2023 Distinguished Alumni Award Winner: Distinguished Achievement
Robert Carpenter (87C)
Reflecting on his 31.5-year career as a U.S. Navy chaplain and 27 years of pastoral ministry, Robert Carpenter testifies of two things: the faithfulness of God and the impact his experience as one of the inaugural WinShape Scholars at Berry had on his life.
A severe stutterer from the age of 9, Carpenter arrived on campus with a speech impediment so severe he needed to rely on friends to introduce him on the first day of class. At Berry, he found a community where "people accepted me for who I was regardless of how I talked." He flourished, becoming a cheerleader as a sophomore, and during his junior and senior years, being selected as a resident assistant at Pilgrim Hall and serving on KCAB.
Among those who most influenced his life were Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy and his wife, Jeannette. They not only paved the way for Carpenter to find and attend Berry, but Mr. Cathy encouraged him to pursue God's calling when he felt led away from the Chick-fil-A career both had envisioned. "Truett told me, 'Robert, if God is calling you, you have to go find out what he wants you to do.' And he reminded me that God would be faithful to me and enable me to do what he required of me."
Carpenter stepped out on faith, moving back home to Virginia Beach with the love and support of his parents, Joyce and Bobby; brother Jeff; and sister Karen. He met his future wife, Suzanne, at church the next year (they will celebrate 33 years of marriage in December!). With their encouragement along with that of his mother-in-law Betty, he became a Master of Divinity student at Southern Seminary and also applied for the Navy Chaplain Corps. After meeting a high-ranking officer - a doctor with four stripes on his sleeve - Robert was told his stuttering was severe but the officer saw a drive and determination in him that would not let what he perceived as a handicap stop him from doing what he was called to do.
That prediction proved correct as Carpenter became a full Navy chaplain and pastor of his first church, telling the parishioners that he had a message for them if they'd just be patient. Soon after, he heard about the Precision Fluency Shaping Program, where in three weeks he learned the mechanics of 85 to 95 percent fluent speech. "I've spoken before groups of 3,000 and 4,000 people. It is the power of what God has done."
Throughout his decorated career in the Navy and as a pastor, Carpenter was known for his strong voice that soared skyward in honor of fallen heroes at Arlington National Cemetery and whose soaring prayers have comforted families of the fallen. He was one of the chaplains assigned to minister to the families of Sailors lost in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. He retired in September 2021 after serving as a chaplain with the Navy and Marine Corps, ending his career with the rank of Captain. His final overseas deployment was as the senior U.S. military chaplain at the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, located in the country of Djibouti.
"I've had some great experiences in the military, but being chaplain at Arlington was one of the best. I never lost the awe of being part of that ministry. Every service is for a hero."
Carpenter went on to earn two Doctor of Ministry degrees from Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, with specializations in church growth and evangelism and in expository preaching, and pastored four churches during his years of ministry. He now enjoys retirement with Suzanne, teaches master's and doctoral classes as a part-time professor at Regent University, and serves as a part-time chaplain for Chick-fil-A restaurants in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, bringing his ministry and his gratitude for the Cathy family full circle.