War hero Ty Carter went to the White House on Monday to receive the military’s highest achievement for valor. He did so with a heavy heart, still battling the demons from the day that earned him the honor.
“The reality of the award is that I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” Carter recently told Yahoo News. “Imagine yourself in the worst possible situation you can think of. We’re talking about you’ve got members of your family being killed in front of you or in severe pain and you have no choice but to try to help them.”
President Barack Obama presented Army Staff Sgt. Carter the Medal of Honor for the gallantry shown on Oct. 3, 2009, when he faced death multiple times to assist comrades during a fierce firefight with Taliban insurgents. Eight U.S. soldiers were killed when Combat Outpost Keating was ambushed, making it one of the deadliest battles for Americans in the Afghan war. Two dozen more were injured.
A seven-page Army narrative on his heroics details how Carter, then a specialist, sprinted across open fields to fetch ammo for others, killed insurgents and risked his life to recover a mortally wounded comrade who was pinned down by enemy fire and crying out “Help me, please.” He did all this while under heavy small arms and indirect fire that lasted more than six hours, the Army states.
“He displayed the essence of true heroism,” Obama said Monday. “Not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
Carter, 33, says he’s never been one to take credit. Instead, he wants the attention to serve as a reminder that “there’s still a war going on and that it isn’t all ‘Call of Duty’ and computer games.”
“This medal represents so much more than me, and it’s my responsibility to give it the honor it deserves,” says Carter, who wears a bracelet on his right wrist bearing the names of the soldiers lost that day.
The battle occurred a year after Carter enlisted in the Army. He had been a Marine from 1998 to 2003, and after that he had bounced from job to job – movie theater manager, tow truck driver and nursing assistant to name a few – before rejoining the military.
“I sucked at being a civilian,” he recalls. “I had a job where I had no real purpose. I was just showing up, doing the same thing over and over again.”
He becomes the fifth living recipient to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Seven medals have been awarded posthumously.
“I was pleasantly surprised, but I wasn’t shocked,” said retired 1st Sgt. Jonathan G. Hill, who was Carter’s platoon sergeant at the outpost.
“In my heart I knew deep down inside that it was going to happen eventually, because knowing what he went through and knowing the extraordinary circumstances that he and everyone else had faced,” Hill told the Army News Service. “I couldn’t be prouder.”
Carter, now stationed near Seattle, didn’t escape the battle unscathed. He has permanent hearing loss and ringing in his left ear from a grenade blast. Counseling and his family help him cope with the guilt that he couldn’t save more lives.
Alone time to reflect and remember is also therapeutic, he says.
“That helps me get through the day so that I don’t just randomly have a severe flashback to where I’m trying to choke back tears in the middle of a highway driving home,” Carter says. “You have to plan for stuff like that.”
He wants to use his time in the spotlight to encourage fellow service members to also seek behavioral health assistance for post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s an issue he believes would be less of a stigma if it were just called post-traumatic stress.
“When they think of disorder, they think of a chemical imbalance or whatever,” Carter says. “I believe it’s your body and mind’s natural reaction to when something really bad happens. It remembers and helps you remember so that you can avoid the situation. Anxiety, flashbacks, flinching, stuff like that, that’s all your body and mind telling you, ‘Hey something bad happened in the past,’ and it doesn’t want it to happen in the future.”
On Monday, Obama applauded Carter's willingness go public about his post-traumatic stress. The president then had a candid message for other veterans or troops struggling with mental health issues.
“Look at this man. Look at this soldier. Look at this warrior. He’s as tough as they come, and if he can find the courage and the strength to not only seek help but to also speak out about it, to take care of himself and to stay strong, then so can you,” Obama said.
A military investigation later blamed command failures for putting American troops in a vulnerable position at Keating, an isolated outpost whose closure had been repeatedly delayed. Carter and 52 other soldiers were outnumbered almost 8 to 1 but managed to defend the post from being overrun.
“You can’t make war friendly,” Carter says. “Yes, it was a bad situation. I don’t really hold any ill will. The fact that eight men died, that’s the problem I have. I don’t think that any soldier or any person needs to die for any war. But without the threat of war, there is no peace.”