East Peoria Soldier retires after more than 32 years of service
Story by Staff Sgt. Aleah M. Castrejon, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs Office
SPRINGFIELD, IL (02/04/2015)(readMedia)-- EAST PEORIA, Ill. – Sgt. Maj. Vernon K. Wilfinger of East Peoria, Illinois, retired this month after more than 32 years of service including 30 years as an Active Guard Reserve (AGR) Soldier in the Illinois Army National Guard.
"I'll miss the Soldiers, the people I've worked with and the camaraderie with the Soldiers," said Wilfinger.
During his last assignment, he served as the operations sergeant major for the 65th Troop Command while also serving as the 65th's command sergeant major.
"I have only known Sergeant Major Wilfinger for about five years, but the day I met him I immediately recognized a level of familiarity with him that made me feel like I have known him for a lifetime," said Chief Warrant Officer (3) Tyler Penley of Sherman, Illinois, with Joint Force Headquarters in Springfield, Illinois.
Wilfinger, born in Shreveport, Louisiana, enlisted in the Illinois Army National Guard in 1982 as an infantry Soldier with Company B, 1st Battalion, 123rd Infantry in Delavan, Illinois.
"Being patriotic influenced my decision to join the military," said Wilfinger. "I was also going through tough times without a job and thought it was a good way to earn some money while serving my country."
The son of a pastor, Wilfinger lived in several states throughout his childhood.
"The military grounded me and caused me to mature," said Wilfinger. "I was a bit of a challenge as a young man and the military gave me a sense of purpose and provided me with the discipline I needed."
Wilfinger held many positions throughout his career including operations noncommissioned (NCO) officer, first sergeant and operations sergeant major. He served two deployments: as the operations sergeant of airport security for all regional and international airports in Illinois with the 33rd Military Police (MP) Battalion for Noble Eagle from 2001 to 2002 and Operations Iraqi Freedom from 2006 to 2007 in Camp Bucca, Iraq. In Iraq, Wilfinger served as the operations sergeant major for the 33rd MP Battalion based in Bloomington, Illinois. He also served as the senior NCO for security forces and was responsible for the Base Defense Operations Center.
"He is a true noncommissioned officer," said Lt. Col. Charles Kitson of Springfield, Illinois, with the 65th Troop Command. "In our time working together, there was never any doubt that I could go to him. His actions only strengthened my belief in the noncommissioned officer corps. I was able to point to him as the example for others to follow."
Col. Melissa R. Beauman of Glenarm, Illinois, with Joint Force Headquarters in Springfield, Illinois, said she considered Wilfinger a mentor.
"He taught me how to take things in stride and not take things so personally," said Beauman. "He taught me to have fun with what you are doing and not be so serious."
Wilfinger said he has a great deal of satisfaction in his career and he would not change anything.
"I've met great people and Soldiers," said Wilfinger. "I've served with some of the finest and I envy the Soldiers who are just beginning their career."
Kitson said many Soldiers routinely stopped at his office to check in, due to the lasting impression Wilfinger left on his fellow Soldiers. Beauman reiterated Kitson's words.
"He was an amazing leader; he took care of his Soldiers and took a personal interest in those he worked with," said Beauman.
Wilfinger recalled many retired Soldiers who influenced his career the most and served as mentors during the last three decades.
"Sgt. 1st Class (ret.) David Frost, Brig. Gen. (ret.) Stanley Thompson, Master Sgt. (ret.) Jim Jones, Sgt. Maj. (ret.) Michael Graves, Col. (ret.) John Prickett and Sgt. Maj. (ret.) Donald Legge to name a few, have all shown me what a Soldier should be like," said Wilfinger.
Wilfinger echoes their advice to the Soldiers today.
"After 30 years of truly selfless service, Sergeant Major Wilfinger deserves to rest, ride and repeat at his leisure," said Penley. "We were lucky to have served with such an outstanding noncommissioned officer and I hope that we can all honor his legacy by propagating the values he so easily displayed."
Wilfinger has seen many changes in the military over the last 30 years and gives departing words to his troops and their future military careers.
"Never lose sight of what we are in this organization for," said Wilfinger. "That is to defend this nation and this state. Never take your oath lightly."
After retirement, Wilfinger said he and his wife, Bonnie, plan to travel, remodel their house and simply relax without working. Mountain biking is one hobby he plans to invest a great deal of time.
Wilfinger gives thanks to his family, wife, Bonnie, two children Keith and Kyle, and mother-in-law, Jeanne Witherell.
"They are the most important people in my life," said Wilfinger. "It is their love and support that helped me throughout my career."
Sgt. Maj. Vernon K. Wilfinger of East Peoria, Illinois, with the 65th Troop Command in Springfield, Illinois, retires this month after more than 32 years of service including 30 years as an active duty Soldier in the Illinois Army National Guard. (Courtesy photo)