Riley Whaling stood on simmering asphalt in a parking lot, with the warm July sun beating down upon him. The Vanguard University student and Communication major was undergoing inspection as part of Officer Candidate School in the United States Marine Corps. His drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Perkins, was about to say something important to him.
“You’re the kind of guy who is probably going to finish up officer candidate school, say it was a good experience, but not going to do anything with his life. You’re going to go around and collect cool things that you’ve done.”
Perkins’ words would sting Whaling. They lingered in his heart for a long while, and he wondered if his superior officer was right. It would take time for him to find the answer.
Vanguard Communication majors can be found in all areas of the professional world. One can find them working in post-production on Hollywood TV shows and films, starting their own non-profit organizations, shooting and photographing professional sports, working in media and public relations and attending some of the country’s most prestigious graduate schools.
But only one has been a Marine officer – and deep into the heart of war-torn Afghanistan – serving his country: Riley Whaling.
Whaling had become interested in the military when he was a young boy and a member of the Young Marines, an organization run by the Marine Corps League, a collection of current and former Marines who desire to improve the lives of young men by serving as male role models and introducing them to military-like activities. Through this, Whaling became smitten with the military life early, and vowed one day to become a part of it. He went on to have what he calls a “pretty standard” upbringing in Orange County, playing sports and being a typical boy.
After graduating high school, he realized that he needed to become closer to God and make some changes in his life. He came to know the Lord in a deeper way through regular worship at a church his mother and stepfather planted in Huntington Beach. Shortly thereafter, he enrolled in Golden West College and began the process of figuring out what he wanted to do with his life.
After graduating from Golden West College in 2004, Whaling transferred to Vanguard and initially enrolled as a Biblical Studies major. But he soon switched his major to Communication, where he believed his skills and talents would be better suited. At about the same time, one of the most intense battles in the war in Iraq was taking place in Fallujah, between insurgents and the Marines. Seeing and hearing about the Marines’ battle reminded Whaling of his long desire to go into the military. “I said to myself, you know what? I’ve always wanted to do this. I’ve always wanted to be an officer, so I should do this now.” Like many young men, the call to serve his country in a time of need was too strong to ignore. “If I don’t do this, I might regret it someday.”
So while still a student at Vanguard, Whaling began looking into how he could best serve his country through his favorite branch of military: the United States Marine Corps. He wanted to not only become a Marine, but an officer. He next found himself sitting across from a Marine recruiter. “After a talk, he handed me a big pile of paperwork and said ‘If you really want this, think about it and bring all this paperwork back to me, filled out.’ And then he never called me again,” Whaling says with a smile. “The Marine Officer Corps is like, if you want to be here, you’ll be here. If you don’t want to be here, we don’t want you here.”
Riley Whaling wanted to be there.
Having filled out that pile of paperwork, Whaling would soon discover that he had been accepted to Officer Candidate School. “Officer Candidate School is kind of like the tryout. It doesn’t mean that you’re in. It’s the first place where they can see you and see if they want to train you.” So in the summer of 2006, right before his last semester at Vanguard, he went to Quantico, Virginia to take part in ten weeks of training and military education. “It is an intense training period and not for the weak. If it can be hard, they make it hard. My platoon started with sixty-nine officers and graduated forty-eight.” In fact, Whaling said, twenty-five guys dropped out simply after hearing the commanding officer’s speech on the first day.
After finishing Officer Candidate School, he returned to Vanguard and received his B.A. in Communication. Next, he was required to partake in Officer Training School, where he specialized in Public Affairs, along with receiving the traditional basic training.
Once he completed the education and training, he was assigned to work in the public affairs department of Camp Pendleton. By now, Whaling was married and he and his wife were preparing to settle down in San Clemente. At Camp Pendleton, he was responsible for media relations, a Marine newspaper and a TV station. He found himself not only using what he had been taught by the Marines, but also drawing heavily from his communication education at Vanguard. What Whaling didn’t know, however, was that very soon he would be able to use his Vanguard education in ways that he never dreamed.
After a year and a half of a serene and content life working for the Marines in his native southern California, Riley Whaling was sent to Afghanistan where he had been chosen to be a leader for the NATO Regional Command South Headquarters, Psychological Operations Team. He and a small group of other Marines and soldiers traveled around executing psychological warfare by promoting the message of the American military and attempting to develop positive relationships with the Afghan people and community leaders. They did this by talking to Afghans over the loudspeaker, writing and distributing pamphlets and speaking with them face to face. Whaling says his Vanguard-taught writing and editing skills were extremely valuable during these operations.
Only ten days after he had arrived in Afghanistan, he was on foot patrol in the Bala Morghab valley aiding in a search for two American soldiers that had gone missing in that part of the country. At the time, it was national news and many Americans back home were well aware of the lost soldiers. During this time, the area in which the soldiers were lost became mired in intense battle.
“As the Americans pushed across the river, the whole town just blows up and explodes in fighting. Force on force, big stuff, Raptors, Apache helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles flying around dropping bombs on stuff. This went on for three days.” On the fourth day, in an effort to help the fight through psychological operations, Whaling’s major “puts me on a helicopter, we fly a couple of hours north and we were just thrown into this situation.” He was assigned to help with what is known as key leader engagement, where he was responsible for aiding the unit commander in that area by talking to the leaders of the village, the respected elders and finding out what they know – to try and retrieve the missing Americans. “The Americans wanted their boys.” This effort was deemed “Operation Hero Recovery.”
Whaling says that he also participated in “shuras,” which were like staff meetings between the unit commander and the community leaders. Here they to tried to establish a peaceful and productive line of communication to find out where the missing soldiers might be.
In many cases, Whaling and his fellow soldiers didn’t speak the native language, so they used interpreters. But, he says, there was still direct communication between he and the Afghan people through non-verbal communication. “I used stuff from my very first class at Vanguard: Interpersonal Communication. A lot of it just came down to interpersonal communication, like how do you make someone feel comfortable when you can’t speak the same language?” Whaling says that he used things that he learned in the class such as body language, mirroring others and reciprocating gestures. “A lot of that just came naturally from my communication education.”
Thanks to the efforts of Whaling, his colleagues and commander, the soldiers were eventually found. Sadly, they were not alive. But there was a sense of closure because they were able to at least locate the bodies and get them back to their families. Whaling says that while it was unfortunate the soldiers died, the process of using communication with the Afghan people to find them enabled the Americans to make significant strides in the relationships with the people of that area of Afghanistan. “It was the beginning of a big transformation and the colonel was able to use that as a launching pad for great work.”
Whaling’s second major operation began when he was reassigned to a 16-man team to be a western mentor to the public relations officer of a brand new Afghan Army unit. “I was put on a team overnight. I got told to pack a bag, and that I’d be gone for a week. I didn’t come back for three months.”
Whaling’s job was to be a partner to the public relations officer of this Afghan Army unit and to assist him in finding weaknesses in the Taliban propaganda. Working together, they also had to find ways to fight against the Taliban, using communication, instead of traditional weapons. “Not only did we have to communicate information to the Afghan Army and the Afghan people, but we also had to counter the Taliban propaganda.”
Again, Whaling credits his Vanguard Communication degree for being invaluable deep in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan. “I don’t know if the Lord was preparing me for something, but my Media Criticism paper was on visual communications and propaganda. The basis of my work was communicating without words, communicating with just images and just telling a story without using any language. My Media Crit work was a wonderful foundation.”
But Whaling’s use of communication in Afghanistan was not just theoretical. It was also technical. While at Vanguard, he gained a wealth of knowledge and practical experience in photography and video production. “Professor Ann-Caryn Cleveland spent a lot of time teaching me to use video and media production stuff and my job was to turn around and teach the Afghans how to use it,” he says. “One of my proudest moments was seeing a guy that I taught how to use a camera, turn around and teach his guys how to use it.”
With his tour of Afghanistan over, Whaling returned to the states and found himself in the fortunate position to be selected for promotion to Captain. But with his required duty completed, his mind wandered back to that hot day in Quantico, Virginia when Gunnery Sergeant Perkins had challenged him to make a difference. He privately felt “I’ve done my part. Now I just want to go on with the rest of my life.”
Whaling decided to return to civilian life.
These days you can find him working as an intern at his church in San Clemente, Pacific Coast Church, where he works with the youth of the high school and junior high ministries. He is also enrolled in graduate school at Hope International University, getting a degree in Christian Ministry. “I want to mentor people, young men especially. Help the young men get through the trials of life.” Whaling is not sure exactly where this will lead him, but he has a strong desire to develop relationships with young people, become a part of their lives and mentor them. “Anywhere I can do that, that’s where I want to go.”
He feels sure that Gunnery Sergeant Perkins would be proud of him, knowing what he is up to today. “I know I’d be able to look him in the eye and say I did something good, and that I’m different, because of what he said to me that day.”