It’s a long way from the early days of post-communist Ukraine to the silent, rolling hills of Sarpy County.
Today, Cindy Van Bibber is back in her native state, creating the Omaha National Cemetery southeast of where Highways 50 and 370 intersect. It’s just the second Department of Veterans Affairs national cemetery in Nebraska, a 236-acre tract that will serve the burial needs of area veterans and their families for the next 100 years.
And in Van Bibber, the cemetery has a director who’s seen—and made—plenty of history herself.
She left Nebraska in 1983, a year after graduating from Grand Island High School. Plans to study for a career in the medical field fizzled, so she joined the Army and wound up serving for more than 10 years.
She began with the Cold War at its height. Part of her stint included an assignment with General John Shalikashvili, who later would become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Van Bibber was part of a two-person communications team that would set up secure lines wherever Shalikashvili went. Like a hotel in the Ukraine.
“It was a pretty exciting job to be able to travel worldwide with him,” Van Bibber says. “Wouldn’t change it for the world.”
But change it did. After discharge she moved back to the U.S., to Virginia, and after taking one more stab at the medical field, landed her first job in a cemetery career. That was in Richmond, where she helped open a new state veterans’ cemetery. Van Bibber was there from its first burial in 1997 until 2006. She then joined the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and worked at four VA cemeteries, including Riverside National Cemetery in California.
Not until last year did she come back home, becoming director of the yet-to-be-created Omaha National Cemetery.
Peter Young, who mentored Van Bibber at Riverside National Cemetery, has full confidence in his one-time protege.
“She is a great cemetery director always trying to improve herself and her cemetery so they can provide the best possible service to our veterans and their families,” Young says.
For now, the can-do attitude is coming in most handy.
Work at the cemetery began last fall. That’s mostly involved “lots of moving the earth,” Van Bibber says. Her office is a trailer but some of the footings for the four main buildings have been poured. She’s also building the staff, hiring a program specialist and foreman. Nearly a dozen staff will work at the cemetery when it’s at full strength.
They project to have 500 burials a year once it opens. The first should come this September. Van Bibber says she plans to have a dedication ceremony followed by burials for someone from each service branch.
A vet herself, Van Bibber is where she seems to belong.
“Even when I was in Europe I visited all of the cemeteries to pay my respects for those lost in the great conflicts,” she says. “It was something to do on weekends, never once thinking I’d come back and work at a national cemetery.”
Here she is, though, far from home no more.