Healthy Spirit

From the battlefield to the pulpit

Written by James Combs

Chet Coker has been a faithful servant to God and country.

Chet Coker was lying face down in a Korean rice paddy field when he made a life-changing plea to God. 

The 40 bullet and shrapnel holes throughout his body were covered in maggots. Dehydration left his lips so cracked that he used his own urine to wet them. His only means of mobility was to lay on his stomach, dig his fingers into the earth, and pull himself forward. 

“I said, ‘Lord, if you’ll simply see me through this experience, I’ll serve you the rest of my life.’” 

Chet spent 15 agonizing days behind enemy lines during the Korean War. But a merciful God—implored by that powerful prayer—granted Chet a return home and allowed him to become a soldier for the Lord.  

Chet, 87, has served as a pastor for 60 years and today leads Christian Ministries Worship Center in Leesburg. 

“Seeing people come into a right relationship with God is the greatest job in the world,” he says. 

‘War is hell’

Chet’s prayer came in October 1951, nearly 13 months after he joined the Army and was assigned to the First Cavalry Division. He fought in several gruesome battles, but nothing compared to the one on a blood-soaked mountain near the 38th Parallel, the line separating North and South Korea. 

His company was ordered to capture a hill in the valley of Magoree occupied by Chinese soldiers. During the daylong battle, U.S. forces repelled two counterattacks, but by the third, they were low on ammunition and being overrun. 

Nightfall arrived. Chet took cover in different foxholes, and twice he was hit by grenade shrapnel. 

“The first one came across my back and landed on my right hip between me and the dirt. I put my hand on the wound and my hand just sunk into my body,” he says. “The second one blew me part way out of the hole. I was unconscious but not sure for how long. At that point, it was every man for himself.”

At 3am, Chet, unable to stand, began using his arms to pull himself forward and move off the hill. He saw another soldier, Thomas LaBerge, of Virginia, who had been shot through both legs and in the back. Together, they maneuvered their way to a foxhole on the side of a ridge. They spent three days and two nights there, remaining silent and motionless to avoid detection.

“We had no water, and we both had lost blood and were feverish,” Chet recalls. 

On the third day, a Chinese soldier spotted them and reached for his pistol. Chet closed his eyes and prayed. 

“When I opened my eyes, I saw him walking toward a group of 12 Chinese soldiers building a bunker nearby,” Chet says. “They all started walking quickly toward us. I told Tom, ‘I think this is the end of the line.’ Then, out of nowhere, an American artillery round fell right in the midst of them. It was a miracle.”

For the next 12 nights, Chet and Tom used the cover of darkness to crawl alongside a creek running through the valley. Eventually, Chet was unable to move. Tom would scoot down to the river on his buttocks, fill up a canteen with water, and pour the water into Chet’s mouth. 

“I would drink as much as I could, and by the last swallow, I was as thirsty as the first one,” Chet says. “I couldn’t even lift my hand to pour it down my mouth.”

Fifteen days after the battle started, Chet and Tom were rescued by American soldiers. Chet spent nearly four months in a Japanese hospital before returning to the United States. He weighed 98 pounds. 


A new mission

After serving his country, Chet eventually enrolled at Florida Baptist Theological College to serve God. During his career, he has pastored seven churches, established three nondenominational churches, and completed missionary work in the Philippines and Guatemala.

“All these years I’ve continued fighting evil,” he says. “But instead of using a rifle, I’m fighting with the word of God.” 

As he approaches his 88th birthday in June, Chet’s mind is sharp and his energy level is high. He preaches every Sunday and is spearheading an effort to renovate a 3,700-square foot Leesburg home into a community mission center providing food and clothing.

When asked about the possibility of retirement, he flexed his arm.

“As long as the Lord gives me strength, I’m going to continue blazing a trail,” he says.

That’s wonderful news to church members such as Leesburg resident Tammy Bennett.

“Brother Chet has been very influential in my life over the years and continues to be to this day,” she says. “I will forever be grateful that God spared his life in Korea.”

Chet is equally grateful. Not a day goes by when his mind doesn’t return to that bloody battlefield. 

“It’s something you never forget,” he says. “Every day, I pray to the Lord for getting me through.” 

About the author

James Combs

Akers Media Group's James Combs has been a staff writer for several local publications since August 2000. He has had the privilege of interviewing some of Lake County’s many fascinating residents—from innovative business owners to heroic war veterans—and bringing their stories to life. A resident of Lake County since 1986, James recently embarked on a journey to lead a healthier lifestyle. He has lost 60 pounds and walks nearly five miles a day. In his spare time, he enjoys target shooting, skeet shooting and watching his beloved Kentucky Wildcats!

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