Retired Marine Cpl. Kyle Carpenter will be awarded the Medal of Honor for valor in Afghanistan, the White House announced May 19. He is just the third Marine from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to earn the military's highest award. (James Sanborn / Staff)
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Since that fateful day in Afghanistan when he covered a grenade to shield a friend from the blast, retired Marine Cpl. Kyle Carpenter has endured tremendous pain and countless surgeries. But the experience also profoundly changed his outlook on life.
Although friends say he has always been friendly, considerate and sincere — “the most genuine person you’ll ever meet,” in the words of his friend Michael Tinari, then a lance corporal in the same platoon — Carpenter says he has gained a newfound appreciation for the simple joys of life and a new sense of direction for rest of his days.
He is also grateful for his experiences in Afghanistan, which he calls the highlight of his Marine career. It was there that he forged even deeper bonds with his fellow Marines, “the people that I will be the closest with ever,” he said.
Carpenter, 24, who will become only the second living Marine from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to receive the nation’s highest award for valor, deployed to Helmand province in 2010 with 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines. His squad was tasked with setting up a new patrol base miles into an insurgent stronghold.
They immediately began taking fire, including a grenade attack Nov. 20 that injured two Marines. The next day, while he and Lance Cpl. Nicholas Eufrazio were manning a rooftop position, an enemy grenade landed inside their sandbags. Carpenter doesn’t remember much of the moments leading up to the detonation that tore through his body, but those who were there say they are certain he tried to sacrifice himself to save a friend.
Carpenter was declared dead on arrival after being medevaced. But he was revived and has made a spectacular recovery after more than 30 surgeries and 2½ years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He has completed the Marine Corps Marathon, cranked out pull-ups, finished a mud run, jumped from a plane and skied in Colorado. And he is just getting warmed up, he said.
Now working on his undergraduate degree at the University of South Carolina, Carpenter said he wants to dedicate the rest of his life to helping others who face adversity.
Just days before the the White House announced he would become the next Medal of Honor recipient, Marine Corps Times had the opportunity to sit down with Carpenter during a media roundtable at the Pentagon and discuss his actions on that rooftop in Helmand, his road to recovery and his plans for the future. Here are excerpts of that interview:
Q. What does the announcement that you will receive the MoH mean to you?
A. I actually struggled a little bit upon hearing it, because there’s a lot of guys that have been more severely injured than me and, most importantly, there’s been some service members that haven’t even had the chance to make it back and spend two and a half years in the hospital recovering. But now I am transitioning into the thought process that this is really going to be something that I can wear for all of them and something that will help me help those less fortunate in the military. It’s something that will help me bring a spotlight onto the ones that are still in the hospital, that are still dealing on a daily basis with their injuries.”
Q. Can you take us back to the attack and tell us all what was going through your mind?
A. I don’t really remember much of that day. It is funny because you would think I would remember more before the blast and the injury, but it’s actually reverse.
Q. What do you remember afterward?
A. I felt like my whole body — and my, especially — was hit really hard with a two-by-four. And if you would look at a TV and see black-and-white fuzzy, that is what my vision was. And my ears were ringing very loudly. I felt like warm water was being poured all over me from the blood coming out. And I searched with my tongue and I couldn’t feel any of my jaw because of the trauma and everything that was missing.
I remember my buddies yelling at me. I sounded like they were a football field away. I remember them yelling, “You are going to make it!” And I remember trying to tell them that I was going to die. I truly felt that. I thought about my family, and it made me upset because I knew how devastated and upset they would be that I didn’t make it out of Afghanistan alive. And then I made peace with God. Six weeks later I woke up in Bethesda, Maryland.
Q. When you hear what you did, what do you think?
A. To be honest, I don’t know why I didn’t get that [grenade] and punt it right back to them (chuckle). I am proud of what I did, but I can’t connect all the dots. I did what I did, I got injured and I make the best of it.
Q. Where do you think the impulse to shield your comrades came from?
A. The fellow Marine that I was with on that roof — I love him like a brother. On the training aspect of things, the battle-buddy system is drilled into us, and taking care of junior Marines before yourself. He was junior to me. A sergeant will never eat before a corporal. If there is not enough food, oh well, that is his job at that rank.
Q. Several of the Marines you served with said they never doubted for a moment that you deserved the Medal of Honor. How does that make you feel?
A. I feel like if the roles were reversed, I would say the same thing. But it directly turns right back around on my parents and my family, the way I was raised, the friends that I grew up with, the people that I have met that helped me along the way, because, obviously, nobody gets to where they are without people behind them.
Q. What were your specific injuries?
A. You’re going to need more room in that notebook. I lost my right eye. My left eye was somewhat affected, but not too bad. Both eardrums were blown. The carotid artery in my neck was injured. They had to patch that. The majority of my teeth were blown out. A lot of my jaw was missing. That is the bulk of my time at Walter Reed. Pretty much everything from the eyes down was reconstructed from plates and metal. My right arm was a limb salvage. It took a lot of damage and there were a lot of surgeries just to get it to where I could somewhat use it. My left arm, my wrist and hand had a lot of breaks, but that arm was mostly tissue and blood vessel damage. I had a collapsed right lung. I took a little shrapnel to my left leg and a good bit to the right side of my leg. I’m sure there is more, but those are the major ones.”
Q. How do you think these events shaped your character? Did they change you?
A. As far as my perspective on life, it has very much changed that. I find a great amount of joy in just a nice day, rolling my windows down and driving around — simple things like that. You know, people don’t realize there are kids who, from the second they can walk, are with no shoes, working in the same field their entire life. And they are born and they die in the exact same mud hut, with farm animals around them. On a bad day you just look at it in perspective and know that it really wasn’t that bad.
Q. What would you say was the hardest part of your recovery?
A. For months and months and months my mom brushed my teeth for me, and I’m sure it drove her crazy because I was like, “Oh, you missed a spot. You didn’t put my socks on right.” She will tell you she had a lot of patience with me. But just going from toting a machine gun in Afghanistan and obviously being self-sufficient, to using a bed pan and I can’t even put my own socks on. I guess that was the hardest part. Just letting other people help me.
A. Why did you decide to enlist?
Q. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. Regret is a scary thing and it is one of my only fears. I didn’t want to wake up and say, down the road, I had missed my opportunity.
Q. What was your favorite part about being a Marine?
A. I would say the best time of being a Marine was Afghanistan. Not obviously for the scenery or the fun events over there, but there will never be a time where I am sleeping in the dirt and I haven’t showered in four months and I am with 50 other people that I will be the closest with ever. If I look at it that way, I am very thankful for Afghanistan. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
Q. Can you imagine where you are going to be in 10 years?
A. I want to be successful. Possibly a family and, like I said earlier, I want to make a positive impact on people’s lives. I don’t know in detail specific plans. I just want to be a good person and do good things really.
Q. Any advice for junior Marines?
A. I would say appreciate what you are taught. Appreciate the hard times. Learn from everything. You can always become a better leader and a better person. Enjoy your time, because one day you will miss it.