For Staff Sgt. David Whitcher of Bradford, full military honors at his funeral painted a very clear picture

  • The hearse carrying the coffin of Army Staff Sgt. David Whitcher of Bradford passes under a flag draped by the Concord and Bradford fire departments at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 11/16/2016 8:25:41 PM

Army Staff Sgt. David Whitcher, the Bradford resident killed in a Special Forces diving accident earlier this month, knew what he wanted to do by grade school.

That’s why he took a cot from a local dump to sleep on. He wanted that Army feel.

“He saw the movie The Green Berets with John Wayne when he was a child and that was game over,” Diana Perkel, who married Whitcher’s half brother, said Wednesday at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen, where Whitcher was given a full military burial. “He decided to be a Green Beret as a child, so he went out and found that Army cot. He just made things for himself.”

Added Whitcher’s nephew, Kyle Robbins, “He was quiet and reserved, a quiet, strong type, like Cool Hand Luke.”

While the comparisons to Hollywood’s greatest actors sought to elevate Whitcher’s status, his dedication to the military and his death at age 30 was no piece of fiction.

Whitcher was killed Nov. 2 during a Special Forces dive exercise off the coast of Key West, Fla. The Army announced the news two days later, adding that the incident was under investigation. No further information has been released.

But while his death remains a mystery to the public, the grief left behind by the father from Bradford was palpable Wednesday during his funeral.

A silence-shattering, three-volley gun salute, sniffles, “Taps” and silence combined to set a somber mood as the sun struggled to peek through the clouds.

Whitcher had a wife, a young son and six siblings. The immediate family guarded their privacy during Wednesday’s church service and burial, but I discovered a few nuggets from the cemetery scene.

Whitcher and Victoria towed a solar-powered tiny house he’d built from New Hampshire to Alaska, where he was stationed in 2013.

“I said, ‘There’s no way you’re going to get all this up there and drive all the way from here to Alaska,’ ” said Jason Reynolds of Bristol, a family friend. “Victoria just looked at me and said, ‘If David says we can do it, we can do it,’ and they did it. He was so confident in what he could do.”

I also learned that while in Alaska, Whitcher carried his little son, David Jr., in a hiking backpack and walked through the woods as part of his training.

I learned that he enlisted in the National Guard in 2008 as a carpentry and masonry specialist; he deployed twice to Afghanistan as a Guard member; he graduated from the Special Forces Qualification Course; and he was working his way through the Combat Diver Qualification Course when he died.

Medals and honors? Too many to list all of them here.

“It hurts whenever any of our brothers gives the ultimate sacrifice,” Eric Morrill of Lebanon, who served with Whitcher in Afghanistan in 2010, told me before the ceremony.

Whitcher was a leader, something that Robbins, seven years younger than his uncle, mentioned to me.

“I was like a puppy, I followed him around and he used to set up booby traps to get me not to follow him when we were younger,” Robbins said. “I’d walk out of my grandmother’s with a new injury every time.”

Mel Pfeifle, who owns a kennel in Bradford, employed Whitcher as a teen and said he and the military fit perfectly.

“He was a real introvert and the military really broadened his horizons,” Pfeifle said. “He went full force and it sort of woke him up to life. He had great opportunities presented to him and he did it with a zest for life.”

John Pfeifle, Mel’s husband, chairs the Bradford select board, which voted Monday to dedicate the town’s 4th of July celebration, its parade and fireworks display, to Whitcher. He would have been 31 that day.

“We also voted to double the fireworks,” Mel Pfeifle told me.

That will be a more festive occasion, celebrating a fallen soldier’s life. Not so Wednesday. Too soon for that.

The eight pallbearers, Green Berets wearing full dress blue uniforms and white gloves, stood together before the short ceremony, with names like Arnold and Clark and Reilly and Bowman visible on their tags.

Eight members of the honor guard stood like statues in the distance, ready to fire their rifles, and a bugler stood to their left, alone in a grassy area.

Whitcher’s American-flag draped casket was lifted from the back of a hearse and carried to the area where his family sat, with each step by the pallbearers quick and rhythmic in the grass.

After the three volley shots echoed through the air, causing a baby to cry, the bugler played “Taps.” Then a bell rang and the flag was folded tightly and presented to Victoria Whitcher in the front row by a Green Beret, who was kneeling.

He leaned in and whispered something to Victoria, who cried openly through the silence, clutched the flag and rocked back and forth.

Then she rose from her chair, walked a few steps and kissed her husband’s casket.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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