ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, ILL. -- First Army Soldiers are offered the opportunity to serve their country in many different roles throughout their military careers.

1st Sgt. Fletcher D. Whittenberg currently serves as the senior enlisted advisor to First Army's Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment Commander. He provides, as the first sergeant, advice and assistance to the commander to promote the health, welfare, discipline and training to all First Army Headquarters Soldiers.

However, from July 2006 to December 2010, Whittenberg was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Regiment, Fort Myer, Va., at Arlington National Cemetery. This unit is more commonly referred to by its nickname, 'The Old Guard' and is the oldest active infantry unit in the Army, since being organized as the First American Regiment in 1784. The Old Guard conducts memorial ceremonies to honor fallen comrades, assists during wreath ceremonies, conducts full honors review ceremonies and escorts the President of the United States as needed.

One of the missions of the Old Guard is to provide both standard and full honors military funerals at Arlington Cemetery as well as dignified transfers of remains at Dover Air Force Base.

The standard honors service is available to any commissioned officer or enlisted service member who died for reasons other than combat. The standard honors service consists of a chaplain, a bugler, a 6-man casket team and a 7-man firing party. Following the religious remarks, the firing party is called to attention and fires a salute. A bugler plays taps and the casket team folds our nation's colors which are presented to the next of kin.

Arlington is the only cemetery in the world that offers a full military honors funeral. Full honors burial services are available for all commissioned officers and enlisted service members who were killed-in-action against enemies of this nation. A full honors service consists of a procession to the gravesite which consists of a color guard, a marching platoon, a musical band with a bugler, an 8-man casket team, a chaplain, a horse-drawn caisson team and a 7-man salute firing party. Full honors ceremonies are identical to the standard honors service with the exception that a military band plays while the casket is taken to the grave and the colors are being folded.

As part of the memorial affairs and ceremonial mission, Whittenberg's duties with the Old Guard were as the platoon sergeant before assuming his duties as first sergeant. "I was involved in many burial ceremonies to honor our fallen warriors who fought and sacrificed overseas," he said. "I personally participated in these honor ceremonies at Arlington about once or twice a week."

"During burials we present the flag to the family members, salute and walk away," Whittenberg added. "These burials can emotionally drain you. They make you appreciate being alive. Burying a decorated 19-year-old service member, who did not have the opportunity to live a full life, makes you appreciate every day more."

In addition to the marching platoons, there are also elements of The Old Guard that serve special roles unique to both the Old Guard and the U.S. Army. These elements include the Tomb of the Unknowns Sentinels, Soldiers who maintain a twenty-four hour watch over one of the nation's most sacred sites; the Continental Color Guard, who presents the nation's colors at special events across the Capitol Region; the Presidential Salute Battery, which renders honors to senior dignitaries at arrival and wreath ceremonies, reviews, and full honors funerals; and the U.S. Army Caisson Platoon, which provides riders and horses to pull the caisson bearing caskets of fallen warriors.

"You have to be stoic during these ceremonies," added Whittenberg. "I've had family members who have grabbed my arm seeking comfort; my job is to professionally perform my duties to ensure we are providing an appropriate burial ceremony or what we called perfect honors."

"I was proud of our mission because it was the family's last moments with their loved one and I wanted them to remember that as a day of celebration and not a day of regret," Whittenberg reflected. "These service members make it possible for you and me to enjoy our American freedoms. I was proud of the fact that I was providing a formal send-off to honor a fellow warrior's sacrifice to their country."

Whittenberg considers himself to be an 'Air Force Brat'. He was born at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois and lived all over the world as the son of a twenty-year Air Force Airman. He currently resides in Geneseo, Illinois.

A year-and-a-half after high school, he joined the U.S. Army in March of 1990. During his career, Whittenberg has served as a rifleman, machine gunner, grenadier, team leader, squad leader, section leader, platoon sergeant and first sergeant.

Whittenberg's various tours of duty have included deployments in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Operations Joint Guard and Joint Forge in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. "I enjoy the military life, the discipline and the friendships I've developed, but I take particular pride in defending our nation. It's not for everyone, it's a calling and I chose to answer the call," said Whittenberg.

Whittenberg was assigned to First Army Headquarters in January 2011. The mission of First Army is to advise, assist and train Reserve Component Soldiers during pre-mobilization periods. First Army mobilizes, trains, validates, deploys and demobilizes all Army National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve forces throughout the continental United States, providing trained and ready forces for diverse missions worldwide.

Page last updated Mon April 22nd, 2013 at 00:00