‘I believed I was a failure'
President Barack Obama presents Army Staff Sgt. Ty Carter with the Medal of Honor Monday, August 26, 2013 at the White House.
In the eyes of those he fought beside, Spc. Ty Carter had done all anyone could ask and more, dashing repeatedly onto a killing field to drag a wounded buddy clear of Taliban fire.
His chain of command saw it the same way. Several weeks after an Oct. 3, 2009, battle when 300 insurgents launched a surprise attack against the badly outnumbered soldiers of B Troop, 3d Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment in an isolated outpost in eastern Afghanistan, Carter was nominated for the Medal of Honor.
But as his memories of the lengthy firefight played and replayed in the aftermath, Carter’s own brain was telling him something very much at odds with the general view of his actions.
On one hand, he knew he’d done his job well. He’d fought hard, shot accurately and ignored fear. He ventured into an area where he’d just seen one team member killed and another two badly wounded to rescue Spc. Stephan Mace. He gave first-aid and returned to fighting, confident of his contribution to the battle and to his friend.
“I believed everything I did, all the good and bad choices in my life, all the training, would prepare me to save a life in combat,” he said. “I did everything right.”
But hours after Carter dragged Mace to safety and saw him evacuated to a larger base, the 21-year-old from Virginia died while doctors struggled to save him. When Carter heard the news, his belief in himself collapsed. Whatever courage he had shown that day, he told himself, had amounted to nothing.
“All I wanted to do was race back to my bunk and disappear — bury my face in a pillow,” he said. “When I found out he died on the operating table, I believed I was a failure. Not just for the military, but in life in general.”
Psychologically, he spiraled downward and spent a year, he said, “not really caring about anything.”
The irony was that as Carter sank into deepening depression and apathy he was on his way to becoming one of the nation’s top military heroes.
Battling the enemy
The October 2009 attack on Combat Outpost Keating, a fire base near the Pakistani border that was scheduled to soon be abandoned, drew the best out of many men, resulting in nine Silver Star medals as well as two Medals of Honor.
In February 2013, former Staff Sgt. Clinton L. Romesha received the nation’s highest valor award for his actions during the 13-hour firefight, including leadership of a counterattack that helped change the tide of the battle, and then, while wounded, directing air support that killed dozens of Taliban fighters.
Then at a White House ceremony in August, Carter received the second Medal of Honor resulting from the deadly surprise attack.
The engagement known as the Battle of Kamdesh began at 6 a.m., when Taliban insurgents opened up with rifles, machine guns and mortars from above on COP Keating, which lay in the bottom of a bowl-shaped valley.
The 50 U.S. soldiers stationed there, along with two Latvian troops and several dozen Afghan soldiers, were immediately in deep trouble. The Afghans soon fled, and within minutes, the first U.S. soldier had been killed. Seven more died that day, and 25 were wounded.
Carter, asleep when the attack began, joined the fight in a T-shirt and PT shorts after donning body armor and a helmet.
Through a hail of fire, he ran 100 meters from his barracks to carry ammunition to soldiers manning a sandbagged Humvee mounted with machine guns that was guarding one end of the base.
The guns were running dry, so he dashed back to the barracks for lubricant. On the way back, he shot the lock off the armory to grab more ammo. Then he climbed into the armored vehicle with Staff Sgt. Justin Gallegos, Sgt. Bradley Larson and Mace. Staff Sgt. Vernon Martin, who’d come to reinforce the position, soon joined them.
An RPG round exploded a machine-gun turret, spraying the interior with shrapnel and injuring Carter, Larson and Martin, according to the Army battle narrative. They were cut off, and Gallegos decided to link up with the rest of B Troop’s soldiers, fighting near the tactical operations center across the base.
Carter and Martin volunteered to stay and provide covering fire. But as the three others set out, a group of Taliban who had infiltrated the base cut them down with machine-gun fire. Gallegos was killed instantly, Martin was hit in the leg and died under a trailer where he sought shelter, and Mace fell wounded in the open.
Carter’s instinct was to dash out and drag him away, but Larson ordered him to stay put, lest the Taliban use Mace as bait to shoot another American.
“A good man was lying there wounded, begging for my help,” he told Stars and Stripes in 2013. “But Larson knew that if I went out there, I’d be dead too. For that, I owe him my life.”
Carter scavenged bullets from a destroyed Humvee so they could keep shooting. As the tide of battle began to shift, aided by the airstrikes Romesha was directing, Larson authorized Carter to make a dash to Mace while he provided covering fire.
It took two trips, because once Carter had stabilized the badly wounded soldier, he realized he couldn’t carry his rifle and Mace at the same time.
Carter got Mace to the Humvee. Later, he and Larson took him to an aid station. As the day wore on, Carter sniped insurgents and even took an ax and felled a burning tree that threatened to incinerate the TOC.
Hours later, expecting to hear that Mace was recovering at FOB Bostick, where he’d been evacuated, Carter was told Mace had died. The news, he said, “changed my perception of reality.”
“It was instant,” he said. “My head let me know that everything I believed, it was wrong, and no matter what happens, you cannot save a life.”
Fellow soldiers saw him change immediately, and acted. A few days later at FOB Bostick, he broke down in tears when his platoon sergeant, now-retired 1st Sgt. Jonathan Hill, suggested he speak to an Army counselor. Hill hugged him and led him to the office where his still-ongoing recovery from the invisible wounds of war began.
There was nothing magic about the counseling. For the remainder of his yearlong deployment, Carter sought solitude, avoided emotional connection and found mental peace only when risking death.
“The only time I really felt comfortable and that I could forget was when I was out on a mission,” he said.
When he returned from deployment, he couldn’t stand silence or stillness, because then the noise in his head grew unbearable, he said. He lost interest in physical fitness and advancing his career, and eschewed relationships.
Ashamed, he grappled with a term he had earlier scorned — PTSD.
“I used to believe post-traumatic stress was a way servicemembers used to get out of work,” he admitted. “I thought it didn’t exist. I thought it was just some psychological babble.”
As he continued with counseling, he felt his emotional balance begin to return. Among other things, Carter said he learned to let go of the “coulda, shoulda, woulda” thinking that often plagues those who have survived a shattering incident. He forced himself to stop agonizing about how things might have been different if he’d disregarded Larson’s order and simply dashed out immediately to save Mace.
“In the end, I don’t know what the outcome” would have been, he said. “Mace and I could both be dead, or we could both be alive.”
Although he felt he had failed Mace, the gratitude of the young soldier’s mother, Vanessa Adelson, helped him heal.
“I couldn’t save his life, but when I spoke to his mother, she said I saved his death,” Carter said.
“My son didn’t die in the dirt alone, because of what Ty did,” Adelson said after Carter’s Medal of Honor designation was announced.
Carter, now 34, also came to understand that a crippling post-traumatic stress reaction, far from being a sign that something was fundamentally wrong with him, is a reflection of the brain’s ability to learn from danger.
“Post-traumatic stress isn’t a disorder,” he said. “It’s an instinctive, reflexive response of your body and mind to recall a traumatic incident so you can avoid repeating it.”
If the brain can learn from danger to develop a protective response, he realized, the brain can also learn to defuse the defense mechanism when it goes awry and leads to a continual reliving of trauma.
Although there was no dramatic dividing line for Carter between the time post-traumatic stress tortured him and when it no longer did, he estimates today that he emerged from the worst of it 2 ½ years after the battle.
He’d gotten married and was raising a family when the call came from Obama in the middle of a vacation in Oregon. Not long afterward, he was at the White House for his Medal of Honor ceremony.
Removing the ‘D’
As a Medal of Honor recipient, Carter, now a staff sergeant, is unlikely to ever be deployed to combat again. Based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., his Army job today is to travel the country, telling his story and educating troops and civilians about the necessity of squarely facing PTSD.
Except he’s adamant the letter D must be dropped.
The military has plenty of resources to help troops deal with post-traumatic stress, but a stigma remains — he believes based largely on the word “disorder” — that prevents troops from seeking help.
“Because of the stigma, because servicemembers are afraid to see help for this — they might be chastised either with their peers or with promotions — they’re refusing to seek the help that they need,” he said.
He’s hopeful that the sight of a Medal of Honor recipient grappling with his pain will break through that resistance.
“Servicemembers and pretty much everybody, they wear this burden on their chest and they do it selflessly, they don’t want to tell anybody because they don’t want the spouse or the family member to feel the pain that they’re feeling,” he said.
He likens a sufferer’s refusal to seek help to an order — like the one he was given at COP Keating — not to go to the aid of a wounded buddy.
“The person experiencing the stress,” he said, “is basically ordering their loved one not to help them by not sharing.”