Chronicles of a Hero

By: Steven Whitsitt

February 5, 1988. I won’t forget it for as long as I live. There was snow up to the door handle on the Datsun that sat in the driveway. I was at my aunt’s house, snowed in with my cousins, waiting for the news. We had been outside building snowmen. It was the most snow my young, six year old eyes had ever seen. Finally, my aunt called us in and I heard the words I had been waiting to hear. “Geoffrey was born today!”

I remember feeling a great deal of pride and fear. I knew that having a brother would be different. I knew I would have to share my toys, share my mom and dad, share attention. But, at long last, I finally had someone to play with, who would never have to leave to go home.

A few months later.  I had a small, red rocking chair that I loved to sit on. I would sit on it to watch Sesame Street or read books. I would snuggle up with my favorite stuffed animal, Ginger, a boxer dog, that my Grandfather had given me. I would scratch Spotty Body, my real dog, behind the ears.

When I was brave enough to finally do it, I remember asking my mom if I could hold Geoff while I sat on my rocking chair. I remember her handing me this small, insignificant, bundle of joy, swaddled in a baby blanket, and setting him in my small arms. That is when I realized just how significant he was. He was my brother. He was my comrade in adventures that were destined to happen. He was the one person I could rely on for a good time. Well, once he got older.

We were watching Sesame Street, and I was explaining to him what numbers and colors were. I remember him looking up at me and smiling. Then, out of nowhere at all, he burped and spit up! It scared me to the point of moving my left arm from under his head. His little noggin slammed down hard onto the arm rest of my red chair and he started to cry. Mom came in and took him up in her arms and calmed him down.

I don’t think I held him again, though other sources, like my mom and dad would probably differ that.

A few years later. When we moved to our new house, with 85 acres of land, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. There was so much to do; to explore. I couldn’t wait for Geoff to be big enough to romp the woods and fields and climb trees with me. Eventually he did and I remember we would spend hours outside, exploring, building forts, finding old house foundations and little knick knacks that  we would collect and keep as souvenirs .

As the years progressed, and he was able to hold his own, we would have play wars in the woods across the driveway from us, and shoot at each other with our stick guns. We would sword fight and break sticks on trees, pretending they were exploding buildings and cars. That’s when he started to gain and interest in soldier type things. Little did any of us know, but it was a foreshadowing of his future occupation: a soldier in the United States Army.

Late elementary school, early middle school years. Geoffrey, from somewhere in the great universe, was gifted with a singing voice that would rival other kids his age. It was a piece of amazing, beautiful, manly, art. He would sing in the shower, in the car, in the yard. Anywhere he could sing he would. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” And his voice was a joyful noise! My parents heard the potential he had, and when they were told about the Furman University Children’s Choir, they took him to audition. I remember that the director was blown away a how in tune with the piano his voice was, and he was given a spot in the choir.

He looked so handsome in his uniform for the choir. And, when he had to learn a new song, he would put his heart and soul into it. When the musical Godspell came to the Peace Center in Greenville, he was thrilled to be a part of it. At this time, I had a job and I bought two tickets to the show, one for me, and one for him. I remember looking over at him and seeing the amazement at the show he was watching. I really believe that it took him to a different place, somewhere bigger them himself.

Once his voice changed, he was not able to continue on with the Choir, but I remember that he would still sing his heart out.

Schooling. Geoffrey and I were blessed to be homeschooled. My experience with it was eight years of learning at home, where I would read and absorb all I could. Geoff was homeschooled sporadically, but he was blessed with having great teachers in school. When we were told that Greenville Tech had a charter high school, my parents took the opportunity to get Geoff into the school. There, he excelled. He was chosen by the school to attend.

Geoff ran cross country and, while doing that, he was able to run and run and run! I could imagine Forrest Gump, running across the United States when I thought of Geoff running. I was so proud of him when I was told that he had been able to cut several minutes off his final run as a cross country athlete, from his original first time run. He was, and is, one of the only people I know that has pushed himself to the point of perfection.

But, though Geoff was a star runner, at least in the eyes of my parents and me, he was very humble. I heard that he gave another runner, who couldn’t afford a new pair of running shoes, his own pair of running shoes, asking nothing in return.

When I joined the Navy in 2005, Geoff always would hassle me, telling me that, if he ever became an officer in the military someday, he would make sure I would salute him and call him Sir. We would laugh about it and wrestle over it.  I could tell in his demeanor and attitude that he was proud of his big brother being a Sailor.

I will never forget when he called me up and asked me if he should join the Air Force or the Army. The Air Force offered him a really great job, being a survival gear packer for fighter planes, and having his name stenciled on the side of the plane. But I advised him that I thought he should join the Army because it’s something he had wanted to do since he knew what the Army was.

When I got word that he had spoken with the Army recruiter, and had passed his ASVAB test, and picked the MOS of Military Police, I felt the same pride he must have felt towards me. I was proud to know that my blood brother would be my brother in arms.

2008. I was on deployment when he was in boot camp. But, when he started his MP school, and later, his Airborne school, I was home in Ingleside, TX. I had returned from Bahrain, and eager to go see my family. I had met my future wife, Megan, and I wanted her to meet my family.

After Megan and I were engaged, there was no other person I wanted by my side then Geoff.

August 8, 2008. The day of the wedding, I remember, was warm. No, hot. I was in my dress whites, standing in the bathroom at Lake Robinson. Geoff was there too, getting dressed in his Class A uniform. I stood in awe that this man standing next to me, dressed as a soldier with his ribbons and battalion accolades, had been that little baby I had held in my arms. I remember that in my minds body, I had tears in my eyes. We inspected each other, making sure our ribbons were straight, our covers tidy and centered on our heads. He inspected my shave and my haircut. He patted me on the shoulder and said, “Let’s go get you married!”

As we walked down the side of the dock at Lake Robinson, my heart welled up with pride that I was being escorted to the preacher by my brother. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation.

Fort Bragg is one of the biggest places I have ever set foot on. Geoff escorted my new bride and me with pride and dignity throughout the base, pointing out the Army way of doing things. He was proud to be a part of something much bigger then himself; bigger than any of us.

Geoff always told me that he thought I should jump out of an airplane at least once. I told him I preferred to stay in the plane, eating the plane food, enjoying the security of my seatbelt and air mask, in case of a change of pressure inside the airplane. He would just laugh at me and call me a wuss.

I remember when I deployed, Megan would tell me that Geoff had called her, just to chat and check on her. When an unknown number would call her and make silly noises, Geoff offered his protection, even calling the number and threatening arrest to the caller. He looked out for Megan as if she was his own sister.

Geoff deployed to Afghanistan, with the hopes of fulfilling his dream of becoming an Army Ranger. He made an effort to make himself known to his superiors, putting himself out there as a volunteer, doing everything in his power to get noticed. Not in a smart, annoying way, but to make himself stand out above the rest. I heard that he was asked for advice on how to do missions, the best plan of action. He was well respected among his unit.

When Megan and I found out we were pregnant with our first child, I let Geoff know via email he was going to be an uncle. He made it a point to let everyone know. And, from what I have been told, he did it on a daily basis. In fact, it got to the point that he was told, “Private Whitsitt, shut the hell up! We ALL know you are going to be an uncle.” But that didn’t stop him. He still told everyone.

The Darkest Day: January 13, 2010. While on deployment to Bahrain, I made it a point to call Megan in the morning and in the evening. Morning time for me was night time for her, and night time for me was morning for her. The 13th was no different. I woke up, got dressed, at pancakes, two over easy eggs, some bacon and coffee, and went out to the fantail to call Megan. As I dialed the number, I didn’t know what was going to be on the other end.

Have you ever called someone and you immediately know when the phone is answered that something is wrong? That is what that phone call was. I said, “Good morning, sweetheart. How are you doing?”

Silence.

“Meg, are you there?”

There was a brief silence again. Then the words that only happen in movies. The words that only happen in books. The only words that are uttered in television shows.  The words that should never be uttered.

Never.

“Geoffrey is dead.”

It took a minute to soak in.

I do not remember the words after that. I swear to God I don’t.

Geoffrey is dead resonated through my brains. It didn’t make sense. Who is Geoffrey? A friend? Dead? What’s that mean?

Finally, I knew what she was talking about.

I crumbled onto the deck of the ship. My breath was gone. All the noise on the pier and ship was gone. I couldn’t hear anything. The only thing I could hear was my world crumbling.

I screamed. I screamed so loud that I didn’t even hear it. I looked around and a guy on the ship ran to me. He is a big black guy who is kind and nice. He put his arms under my armpits and lifted me up.  I couldn’t stand. My legs were like rubber.

When he put my head to his chest I handed my phone to another guy on the ship. He took it to his ear. He hung up. Get him inside, he directed Taylor. Sit him down. Get Chief. Get Doc.

They took me to a room in the ship and I sat on the chair. Taylor was on his knees, looking at me. What’s wrong? Is it the baby? Is it your wife?

“No. My brother is dead.”

I’ll forever be grateful to my command for the support and love they gave me. Within hours of the news, I was able to arrange to be flown home for the funeral. Throughout that day, so many people were checking on me, making sure I was ok. Never before had I had so many people making sure I was ok, bringing me coffee or snacks or giving me a hug.

You just don’t have that kind of camaraderie in the civilian sector.

The flight home was long. I cried. I slept. I listened to music. I cried some more. I’m not a very good person to sit next to on a 12 hour flight because chances are I won’t talk to you. I like my flights to be quiet.

When I landed in the United States I was met by my wife. She was my strong rock. But still I was so numb that it didn’t matter what was said to me. I was supposed to be the strong one. Five deployments to the Bahrain, a sailor that had been to Iraq and all throughout the Arabian Gulf, witnessing things that were crazy, that would bring a normal person to their knees, and I was supposed to be the strong on.

We went to South Carolina and to my parent’s house. Through the process of arrangements and going to the funeral home and picking music and who would speak, I found that people really do care about us, the ones who defend freedom and democracy around the world. You hear so many stories of the hate and distrust in the military because we “kill children”. “The war is useless.” Those sorts of things.

The flight home. We knew that Geoff would be flying into GSP Airport, on a private jet, escorted by America’s best. As we went to the bay, I watched as my parents, the two people that I thought were superheroes stand there in the cold, windy rain, watching as the plane landed. I stood there, in my dress blues, next to my amazing wife and watched as they brought the flag draped casket out of the plane.

The memories of childhood games and stick wars flooded my mind. The words unsaid, the beers not enjoyed, the tattoos not endured. I did something that Geoff had promised me I would do someday. I saluted him.

When we turned to leave the bay, I was shocked and blown away to see hundreds of people, old, young, military, retired, news reporters, police, standing there, tears in their eyes, supporting us. I was blown away to see the parade of Patriot Guard riders on their Harleys waiting to escort the procession.

Even in the blistering cold, there were so many people that showed up.

As we drove from the airport to the funeral home, thousands of people with flags were lined up along the street, waving at us, saluting us, crying. An image I will always remember is seeing a Marine, the hardest of the hardest in the military, standing by a stop sign, weeping, but saluting. I do not know who he was, but I would love the opportunity to find him, shake his hand and thank him.

At the funeral home, we were allowed to see Geoff. I went into the room by myself and wept like I never had before. In that box lay the greatest man I had ever known. He was in his uniform, his ribbons just perfect, and his maroon Airborne beret perfect.

I do not remember what I told him, but I know I told him I loved him and that Madelynn, our yet unborn child, and any other children Megan and I had would hear about him.

It was a day that will haunt me forever.

The funeral was amazing. Bob Inglis spoke, reading what he wrote for the Congressional Record. It was breathtaking. At the cemetery, hundreds of people gathered. When the Honor Guard folded the flag, I stood at attention, honoring my brother who had given his life for freedom and safety, giving my children the right to live in a country that was founded on bravery and God.

I stood there; saluting my brother during the 21-gun salute and as Taps was played. It was of the highest honor I could have given Geoff.

When I returned to the ship I worked hard to earn my ESWS pin. ESWS stands for Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist.  But instead of dedicating it to the hard work and memorization and hours I studied for it, I dedicated it to the memory of my brother. And in that crowd of sailors, standing on the forecastle of the ship, with the Arabian Gulf and oil platforms as the backdrop, there were tears to be seen.

Upon a leave period I took with my wife and daughter back to South Carolina, I bought a six pack, went to Geoff’s grave and poured a beer for him. I drank my beer. And I gave him my ESWS pin. He would have wanted that.

I do not want any readers of these Chronicles to feel sorry for my family. I do not want you to feel sorry for me.

But I want readers of these Chronicles to realize and recognize how great a man SPC Geoffrey Alexander Whitsitt was. He overcame obstacles to achieve his goals. He didn’t let shin splints prevent him of being a Paratrooper. He didn’t allow his skinny stature prevent him of being the top of his class in MP school. I didn’t even allow the fact that, though miles separated him from our parents, deter him from being the best soldier he could be.

He was a Soldier of the world’s greatest Army, and a soldier of God. He loved God will all his heart and soul. I can say with confidence that we will reunite with each other someday. He cared for the people of Afghanistan and hated the hatred that had begun the war.

He loved his family. He loved our parents and my wife and his niece. And he loved me.

When Geoff was killed by that IED on January 13th, yes, I lost a brother. But my girls gained a guardian angel. I believe with all my heart that he watches over my two daughters, Madelynn and Brynn, and I’m convinced that at night, when they are laughing or talking and no one is in the room with them, they are laughing at Geoff and talking to him.

I believe that Geoff would be honored, though it would show reserved, that A Hero’s 5k was put together in his honor. But I believe that he would want the other soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, to be remembered as well.

SPC Geoffrey Alexander Whitsitt, 118th MP 503BN was a man of honor and dignity and extreme courage and bravery.

He was my brother, a freedom fighter, a brother-in-law, an uncle, a son; and a Soldier.

 

MN2 (SW) Steven S. Whitsitt, Jr.

United States Navy

 

 

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