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Rockville Centre man climbs ranks to lead National Guard battalion

Local chocolate company CEO takes command of New York’s 69th Infantry

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Lt. Col. Joseph Whaley, right, received the colors of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry from Col. Christopher Cronin, the commander of the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, during change of command ceremonies held on March 16 at the Cooper Union in Manhattan.
Lt. Col. Joseph Whaley, right, received the colors of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry from Col. Christopher Cronin, the commander of the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, during change of command ceremonies held on March 16 at the Cooper Union in Manhattan.
Courtesy Sgt. Andrew Valenza

Lt. Col. Joseph Whaley’s double life of leading a chocolate company and the New York National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry can get hectic at times.

“Battalion commander is a lot of responsibility, and there’s a lot of moving pieces,” said Whaley, 44, of Rockville Centre.

But commanding the 800-soldier battalion he has served in over the last two decades was a duty he said he has wanted for a long time. He officially took charge on March 16 during the 69th Infantry’s Unit Day ceremonies at The Cooper Union in Manhattan after New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which the group has led since 1851. Lt. Col. Don Makay, who has led the unit since 2016, is moving into a new assignment as the executive officer of the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which is based in Syracuse.

“I’ve worked hard, and it was always a dream of mine to take over,” Whaley told the Herald.

Whaley grew up in Northport and moved to Rockville Centre in 2008, where he lives with his wife, Colleen, and four children. He recalled going to a football game at the United States Military Academy at West Point when he was about 10. From then, he had his sights set on serving his country.

He went on to attend West Point, and graduated in 1997. He served active duty in the 10th Mountain Division, a light infantry division in the Army based in upstate Fort Drum. He joined the National Guard’s 69th Infantry in 2000, during what Whaley described as “a lull time in the world.”

That changed, he noted, when on Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States. The 69th Infantry, comprising about 680 soldiers at the time, were among the first to respond to downtown Manhattan, where two jets struck each tower at the World Trade Center, arriving at about 11 a.m. During their several months at Ground Zero, Whaley and his fellow soldiers ensured perimeter security, went on search-and-rescue missions and did “everything in between,” he said.

In 2004, Whaley was deployed to Iraq with the 69th Infantry for 20 months, doing various patrolling missions. The group was stationed in Taji for the first five months through Iraq’s elections, and afterward controlled the Route Irish, a term used for the main road between Baghdad International Airport and the center of the city. Many dignitaries traveled along the road, Whaley said, and it was a hotspot for vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.

“Every day there was something for sure,” he said. “We lost 19 of our soldiers on that deployment.”

Whaley served as a platoon leader while in Iraq and became executive officer of the battalion in 2012, a role which he held for two years. Now, as commander, he is responsible for about 800 soldiers, helping coordinate and plan various trainings for the battalion throughout the year, including a two-week training in Fort Drum in June.

The Army National Guard is a federal military reserve force, and some would label soldiers’ service in it as a part-time job, Whaley said. But, he noted, they are trained to “shoot and move and communicate and do everything that Army infantry soldiers do.”

The National Guard and Reserve units made up about 45 percent of the total force sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Military.com. “While we were over there, the tide had changed, because the [Army’s] active component was stretched to their limits,” Whaley said. “It changed the whole focus of the Guard. We became a much more ready force.”

As Whaley makes sure his soldiers are ready for service, he also runs Chocolate Works, headquartered in Freeport. His father, John, started 5th Avenue Chocolatiere in 1973, and Whaley founded Chocolate Works years later, taking over as president and chief executive officer.

There are 20 Chocolate Works stores in the tri-state area, as well as in Pennsylvania, Missouri and California.

While running the business, Whaley keeps his Army computer and iPhone close by, he said, and visits his commander office in Manhattan several times a week.

“He understands the complexity, dedication and friction that all National Guard Soldiers face while balancing their civilian lives, their love of the Army and their dedication to fight for both our nation’s freedom and strategic national interests,” said Col. Christopher Cronin, commander of the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, in a news release. “Your selection is a credit to the quality officer that you are.”