Marine Major Christopher Whitson remembered playing high school football at Mount Ayr when players were traditionally on one knee and rose when American Legion members walked by with the American flag before the game started.
Now, Whitson is standing among others like those Legion members as he reflected on his military career Thursday as part of Creston High School’s Veterans Day program.
“It’s been a big part of my life,” he said via a video played to the student body and audience about his military career.
His 13 years in the Marines has him now as a commanding officer in the Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group in Camp Pendleton, California. He reflected on his life since graduating from Mount Ayr High in 2004. He is a relative of Creston High School teacher Maggie Arnold and retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, also from Ringgold County, is his aunt.
After high school he attended Buena Vista University in Storm Lake and majored in exercise science. Upon finishing Buena Vista in December 2007, he managed fitness gyms in metro-Des Moines with dreams of owning a gym.
“I started out with a lot of debt,” he said. “I wasn’t happy where I was in life.”
While assisting a man who was in the Navy, Whitson said the man encouraged him to visit a military recruiting center. The discussion with the Marine representative caught his attention.
“What do you think about playing for varsity,” he said the recruiter told him, equating the Marines to that level of play. Whitson joined and was directed to officer candidate selection in October 2008.
“The military took me to another level of leadership,” he said. He also equated the moment to his upbringing in rural Ringgold County where other people wore many hats to accomplish things.
“”You do a lot,” he said about his training.
In 2011 he was deployed to Afghanistan to assist with counter insurgency and was on security patrols along the Helmand River, which runs for about 700 miles in the country. The work included meeting elders of the villages along the way. But there was always the threat of insurgents.
“We found lots of bombs,” he said about the work which he called dangerous and challenging. Vehicle check points would reveal the supply chain of weapons, explosives and drugs within the country.
“We caught a lot of bad guys,” he said.
Some of the local residents thought American troops were Russian.
Even though people were captured, Whitson said the threat of being attacked never went away.
“A lot of stuff I was doing in Afghanistan was life-threatening decisions. Be a hard target, never stop moving,” he said about the Marine’s mantra.
He returned from Afghanistan in November 2011 to Camp Pendleton. As a 1st Lt. and second in command of the light armored reconnaissance company, he was responsible for operations of up to 300 Marines and Sailors to prepare for combat deployment. The work sent him around the world from the Horn of Africa, Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong, “lots of cool places.”
Married during his service, Whitson said he and his wife had their first child while he was out of the country. “That’s a tough thing,” he said. His wife is a veterinarian.
Their third child was born earlier this year.
Whitson said his service has made him a “better father, husband and American citizen.” He also noted how partisan politics doesn’t have a place in serving the country.
“I don’t care who you vote for,” he said how people have offered their blood, sweat, tears and lives for the country.
Whitson explained some of the other benefits of joining the service from assisting to pay for college education and better deals on mortgages. He encouraged those listening, who may consider the service, to not make it a quick decision.
“You should anticipate deployment,” he said. “Think about what that means.”
He was well aware of what happened when 13 American troops were killed this summer when evacuating others from Afghanistan.
“Decide where you stand on the topics and it’s OK to change your mind,” he said. “Take time to reflect on our great nation.”
Iowa Senator Joni Ernst also had a recorded message during the service and explained her interest in adding a memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in honor of those who fought in the war on terror. Ernst, who commanded 150 troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom is the first female combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate, has been working across the aisle since 2017 to create a memorial to those who served in the nation’s longest war.
Creston winners in the Voice of Democracy essay winners were: first, Sydney Strunk; second, Ava Adamson and third, Alyssa Gerdes. Sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Voice of Democracy and the essay competitions help foster patriotism among youth.
Quilts were presented to veterans in the service. A brief description of them is included.
Joe Anson: Navy. He initiated the Veterans Wall at the VFW Fields in Creston and has a veterans of the month program.
Fred Burns: Marines. Earned good conduct medal and marksman rifle.
John Coulter: Navy. After graduating from Corning High School And Southwestern Community College, was in the service from 1971 to 1977 and earned various medals.
Ron Gordon: Army. He was stationed in Korea and Vietnam and earned various awards.
Richard Ide: Army. After graduating from Shannon City High in 1950, he was stationed in Korea and earned several medals.
Sharon Moffitt: Air Force. She served during the Vietnam War and is a member of the Union County Veterans Affairs Board.
Kevin Provost: Army. He earned several awards and is the director of Veterans Affairs for Union and Adams counties.
Richard Quinn: Army. He served for 13 years including the National Guard.