OKEECHOBEE — Veteran Jeff Whitlock was born and raised in Okeechobee. He was one of the last babies born in the old hospital before it was torn down. A football player at Okeechobee High School, he graduated in 1996, went to Campbellsville University in Kentucky and played football there as well. He loved Kentucky and said during the years he was there, it snowed every year, which is not always the case in that state. “While I was there, it snowed a LOT! I absolutely fell in love with it.” In his experience, he found the people to be very friendly, too, he said.
He played football for 3 1/2 years, but said he made some bad choices, nothing illegal, but he partied too hard and his grades were not what they should have been. They asked him to leave, and he came back to Okeechobee, where he met his future wife, Tiffany. She advised him to straighten himself out, and he decided to join the military. “I missed being part of a team,” he explained. “It just seemed like the military was a natural fit for me.” He added that when he was young, he was a very aggressive person and felt the Marine Corps would be a perfect fit for him.
After 13 weeks of boot camp at Paris Island, he was sent to Quantico, where he was trained as an 0121 administrative personnel. “I told them I would do whatever the Marine Corps wanted me to do, and because I had a college education, they decided to make me an admin.”
He was sent to Quantico with another man, Honario Rueda, from Okeechobee, who also needed to clean his act up. They were friends then and are still friends now. They even vacation together when time permits. Rueda was also an admin at Quantico.
Whitlock described his job as supporting the Marine Corps University. “I know there are a lot of jokes about Marines not being very smart, but Marines have one of the highest internal education systems for the military, and my job was to make sure that sergeants, staff sergeants, everybody from sergeant up — from E-5 to E-9 — had the opportunity to attend career advancement courses and education courses. I was like a personal liaison to them. I would do their paperwork. I would call their command. I would make sure they were taken care of and that they had all the information they needed. It was a really cool job. I got to know a lot of people that were very high up in the Marine Corps. Because I had that job, it led to the second job, which was even cooler.” He did that job for two years.
For his final year, he was given the opportunity to work across the highway at Quantico in the basic school, next to the FBI Academy. “I helped train officers getting them ready to go to Iraq. Basically, all we did was play war games. It was really cool! It was a lot of fun and really interesting.” Mostly, what Whitlock helped with was nighttime navigation. One of the officers knew he was from Okeechobee. The officer was from Port St. Lucie and knew Okeechobee boys spent a lot of time in the woods, hog hunting and things like that, said Whitlock. “I was comfortable in the woods at night, and I guess I’ve got a really good sense of direction, so I taught officers how to navigate in the woods at night.”
He explained that the guys who train officers are not officers. There are officers involved, but they are not the ones doing the training. It is a complicated situation, he said. The officers have to accept orders from the enlisted personnel. “You can tell them what to do, and you can tell them how to do it, but it’s still the chain of command.” The men doing the instructing still have to be respectful. “You’re still enlisted, and you still respect their rank as an officer.” Once in a while there are issues during training, where an officer does not want to respect the training from enlisted personnel, he said, but the issues are addressed by other officers.
Whitlock served four years in the military before his discharge, when he returned to Okeechobee and married Tiffany. He worked for Buxton & Bass Funeral Home for seven years before deciding to go back to college to finish his education. He took his GI Bill and used it to go back to college at the age of 34. When he went back, he had to do 2 1/2 years, because his grades were so bad the first time he went to college. The second time around, he was on the president’s list every semester! Going in, his GPA was below 2.0 and finishing up, it was 3.23.
His degree was in health care management, but he did not end up using it. He was offered a dream position coaching at Okeechobee High School and couldn’t pass it up. He also teaches ESE students. “I love my job, because in essence, my job is to support students who need extra help and motivate them to do better. I absolutely love that. I call myself a motivational specialist for students.” He is an assistant coach with the varsity and is the JV head football coach. He coaches linebackers. In addition, he coaches girls’ weightlifting and girls’ flag football.
During the summer, Whitlock works with the nonprofit Men of Distinction, which helps mentor young men in the community. He and head football coach Tyrone Smith run the program every summer and typically have 50 to 70 young men from the high school involved. The program has a sports component. They are also fed breakfast and lunch, because some of the young men are not fed as well when school is not in session. They take them on trips and spend time speaking “life” to them. “I like to use the things I’ve done wrong in my life and be honest about those things with the young men I speak to. I talk to them about going to college or the vocational route or the military. We discuss that you have to do SOMETHING. When you graduate from Okeechobee High School, you have to do something. You have to go to college. You have to go to vocational school. You have to become an apprentice. You have to join the military. You have to do something. You’ve got to get a piece of paper from somebody saying someone’s got to pay you decent money.”
They also talk about what it means to be a good man and a good father and how to treat other people. Some of them don’t have good examples. “I try my hardest to be an honest and good example to those young men. It’s something I am very proud of.” This is something he feels called to do. He knows many veterans are called to support other veterans, and he said he is grateful those men are there, but he feels personally called to support the next generation. This is where he feels he is needed.
Whitlock has four children of his own — three sons, Trevor Brady, Reed and Logan Whitlock and a daughter, Abby Whitlock.
Tiffany works at Bella Rose Day Spa.