Chaplain ministers through near-death experience
Story and photo by Sgt. Keith S. VanKlompenberg
139th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) Public Affairs
CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE MAREZ, Iraq — Army chaplains provide many different religious services for Soldiers, but they also provide a sounding board for those dealing with difficult situations in both their personal lives and military careers.
Capt. Geoffrey Whitaker, the garrison chaplain at Contingency Operating Base Marez, Iraq, with the Regimental Fires Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), has used his own near-death experience and unlikely recovery to reach out to his Soldiers.
"I was a SEAL team officer in my former life," he said.
Whitaker, a Murphy, N.C., native, said in 2003, during a tour in the Middle East, he had a speed rope accident and fell from a helicopter, landing on his head.
His skull was crushed and he was unconscious for 10 days. Even after life-saving brain surgery, Whitaker said he was given a 10 percent chance of surviving and an even smaller chance of recovering.
Whitaker said it was a miracle he did not break his neck, and credited much of it to his lifetime of wrestling.
"My doctors said, 'Next to the hand of God, you need to be thankful for those neck muscles,'" he said.
Whitaker said he defied the odds and made a full recovery, returning to full duty with the SEALs within 12 months. He said he owes his recovery to the thousands of people praying for him around the world.
"I've been a part of churches everywhere I've lived," he said. "My friend network was global."
After his recovery, Whitaker went back and read all the cards he had received in the hospital and did some math to find out how many people were praying for him. He estimated the number was more than 60,000.
"That's really what this story is about," he said.
Toward the end of 2004, Whitaker said he felt a calling to enter the chaplain's corps for the Navy. When he was offered a job coaching wrestling at Tennessee Temple University, Whitaker transferred to the Army Reserves and moved to Tennessee.
He said he felt he owed something to wrestling, as it had once saved his life.
As a chaplain, Whitaker has been able to use his experience as a SEAL to reach Soldiers in need, said Cpl. Michael Hankins, a chaplain assistant with the RFS, 278th ACR and a Memphis, Tenn., native.
"I think his experience in the SEAL team really attracts Soldiers to him," he said. "Having that experience kind of gives him a one-up on other chaplains."
Hankins said coaching is also a huge part of Whitaker's life, and he sees it in his counseling style.
"He uses that connection that he would normally have with his wrestlers … to relate to his Soldiers," he said.
Even though Whitaker has undergone life-changing events, Hankins said he is the same energetic man he always was.
"He's still a warrior," said Hankins, "but he's a spiritual warrior now."
Capt. Geoffrey Whitaker, the garrison chaplain at Contingency Operating Base Marez, Iraq, with the Regimental Fires Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and a Murphy, N.C., native, leads an Easter service April 4 at St. Elijah Monastery at COB Marez. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Keith S. VanKlompenberg)