“I didn’t expect it at all,” said Whaley, who was a U.S. Army artillery officer from 2001 through 2008.
Upon accepting the honor Saturday night at the Bronson-Norwalk Conservation Club during the fourth annual banquet, he encouraged other vets to get “the younger generation” involved in activities and organizations.
“We have to figure it out,” said Whaley, who attended the Huron County Area Veterans Council banquet with his wife Amber and his parents, Daniel and Alice, of Trenton, Mich.
Afterward, Whaley, 37, said he believes that “veterans organizations will go under if the younger generation” doesn’t get involved and a reluctance to do so could relate to the stereotype of “a bunch of old guys sitting around a bar.”
“They don’t see the service part of it. Service is a really important part of those organizations,” he added.
Whaley is a member of American Legion Post 547, the Disabled American Veterans and St. Paul Catholic Church. He regularly attends American Legion meetings and is the chairman of the post’s constitutional oratorical scholarship. Whaley teaches science at Norwalk Middle and High schools and is the faculty adviser for NERD Nation, the NHS robotics team. He also has served as a representative and the treasurer of the Norwalk Teachers Association.
In addition, Whaley assists his friend Thom Price, the 2017 Huron County Veteran of the Year, with the annual Huron County Honor Trip. Whaley interviews, selects and chaperones the NHS student-escorts who accompany and assist the vets during the three-day tour of Washington.
His wife Amber, a Monroeville Local Schools teacher, said while she knew how involved her husband is with veterans’ activities, until now she “didn’t have a clear understanding” of just how much he does.
“It’s nice to hear he’s appreciated,” added Amber, a member of the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 547. “I’m very proud of him.”
Whaley’s mother said serving in the military is a bit of a family legacy since “all his uncles are all military” and both of his brothers are in the ROTC.
“I’m certainly proud of Nate and all his accomplishments,” her husband said. “His extended family (of veterans) will be proud of him too.”
The other three finalists for veteran of the year were: John Cook (U.S. Marine Corps), Ron Dennison (Army) and Rob Wolcott (U.S. Air Force). Committee members deliberated for three hours before making their selection.
Several elected officials attended the banquet Saturday: Huron County Commissioners Terry Boose, Joe Hintz and Skip Wilde; Bellevue Mayor Kevin Strecker, New London Mayor John Martin, Norwalk Mayor Rob Duncan, county auditor Roland Tkach and recorder Jan Tkach.
Boy Scout Troop 208, of Norwalk, presented and retired the colors.
The featured speaker was Vietnam veteran Jerry Ferris, who served in the Marines from 1967 through 1973. He earned three Purple Hearts and a Navy commendation.
Army vet Robert Ward, president of the Huron County Area Veterans Council, said his friend Ferris isn’t just “a true gentleman,” but epitomizes the characteristics the council looks for in veteran of the year candidates.
“If there is something veteran-centric, you can bet he’s involved,” Ward added.
Ferris, the vice president of the Warren County Veteran Service Commission, shared a heartbreaking story of “survivor’s guilt.”
“I convinced five of my buddies to join me in the Marines,” he said, so they could be in boot camp together — and ended up being the only surviving member of what their superior officers called “the soul patrol.”
“Two of us made squad leaders. … We were going to stay together, even it was by letters,” Ferris added. “One by one I lost each of them.”
Ferris was a scout sniper during his second tour in Vietnam. He said he had “62 confirmed kills” and each time he pulled the trigger, he remembered and named each of his five friends who had died.
When he returned home from Vietnam, a man hit him in the head with an apple and Ferris said “I kicked his (butt)” and later packed away his Marines gear. He said retired after 31 years in the corporate world “and nobody knew I even served.”
Ultimately, Ferris told the banquet attendees he wants to them to remember the importance of doing “whatever we can for every veteran.”