The soldiers that you are leading are hungry for your leadership. You are entering the best trained, best equipped, best respected military in the world. You are going to lead America’s sons and daughters.”
That responsibility, she said, comes with “much trust and confidence at such a young age, but you can lead. And you will. You must. Even on your worst day, it better be the best day for those that you lead.”
She talked about her own experiences as a young military officer and the opportunities afforded her through the Army. “I received extensive training. The Army sent me to school, gave me skills. I developed trust and confidence. I became part of a larger team. The opportunities, the things that I have gotten to do are why I’m here more than 30 years later. You are going to have the best journey.”
For those wondering if they had the capacity to lead, Lt. Gen. Gervais put all doubts to rest. She acknowledged that she was an introvert in her early life. “I used to be so quiet. But I watched, and I learned every day from higher ranking officers, my peers and my subordinates. I continue to learn and to grow, just as you will. I can see the talent and potential in you.”
That Lt. Gen. Gervais would choose a career in the military seems a given. Her father, the late Robert J. Rea, served in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force and had tours in Korea and Vietnam. Her brother, U.S. Army Sgt. Robert S. Rea, is a Vietnam War veteran.
The family of nine children, of which Lt. Gen. Gervais is the seventh child, moved to Greenwood after the family lived at Fort Jackson. She said her mother, the late Verna Dillon Rea, fell in love with the Palmetto State. “There was no other choice but South Carolina as our home,” she said.
At Greenwood High, Lt. Gen. Gervais was an avid athlete and played softball and basketball. She chose Lander, in part, because she would have the opportunity to play for the women’s basketball team, but also because of the personal attention that students received from the staff and faculty. “I knew that I could succeed here,” she said.
When an injury ended her basketball career at the University, she focused on improving her health and advancing her studies. In her junior year, she joined Lander’s ROTC program. She knew that her father’s military service had given her family “a great life,” and she knew that she would have opportunities to advance in her career.
But she admits that she never imagined how outstanding those opportunities would be. Her military career began when Lt. Gen. Gervais received her Regular Army commission in 1987 as a Distinguished Military Graduate of the Lander College Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program.
Because of her studies in biology, Lt. Gen. Gervais was assigned to the U.S. Army’s Chemical Corps. Her professional military education includes Chemical Officer basic and advanced courses; the Command and General Staff College, and the U.S. Army War College, where she earned a Master of Military Strategic Studies. She also earned a master’s degree in human resources from Webster University.
Lt. Gen. Gervais has served tours in Germany, Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and her service encompasses a variety of command and staff assignments at every level. Her posts have included duties at the Pentagon and recently in the Army Futures Command as the first Cross-Functional Team Director for the Synthetic Training Environment in Orlando, Fla.
Her awards and decorations from the U.S. Army include the Distinguished Service Medal; five Legions of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, seven Meritorious Service Medals, two Joint Service Commendation medals, six Army Commendation Medals, two Army Achievement Medals, and an Iraqi Campaign Medal.
Lt. Gen. Gervais also has earned a Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, two National Defense Service Medals, as well as other medals recognizing her service in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Southwest Asia.
Her numerous tours of duty and work “have helped me understand how much I love America and what we stand for … the ideals and ideology and freedom.”
She said, “I’ve been in countries where young girls don’t get to go to school. From that perspective, I have a deep appreciation for our nation and what we represent. The military will provide you with more opportunities that you can ever imagine.”
Lt. Gen. Gervais has worked with the U.S. Army to bring the skills of gaming technology to military training. “I never would have thought that I would be doing this,” she said.
Gaming technology offers lessons in creating “bloodless battles” before soldiers are in real-life combat situations. “We are re-creating the physics of the battlefield,” she said.
The training is “powerful,” Lt. Gen. Gervais said, and enables the Army to build better, cohesive teams of soldiers with the ability “to engage in real fighting and reduce casualties.”
As the mother of a daughter serving in the military, Lt. Gen. Gervais said, “Moms and Dads give us their sons and daughters. They entrust their lives to us … it is our duty to train them, help them know how to maintain their equipment. We need to bring their sons and daughters home.”
During her tour of the Lander campus, Lt. Gen. Gervais said she was impressed that the campus has maintained the same personal touches that she experienced as a student. “The campus is amazing … the progress that is being made. The energy and commitment from the faculty are what I experienced as a student. And that continues.”
“I just loved being here. You felt like you were part of a close-knit community. I think about the foundation that Lander gave me – a great education, the exposure to so many opportunities. It was ingrained in me. I think that is something that Lander will never lose,” she said.
The love for learning, developed at Lander, continues in her daily life. “Every single day, I go home and ask ‘what did I do that I was not especially proud of’ and ‘what can I do to improve myself.’ Character is something you must work at every day.”
Some of that character building took place decades ago when Lt. Gen. Gervais brought her first uniform home and hung it on her door. Her mother cried. “I didn’t understand why.”
It took her ten years to ask her mother the “why” question. Lt. Gen. Gervais wasn’t expecting the answer. “My mother said, ‘I knew you were going into the Army, and that you were going to have an Army family. I knew that you were going to love it, and that gave me peace of mind.”
Whatever the Army experience had in store for her daughter, Lt. Gen. Gervais’ mother understood “that no matter what, I would be better off because of my service.”