FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Nearly two decades ago, Sgt. 1st Class Tobey Whitney was beginning what would be a 10-year stint as a police detective in his home state of Colorado. Today, the seasoned noncommissioned officer, who also has served as a civilian firefighter, paramedic and police officer, can call himself TRADOC's 2010 Career Counselor of the Year.
Whitney, an instructor with the Soldier Support Institute's Recruiting and Retention School career counselor course, prevailed against six others to win the title.
"He is a great representation of what a Soldier should be," said Sgt. Maj. Richard Jones, director of the Retention Department at RRS. "He sets the example in (physical training) and basic Soldiering skills, and his technical knowledge as a career counselor sets him apart from his peers."
Whitney's sponsor, Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Blue, chief instructor for the retention department of the RRS, said he thinks Whitney's life experiences are what really set him above and beyond much of his peer group.
"He came into the Army late in life," Blue said. "He had done a lot prior to his enlistment. His maturity level is extremely high. He's a Soldier through and through."
Whitney joined the military in 2003 at the age of 32. Part of what made Whitney leave his 10-year career as a detective was when his partner was shot while in the line of duty. Whitney was the first to arrive at the scene.
"He died on the side of the road while I was holding his hand," Whitney said. "It was devastating because I had spent my entire adult life saving people, but my best friend, I couldn't save him."
Whitney said he decided to leave the force and enlist in the Army as a medic.
Within two weeks of arriving to his first duty station at Fort Bragg, N.C., Whitney was on a plane to join his comrades of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, who had already deployed to Fallujah, Iraq.
His first night downrange, he was welcomed by a mortar attack. A week later a Chinook flying less than a mile away from the unit's forward operating base, was shot down, killing 16 Soldiers and injuring 26.
"We had casualties all the time," Whitney recalled of first experience in combat. "It was a very busy time for all of us."
In 2005, he deployed with his brigade to New Orleans to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As the operations NCO for the city's evacuation site, he saw American citizens carrying the remnants of their whole lives in something as small as a box.
During the next four years, he would serve with the brigade two more times in Iraq, first as a re-enlistment NCO and then as a career counselor. During these deployments, Whitney worked with thousands of Soldiers, giving them career advice, something he said he enjoyed doing every day.
He said most of the Soldiers he talked to were roughly the same age as his daughter, who is now 21.
"So I would try to talk to them as if I was giving her advice," Whitney said. "I could talk to them and relate to them and say, 'Look, I've been in the civilian world,' and I'd give them examples of what happened to me." he said.
"I'd say, 'I'm not telling you to re-enlist and stay in the Army because I need a number,'" Whitney said. "I'd ask them what they really wanted to do, and to not base their decision off of one duty station."
Whitney said he also made time for Soldiers no matter what time of day it was.
"So if they came off a mission at 5 o'clock in the morning and had an epiphany and they wanted to re-enlist, they could knock on my door and I'd help them," he said. "It might have been inconvenient for me, but it had been just as inconvenient for them to be on a mission."
And if they decided not to re-enlist, he said, he would shake their hand and thank them for their service.
"Because they did more than most people," he said.
Whitney uses his previous civilian and military experience in his job as an instructor, something that clearly came through in the TRADOC competition.
"The competition involves some of the best career counselors in the Army," Whitney said. "So to actually be selected makes me very proud."
During the two-day competition, which took place July 18-19 in Williamsburg, Va., the career counselors were evaluated on a 25-question written exam, a 750-word essay and a formal board.
The most intimidating aspect of the competition, Whitney said, was being grilled for 30 minutes by the board members, who asked him questions about Army retention, the transition from active to reserve service and current Army policies.
"Because all of the board members have been in the Army so long, they all have so much knowledge and experience," Whitney said. "What can you say that's different' What can you say that they haven't already heard before'"
But what Whitney said must have impressed the board members, because he was announced the winner July 20, and is now slated to compete for the Secretary of the Army's 2010 Career Counselor of the Year award in January