Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Samantha Rose Whitehead was a beacon of happiness who dedicated her life to helping others, her family and co-workers said.
She was sarcastic, funny, blunt and not afraid to stand up to any rank if she knew she was in the right.
The corpsman died on July 29 as a result of a heat injury sustained on July 16, while she was attending the Field Medical Training Battalion–East on Camp Lejeune, North Carolina ― a requirement for Navy corpsman to serve alongside Marines in the fleet.
“It’s hard to just sum Sam up in a couple of words,” Sadie Villarrubia, Whitehead’s friend and cousin, told Marine Corps Times in a phone call. “Sam was cool.”
Christopher Whitehead, the corpsman’s husband, said her unit was conducting physical training in the hot North Carolina afternoon, when suddenly his wife started to have a seizure and passed out due to the extreme heat and humidity.
The weather report that day shows that it would have been between 85 degrees Fahrenheit and 89 degrees Fahrenheit with a humidity rate between 67 percent and 77 percent during the time of the workout.
“They didn’t contact me until 1 a.m.,” Christopher Whitehead told Marine Corps Times.
The delay happened because the unit had the wrong phone number down as her emergency contact, he said.
The Marine Corps has not given any other details about the incident, but says an investigation is still ongoing.
Despite the delay, by 4 a.m. Christopher Whitehead, along with Villarrubia and her mother, Gabrielle, had started the 17-hour drive from southeast Texas to North Carolina.
Once they arrived at her hospital bed, the friends and family members started a rotation to keep a constant watch on the young corpsman.
They even made sure her favorite TV show, “Forensic Files,” was on for her final few days.
Doctors initially seemed hopeful Samantha Whitehead would recover, according to her husband, but eventually it became clear that her brain had suffered too much damage due to oxygen depravation suffered before reaching the hospital.
‘Bright and bubbly’
Samantha Whitehead had enlisted in the Navy in 2015 and became a corpsman because she wanted to help people.
But after enlisting, she quickly developed another goal: to one day become a chief petty officer.
“She was so dedicated to getting chief as soon as she could … she was working her ass off,” Christopher Whitehead said.
She worked so hard at her job that her husband was worried she would burn out.
Her co-workers sometimes had to order her to go home as she was working late into the evening, he said.
She often would follow that order just long enough to watch those leaders go home, before sneaking back into the office to finish off last pieces of paperwork and organization, Christopher Whitehead said.
She was so impressive at her job that when she asked co-worker Aircrew Survival Equipmentman Petty Officer First Class Kai Scott to be her mentor, he wasn’t sure if he had anything he could teach her.
By the time Scott checked into Sam Whitehead’s unit at Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 1, the young corpsman already had made a name for herself as an exemplarily sailor.
“It kind of threw me off a bit,” Scott told Marine Corps Times.
“This sailor is a rock star,” he said. “By the time I checked in she was already going up for junior sailor of the year and she ended up winning.”
Scott said Samantha Whitehead knew just about every facet of her job ― and if she ever ran into a question she would look it up and make sure she knew the answer then on out.
That knowledge and the corpsman’s confidence led to her being very direct with everyone she interacted with, Scott said, regardless of rank.
Her friends fondly remember Samantha Whitehead applying that directness in her personal life.
“She’s doesn’t know when to keep her mouth shut and she tells you the brutal truth and I love that about her,” Villarrubia said.
With the bluntness came a charm that drew people in.
“She’s very bright and bubbly,” Yeoman Petty Officer 1st Class Maya Cowser said. “She lights up the room no matter what room she goes into.”
She added that Samantha Whitehead would greet everyone in the room with a joke and question about how they were getting through the day.
When Scott met Samantha Whitehead he was still getting over the death of his best friend. When Whitehead noticed he was grieving, she immediately started talking to him and helped him work through the tragedy.
“Sam helped me get through that entire thing, and it helped me a lot,” Scott said.
The desire to help people pushed her into becoming a corpsman and led her to being an organ donor, Christopher Whitehead said.
Though she was pronounced brain-dead on July 29, the family kept her body alive long enough to donate her heart, liver and both kidneys to a patient needing a transplant, while other parts of her body were donated to science.
“With how much she loved helping people and how much she loved medical stuff, I thought it would be nice to give her one final opportunity to help people,” Christopher Whitehead said.
Her death came as an abrupt shock to all who knew her.
But to get through it, Scott said he has been remembering her upbeat attitude and pieces of advice.
He said he often thinks of one of her most used phrases.
“Have a good day, make good choices.”