When bad things happen to good people

8 Dec 2008 | Cpl. Jessica Martinez

Imagine stepping out for a typical morning jog. The air is crisp, the sun is bright, and the cool breeze is blowing. Then, the next thing you know, you’re starring at the ceiling of a hospital.

That is precisely what happened to Cmdr. Robert Carpenter, currently assigned to the Reserve Support Unit and Deployment Processing Command. He is also serving as the deputy command chaplain for Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.  

“It was Wednesday, and it was just like any other day,” said Carpenter. “I remember looking east and seeing the sun and it was really bright that particular morning. I finished stretching in my yard and then started jogging. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital.”

Carpenter was hit from behind by a truck, Nov. 17, 1999.

“I don’t remember ever hearing it or seeing it,” said Carpenter. “To this day, I have no memory of the vehicle being there.”

Carpenter was told by a state trooper, that the driver who hit him couldn’t see anything because the sun was so bright.

“My wife told me when she arrived at the hospital the first day I didn’t recognize her, I didn’t know who she was,” said Carpenter. “My first memory is waking up two days later. I heard the doctors in my room talking about me being paralyzed because of the fractures in my spine from the accident, and I was extremely scared. I didn’t know what was going on. I felt pain in my hips and back . . . pain like I’ve never experienced before.”

Soon Carpenter’s doctors informed him he had three fractures in his spine. He was moved from Modest Town, Va., to Norfolk, Va., where he would receive a consultation from a neurosurgeon. The surgeon decided to place Carpenter in a clam shell-like brace that supported his spine, from his shoulders down to his waist, to allow his back time to heal.

“The surgeon told me if the fractures moved even the slightest bit, I’d be paralyzed from the neck down,” said Carpenter. “Every two weeks I would go see the doctor to have X-rays done to measure the spacing of the fractures between my vertebrae.”

Recovery took four and a half months for Carpenter. During that time, he said he experienced many personal and spiritual challenges and fears.

“I experienced days and many sleepless nights when I asked God why this happened to me,” said Carpenter. “There were times when I felt like my prayers hit the ceiling and bounced back down. My faith in God and my trust in his word gave me strength to know that God did in fact hear my prayers, but in my humanity there where times when I became fearful of the threat of paralysis.”

Before the accident, Carpenter was an active man, running six to eight miles a day and weightlifting to keep up with the Marines in Officer Candidate School and The Basic School at Quantico, Va. 

“After the accident, I couldn’t brush my own teeth,” said Carpenter. “My wife had to bathe me. I remember struggling with the reality, I could be paralyzed for the rest of my life. With the realism of my injury, I was very fearful and afraid.”

As a minister and chaplain, Carpenter said he visits with service members and families who are going through hard times.

“Before I started visiting with people, I could minister to them, but I couldn’t relate to them,” said Carpenter. “Since the accident, I can relate and minister to people on a much deeper level because of what I went through myself.”

Carpenter may not be 100 percent back to the way he was before the accident, but people wouldn’t notice today that he had ever endured such a challenge. He still has some physical limitations, but they’re unrevealing.

“Chaplain Carpenter has taught me a lot,” said Lance Cpl. Richard A. Hampt, chaplain manager with Midway Park Chapel, assigned to Wounded Warrior Battalion East. “We have very similar stories. I got hurt in Iraq in a vehicle accident and injured my neck and back. I was told by the doctors if I moved my neck, I could be paralyzed, so they placed my neck in a brace.”

Hampt’s accident happened during July 2007. Since then, he isn’t paralyzed, but he still struggles and deals with constant chronic pain.

“I do pray, and it gives me hope and helps strengthen my faith knowing Chaplain Carpenter is proof of answered prayers,” said Hampt. “He’s an all-around good guy and mentor, and it brightens up your spirit when he’s near.”

Carpenter is proof that bad things often happen to good people. Although he is a chaplain, it shows they’re challenged and go through hardships like any other person. Carpenter took his accident and pulled something positive from it to continue to help and minister to people.

“As a result of my experiences after the accident, my ministry here has been greatly broadened,” said Carpenter. “As I visit and counsel with our wounded warriors who are returning from war zones with serious and life long injuries, I share with them my accident experiences and let them know that I personally struggled with my faith even though I’m a chaplain.”

He said his prayer remains the same as he shares with them what he went through.

“I pray they will find the same comfort and peace God provided me on my darkest days,” said Carpenter.