It was not a smooth path for retired Lance Cpl. William Kyle Carpenter to the White House dais, where Thursday he was awarded the Medal of Honor – America’s most revered military citation – for extraordinary valor in the open desert fields and muddy canals of southern Afghanistan.
There had been some question about whether Mr. Carpenter really had made the almost unfathomably selfless decision to throw his body on a grenade in the midst of battle, in an effort to save the life of a fellow Marine during an enemy attack in restive Helmand Province in November 2010.
That’s in large part because Carpenter himself couldn’t remember what had happened, since the blast had left him with amnesia. The Marine Corps continued to investigate his case for more than a year – part of the exhaustive process of authentication that the US military embarks upon when a Medal of Honor is under consideration.
In the meantime, Carpenter’s fellow Marines came to his defense, insisting that he had, without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own safety, thrown his body on the grenade. “Grenade blasts blow up; they don’t blow down,” one of his fellow troops told the Marine Corps Times. “If he hadn’t done it, what we found would have looked completely different.”
One pound of packed TNT with a 50-foot “kill radius,” hand grenades are “one of the most awful weapons of war,” President Obama reflected during the White House ceremony one month after the Pentagon announced that Carpenter would indeed receive the Medal of Honor.
Carpenter’s story intersected with Mr. Obama’s own early days in office: He “served during the surge of soldiers that I ordered,” the president noted to the assembled audience of fellow troops and Carpenter’s medical team.
It was a team that was with the Marine through five weeks in a coma, dozens of surgeries, and 2-1/2 years of rehabilitation after Taliban forces lobbed the weapon, pin pulled, into the middle of the sandbagged position that Carpenter and his best friend, Lance Cpl. Nick Eufrazio, were manning on the rooftop of a mud hut.
In those seconds before the grenade exploded, Carpenter was faced with “the crucible of self-preservation or self-sacrifice,” said the military chaplain who officiated the White House ceremony. Carpenter, she added, responded with the latter.
“Nick was my point man, and I loved him like a brother,” Carpenter told Obama. He and Mr. Eufrazio had survived basic training and patrols together. “He wasn’t just with a fellow Marine,” Obama said. “He was with his best friend.”
Carpenter saved the life of Eufrazio, who did not attend the White House ceremony because he still struggles with severe traumatic brain injury that left him unable to speak for more than a year.
As he prepared to bestow the medal, Obama noted that Carpenter, who is medically retired, makes no attempt to hide his injuries, which include countless shrapnel scars. “The girls definitely like them,” Obama said Carpenter had told him. “So he’s working an angle on this thing.”
Carpenter, who is the youngest living Medal of Honor recipient, “says he will wear this medal for all who have served, those who didn’t make it back, and those who struggle still,” Obama said – a nod to how difficult the recovery effort continues to be for many US veterans.
For these veterans and for troops still fighting America’s longest war, Carpenter’s story is an example of “heroism in the blink of an eye,” the president said, “that will inspire for generations.”