Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Dunkelberger didn’t think of himself as a career military man when he enlisted in the Army. He joined with the intention of serving for four years, gaining some life experience and perhaps seeing some of the world.
“It was something I wanted to try out – something new,” Dunkelberger said. “Instead of something that I thought I would like, the Army turned out to be something that I loved.”
It was this love that led Dunkelberger to several positions in which he trained young Soldiers to become leaders. One of those leaders, his oldest daughter, was recently stationed on Fort Drum.
Growing up in Sunbury, Pa., Dunkelberger spent a great deal of time outdoors. As a youth, he worked on farms and helped his family with chores such as cutting firewood.
A visit with his sister and brother-in-law prompted him to consider joining the military.
“My brother-in-law was stationed at Fort Carson, Colo.,” he said. “I got to go out there and spend the whole summer with him. After that, I started to lean toward joining the Army.”
Dunkelberger’s father, a World War II veteran, wholeheartedly supported his decision to enlist.
“My father was in Sasebo, during the occupation of Japan,” Dunkelberger said. “He didn’t tell me a lot of stories about his experiences in the war until I told him that I was interested in joining the Army. That’s when the stories and the pictures started coming out.
“He was pretty excited when I told him I was thinking about enlisting, but he wanted me to know both sides of being in the military,” he continued. “He wanted me to realize there is always the possibility of going to war.”
Dunkelberger enlisted in 1985, and he was excited to receive his first duty assignment to Fort Carson.
“I didn’t see myself being in the Army past that first tour, yet here I am 28 and a half years later,” Dunkelberger said. “I always tell people it’s like National Geographic: life unscripted. You never know what’s going to happen.”
“I started off as a driver of an M-113 personnel carrier,” he recalled. “I did that for about two months and was given acting corporal stripes and made a noncommissioned officer. I became the track commander for the vehicle, and my career took off from there.
“I joke with people that I never wore anything but private rank for two months after basic training, and for the rest of my career I’ve never worn anything but NCO rank.”
It was an unusual circumstance to be named an acting corporal so early, Dunkelberger said.
It would prove to be the first of many pivotal occurrences that changed the course of his military career.
Dunkelberger served as platoon sergeant, drill sergeant, recruiter, first sergeant, battalion command sergeant major and brigade command sergeant major, to name just a few of his many roles.
Through each assignment, he said he gained a greater love for the Army and a stronger desire to be a leader of Soldiers. He kept the words of his mentor, Sgt 1st Class Carl Brown, in mind.
“He taught me that you train Soldiers to be prepared to go to war, but to pray for peace,” Dunkelberger said. “Part of being prepared is giving 100 percent in your training. I have always had that mentality – to try to get people to strive for excellence.”
While stationed in Fayetteville, N.C., Dunkelberger’s oldest daughter Brandy was an active member of her high school’s Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps. At just 17 years old, she asked her father to sign a parental consent, allowing her to be a part of the Delayed Entry Program.
“I wasn’t apprehensive at all when she told me she wanted to enlist,” he said. “I had been a drill sergeant and an Army recruiter. I knew that the Army really does a good job of taking care of their Soldiers.
“I also knew that if I, as a recruiter, was trying to convince parents to let their sons and daughters go into the military, I couldn’t have any apprehension whatsoever about allowing my daughter to join.”
Dunkelberger said that as a result of having a father who was a drill instructor, he felt his daughter may have been more prepared for the challenges of basic training.
“I think that she knew what to expect and was mentally a little more prepared than others.”
After basic training, she went on to Advanced Individual Training in San Antonio. Dunkelberger was attending Sergeants Major Academy in El Paso, and he flew to San Antonio to spend Thanksgiving with her.
After completing AIT, she and her father continued to visit as often as possible despite deployments, new duty stations and the inevitable changes that come with being in the Army.
In 2006, Dunkelberger remarried. He and his wife Irma each had four children from previous marriages, and they adjusted to life as a blended Family.
Three of Dunkelberger’s four children are currently serving in the military.
In 2007, Brandy Dunkelberger married her husband, Howard Gifford. Soon thereafter, she began to prepare for her first deployment.
Although Dunkelberger said he had no qualms about his daughter entering the Army, he admitted he was a little apprehensive when Gifford told him she would be deploying for the first time.
“When you’re in the 82nd Airborne, you are always on recall. You’re prepared to deploy at any time. I was never afraid to deploy, but I was a little nervous when Brandy said she would be deploying.”
Dunkelberger knew that Gifford’s job as a combat medic would often put her very close to the action.
“Brandy was assigned to a military police battalion in Iraq,” Dunkelberger said. “MP units are always out protecting convoys, and there are very much in middle of the conflict at times. She was right there with them.”
“In World War II, you knew where the front lines were,” he said. “In the wars we are fighting today in Afghanistan, and even when we had forces in Iraq, the whole country is the war. There is no line in the sand that defines the front line.”
Gifford returned from deployment safely in 2010.
In 2011, Dunkelberger was selected to become the commandant of Fort Drum’s Noncommissioned Officer Academy.
When it came time to re-enlist in 2013, Gifford had a few options in terms of her duty station. She chose Fort Drum and arrived on post in late October.
“We had been distanced by several hundred miles for the last eight years, so I was excited to have her close,” Dunkelberger said. “It’s a unique opportunity and a unique experience having a daughter who is stationed on the same installation.”
He said that it’s wonderful to be able to spend time with Gifford, her husband and their newborn son. He also said he looks forward to continuing to watch his daughter grow as a Soldier and a leader.
“Over the course of the last 28 years, I’ve really enjoyed what I do,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed the camaraderie. I’ve enjoyed the ability to influence and touch the lives of so many people – not just Soldiers, but also civilians in different lands. That’s kind of my theme everywhere I go: to try to make things better than they were I got there. Now I get to see my daughter doing the same – having a positive impact everywhere she goes.”
In her father’s footsteps
Growing up as a “military brat” was challenging at times, Sgt. Brandy Gifford recalled.
“Most of the time, we only lived in the same place for one or two years, so I didn’t have a lot of time to make friends. I did get to see a lot of places and had a lot of different opportunities, and we had a very close Family.”
Although her father was a drill instructor, Gifford said that he rarely had to push her to work hard and succeed while growing up.
“I always put a lot of pressure on myself,” she said. “I got straight As. I took a lot of precollege courses in high school. I tried to always be proactive.”
Gifford said that although she recognized that the Army lifestyle can be challenging, she always thought it was an excellent option for her.
“I knew that joining the Army would help me pay for school. I had always wanted to be an obstetrician / gynecologist, and being a (combat medic) was the closest I could get in the Army.”
She completed her high school coursework ahead of schedule, and she spent months getting ready for basic training. She said her father helped her to prepare for some of challenges he knew she would face there.
“He’d wake me up early to go for a run,” Gifford said. “Some mornings he would come into my room and flick the lights on and off and shout ‘wake up, Soldier.’ So, I think I was really mentally prepared for basic training and knew what to expect.”
Basic training was challenging, but she said it was an experience that she enjoyed as well.
“I knew I would have to work hard, and I was ready to do that,” she said.
Her father wrote her letters often, encouraging her to continue to give her best efforts. Sometimes, his letters were addressed with just his last name. Other times, he included his rank on the return address.
“He would address letters from Command Sgt. Maj. Dunkelberger,” she recalled. “When the drill sergeants would get my letters they would say ‘oh, you think you’re special because you’re a command sergeant major’s daughter? Do 50 push-ups!’”
“I think a lot of people expected that because my father is higher ranking I would expect to be treated differently,” Gifford said. “I definitely do not. I take pride in earning that respect on my own.”
Throughout AIT, she continued to strive for excellence. She spent long hours studying, and she took her coursework very seriously.
“I’ve always been very driven,” Gifford said. “Knowing that I would be taking care of other people made me want to work that much harder.”
Within a unit, Gifford said, everyone’s job is important. Soldiers rely upon their fellow servicemen and women to do their job well. This was especially important as she deployed with her unit for the first time in 2009.
“On our forward operating base, I was the only female medic,” Gifford said. “We were with Special Forces and the military police and one infantry company. Whenever they had missions that involved female detainees or civilians, they always took me.”
“Sometimes I would have two or three missions a day between all of the units, but I really liked it. I got to deal with children and families. I really got to see a very different culture close up, and it was a real eye-opener.”
Although her job often put her in the center of the action, Gifford said she tried not to think about the danger involved, but rather to focus on doing her job – caring for her platoon members.
“I knew when I was deployed the danger could come from anywhere. We never thought about who was closer to the action. In my platoon, I always knew they were going to take care of me and I was going to take care of them.”
Here on Fort Drum, Gifford takes care of Family Members at Guthrie Clinic.
“It’s definitely different than caring for Soldiers in a combat situation, but it’s just as important to me to take care of their Families,” she said. “I also love seeing the kids that come in.”
Gifford said she is extremely proud of the work her father has done to train young Soldiers for leadership positions.
She said it is her hope that she, too, can train her Soldiers to be strong individuals who care about one another and about their patients.
“I always teach my Soldiers to treat every patient like they are your Family,” she said. “Treat them the way you would want your Family to be treated.
“Be fair, and take care of everyone, because you never know when they will be taking care of you – that’s something I live by, and a message I want to pass on to my son.”