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Navy CMDCM Jeffrey Garber inspired a legacy of service. His spouse now carries the torch.

Jessica Manfre Avatar

Join the Navy, see the world! The late Navy Command Master Chief Jeffrey Garber saw this slogan and raised his right hand to serve, protect and explore. And boy did he go far. 

“Jeff grew up in rural Nebraska and the first 14 years of his life were spent in Seward, Nebraska, on his grandparent’s farm and then in town,” his wife Amy Garber shared. “During these years he loved exploring the farm with his brothers, playing football, riding bikes in town with friends, playing sports, attending church every Sunday with his family and basically just living a small-town life. His parents divorced when Jeff was young and desiring a closer relationship with his dad, Jeff moved to western Nebraska for his high school years.”

A natural athlete, Jeff was a point guard for his high school’s basketball team but also made time for the choir and theater. As a teenager, he and his best friend Lance ran a landscaping business during the summer breaks. He also loved spending time working on his beloved ’69 Camaro. 

“He had an infectious personality and a genuine smile and kindness about him,” Amy remembered.

His adventurous spirit and desire to see the world led him to the Navy, where he signed up for the delayed entry program. Most who knew him would also reflect on his natural heart for others and service, which was ingrained.

“He grew up learning the importance of hard work, community, giving back, never forgetting where you came from and humble leadership. During his career in the Navy, he had the benefit and fortune of being mentored by sailors, both enlisted and officers, who not only embodied these traits themselves but knew how to foster them in Jeff. He was a team player through and through,” Amy reflected. “He believed that everyone deserves a chance and that through hard work and determination, you could reach your goals, always giving credit to those who helped him achieve them. Hence his signature at the end of his emails that read, ‘If I have seen further than others, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants’ (Sir Isaac Newton). He applauded other people’s successes and never looked at a ‘roadblock’ as something that he was a victim of.”

As Jeff quickly rose through the ranks of the Navy, he never forgot where he came from and how he wanted to get to his next goal. His wife added that he was greatly motivated by his faith. Before his last deployment, he was asked to interview for the Force Master Chief of the Naval Air Forces of the East Coast and Texas.

“He wasn’t sure it was a position he wanted because he didn’t want a job that took him away from the ability to interact and advocate for the enlisted ranks on a regular basis and he was ready to be home more with me and the kids. After much prayer, consideration and counsel with me and leaders he respected, he decided to interview. The kids and I supported him in this decision,” Amy explained. “The Navy was our life too and I knew nothing else in my adult life, having met Jeff when I was 19. The kids were born into it and we knew that he was making a difference, not because he told us, but because we knew him and watched him.”

Jeff was deployed on the Dwight D. Eisenhower in the North Arabian Sea in 2009 with Carrier Air Wing 7. In March, he had his physical aboard the ship and had a high blood pressure reading. The medical team monitored him for three days and did a cholesterol check. He told Amy everything was back to normal and they thought it was just the stress of the job. 

On June 18, 2009, he was on the treadmill when he experienced severe chest pain. When it passed, he continued his workout. When he woke up the following day not feeling well, he saw the flight surgeon. 

“They ran a chest x-ray, an EKG and one blood test to check for proteins in the blood that would indicate a problem. They told me that they didn’t have the capability to do a stress test. Everything came back ‘normal’. They sent him out with indigestion and heartburn medication and told him to come back if things didn’t get better,” Amy shared. “Friends of his reported that he went about his day, but he wasn’t himself and he didn’t look well. One of his closest friends onboard walked him to his stateroom that night and asked him if he was sure he didn’t want to go back to medical and Jeff replied that he thought maybe he was just tired and was going to try and get a good night’s sleep and then he would go back in the morning if he still didn’t feel well. He died in his sleep that night.”

At 6:00 am, Amy received the notification that he was gone and had died of a heart attack in his sleep. By the end of the day, friends and family had descended into their Virginia Beach home to grieve with her and their three children. 

“I remember going to Dover and receiving his body, planning the memorial and living in a fog through most of it. I remember looking at every one of the faces of the 600 sailors and Marines that lined Tomcat Blvd as his body made its way to the chapel at Oceana. I remember that the chapel was overflowing and that people came from across the country to pay their respects to a man they respected and said was ‘one in a million.’ And he was,” Amy said. “I remember the words ‘Easy Day’ being shared with us. What a mantra that would become for our family and friends. To this day it brings a smile to my face as I think about Jeff using this phrase to help ease the stress and lift the spirits of those he called his family while deployed…I remember the outpouring of love and support that came in from around the country and I remember when things settled down and life for everyone else went back to normal, as it should, but as it never would be again for us.”

Over the years, memories that brought on tears would change to smiles. Amy would say she never felt alone, even when Jeff was deployed a world away. 

Even 15 years later, Jeff’s legacy and heart are woven into and throughout everything. The four granddaughters he never got to meet light up when they talk about their “heavenly Poppa.” His son enlisted and served eight years in the Marine Corps, inspired by his father. One of his daughters married and said goodbye to her husband three weeks later when he headed to Army boot camp. 

“Many well-meaning individuals within our civilian community don’t have even a basic understanding of the military culture. Military families move between these two communities (civilian and military) with relative ease and and anonymity until they are in crisis and need understanding and support from the civilian community. I would ask Americans to do more than simply say they support our military and military families,” Amy said. “We have generations of veterans and their families who are still waging private battles every day. The outpouring of support during times of crisis is invaluable to morale, but it needs to not end when the media frenzy around the public homecomings and conflicts settles down. After all, day-in and day-out, service members and their families are willing to give the full measure of their lives so the rest of Americans don’t have to.”

In 2010, Amy and her family were introduced to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). The family took part in the National Military Survivor Seminar held yearly over Memorial Day weekend.

“In TAPS we found community and understanding – fellow survivors who walked alongside us and had shared perspective on grief,” she added.

Her daughter Tayler became a mentor for other families of the fallen and over the years Amy and all of her children would continue to embody Jeff’s commitment to serving others in various ways. In 2022, Amy completed her Master’s in Social Work, and in 2023 she began working for TAPS.

“I feel like I’ve come somewhat full-circle in this part of my grief journey. I am working for an organization that wrapped its arms around my children and me in a time when we felt lost and alone. I remember some of the widows whom I met who were about five to seven years out from their losses and how they walked alongside me and encouraged me. I looked at them and where they were in their lives at that time and I couldn’t imagine being where they were, but I knew they had walked where I was currently walking and it gave me hope that maybe one day I could there too,” she explained. “I am incredibly humbled to be able to walk alongside those who are grieving the loss of a loved one that served. My hope now is to be a safe place for them to grieve and mourn. And to foster hope, even the smallest spark of hope, to keep them moving forward every day.”

As for Memorial Day and its meaning, the family has a special message for Americans. 

“We learned quickly after Jeff’s death that some people place a level of importance on how your loved one died during service. My kids and I decided early on that we were going to respect Jeff’s death story but we are going to celebrate his life, not his death,” Amy said. “In my opinion, celebrations on Memorial Day are celebrations of the lives of the countless service members who have lived. Honor the death, but don’t forget that they lived.”

Today and always, let us honor the fallen by sharing their stories and living a life worth their sacrifice.

Jessica Manfre is an author and freelance writer for multiple publications. She is a licensed social worker, earning her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Central Florida in 2020. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Northwestern State University. Jessica is the co-founder and CFO of Inspire Up, a 501c3 nonprofit promoting global generosity and kindness through education, empowerment and community building. She is the spouse of an active duty Coast Guardsman and mother of two. When she isn't working, you can find her reading a good book and drinking too much coffee.
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