WASHINGTON — Ty Carter sat on the back of his camper, parked near a gas station in the remote Oregon woods, with his two dogs asleep and his kids arguing and his wife feeding the baby, waiting for a phone call he didn’t really want to take.
A colonel from the Pentagon had contacted him a week earlier, to ask whether he would be available that day for a call from a “high-ranking military official.”
Carter said no.
It would be in the middle of his family vacation — he had promised them a trip to Crater Lake.
“He sounded kind of exasperated, so I could tell that was the wrong answer,” Carter said, laughing. He agreed to take a detour, to stay within cell-phone range a few hours longer.
When the call came, it was the commander-in-chief, who congratulated Carter on being chosen for the Medal of Honor. Sitting on the back bumper as the occasional car sped by, the soldier thanked him, traded stories about raising children, then got back in the car to continue the drive south.
That’s how Army Staff Sgt. Ty Carter learned he’d be recognized as one of America’s greatest heroes.
Not from a lavish White House ceremony, which comes Monday. Not from a summons to the Pentagon, or even to his base commander’s office.
From a cell-phone call at a remote gas station — actually, across the street from the gas station because folks there were worried about him loitering so he had to move the camper.
Monday, Carter will become the fifth living Medal of Honor recipient for actions in Afghanistan. Only 12 men from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been honored with the award, singled out for “conspicuous gallantry” and “selfless courage” on the battlefield.
The common thread between the survivors’ stories has been their humility, even compared to the proud-without-boasting heroes of the past. All of them said they were just doing their job, that any other servicemember would have done the same, that they aren’t inherently different than any other American who joined the military.
“I am an American soldier, just like thousands who have served, will serve and are continuing to serve this great nation,” he said at a news conference at his home base of Joint Base Lewis-McChord just days after the White House announcement. “This award is not mine alone.”
Carter, 33, has spent most of the last few weeks starkly recounting battlefield chaos to reporters while privately trying to explain what the battlefield was like to his 14-year-old son, Jayden. Madison, 8, was more interested in buying a new dress for the trip to Washington.
With the Medal of Honor effectively making him undeployable — recipients have said Pentagon leaders are reluctant to send them back into harm’s way — he wants to continue his service in wounded warrior units, sharing his struggles with post-traumatic stress.
He’s uncomfortable facing the families of the men who died fighting alongside him, freely admitting to a mix of guilt and post-traumatic stress whenever he speaks to them.
“We all did what we could to keep each other alive,” he said.
Carter is the second Medal of Honor recipient from the Battle of Kamdesh, one of the few fights in Afghanistan to catch the attention of the American public. Clint Romesha received his award earlier this year, for fighting done on the other side of the remote Army firebase.
On Oct. 3, 2009, more than 300 Taliban fighters descended on Combat Outpost Keating, a soon-to-be-abandoned site near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in a well-coordinated ambush. Eight U.S. soldiers would be killed in the daylong battle, and 22 wounded.
When the fighting began — a hail of bullets from above, almost immediately overwhelming the 54-man force inside the COP — then-Spc. Carter was asleep. He rushed into battle wearing a tan T-shirt and PT shorts but did manage to grab his body armor.
He spent most of the day out of uniform, just trying to survive.
Carter and three others were pinned down around a sandbagged Humvee serving as a guard tower, dodging between cover as the enemy advanced.
He watched two friends die in the early assault and two more die trying to support his position. Another, Spc. Stephan Mace, was gravely wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade and left stranded in the middle of the kill zone.
Carter’s commanding sergeant forbade him from attempting rescue after the explosion, saying it was a suicide mission. Over the next agonizing hours, Carter watched Mace slowly dying just out of reach.
“A good man was lying there wounded, begging for my help,” he said, swallowing hard as he fought back tears. “But [Sgt. Brad] Larson knew that if I went out there, I’d be dead too. For that, I owe him my life.”
So the two men kept fighting. When they ran out of ammo, Carter scavenged magazines from a nearby bombed Humvee. When he and Larson saw Taliban fighters walking onto the COP, they worried the base was beyond saving.
Between bursts of gunfire, Carter said they discussed crawling down the nearby hillside, rolling into the river and floating down to the next Army base a few miles downstream. It was a bad escape plan, but possibly the only option.
Still, Carter was focused on Mace. As the firefight began to shift in their favor — thanks to the efforts of Romesha across the base and aerial support — Carter pressed Larson again to let him try to rescue Mace.
Carter ran onto exposed ground to pull the almost lifeless Mace to safety. He had to make two trips — out to stabilize the fallen soldier, back to coordinate cover fire with Larson, out again to drag Mace across the kill zone back to relative safety.
On his next scavenging mission, Carter found a fallen comrade’s radio and managed to connect with the men across the COP. They set up an evacuation plan, got themselves out of the Humvee prison and took Mace to the medics.
“I had told myself long before that if I ended up in that kind of situation, I wouldn’t let fear make my choices for me,” Carter said. “All I thought about was supporting [our] men.”
Getting back to his squad wasn’t the end of the day for Carter. He spent the next few hours working as half of a sniper team, picking off enemies along the hillside. Later, when a tree caught on fire outside the medical station, Carter went out with full battle rattle and a chainsaw to keep the flames from spreading.
“It actually fell on the TOC (tactical operating station) and put out the fire on its roof, so that was good,” he said, smiling at the memory of his battlefield lumberjacking.
By then, the battle was mostly over. Mace and other wounded were evacuated. It wasn’t until a few hours later, while the remaining men were still recovering the bodies of their fallen friends, that they learned Mace died in surgery.
“I didn’t feel angry that we lost them,” Carter said. “I just felt the loss. I just felt sad.
“I don’t want to put down the Medal of Honor or what it means. But when you’ve lost family ...”
Carter still describes his actions largely as a failure, especially when reflecting on Mace’s death. Mace’s mother, Vanessa Adelson, disagrees.
“My son didn’t die in the dirt alone, because of what Ty did,” she told reporters last week. “After seeing another soldier get killed trying to rescue my son, Ty still went out there to save him.
“Because of what he did, Stephan had a few more hours with his brothers. He was able to speak with them (before he was evacuated). He was joking about getting a beer with the surgeons afterwards.
“Because of Ty’s actions, my son died thinking that he was coming home. He was at peace.”
Carter didn’t attend Romesha’s Medal of Honor ceremony, saying the 4-year-old battle still felt too raw for him. He talks about the nine losses his troop suffered in that battle — fellow soldier Ed Faulker Jr. battled PTSD and took his own life a year after the attack.
He has been open about his own struggles with PTSD, and said he hopes to use the new honor as a forum to talk about the stress of war and the stigma of seeking mental help. He deployed again to Afghanistan last year and has been in counseling to help him handle the battlefield horrors he can never unsee.
“America’s citizen soldiers are doing amazing things to make them proud,” he said. “But people need to be more aware of the wounds of combat, both the visual wounds and the unseen ones.”
That’s the man he wants people to see receiving the nation’s highest military honor: a U.S. soldier who did his job and is struggling with the aftermath.
He’s talked to fellow medal recipient Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry — who lost his hand hurling an enemy grenade away from wounded soldiers in Afghanistan — about how to direct the story away from himself and toward the larger sacrifices of servicemembers. He’s more comfortable talking about his struggles than his successes.
Army officials insist that Carter is more than just another soldier: His “remarkable acts of heroism and skill … exemplify what it means to be an American hero.”
His family sees the hero and the humble man. His wife, Shannon, told reporters earlier this month that recaps of his battlefield heroism are too overwhelming to process, but “he’s my husband … he blows my mind every day.”
She’ll accompany him into the East Room of the White House for today’s formal ceremony, likely trying to keep 8-month old daughter Sehara quiet while the commander-in-chief speaks. His parents will be there too, along soldiers from his Army unit and from past medal-worthy battles.
In an interview with Army media, Carter’s father, Mark, wept while talking about what it will mean to see his son honored by the president.
“Not too many dads get to experience this,” he said, “where their son or daughter survives and then gets recognized nationally for an act of being himself in a dire situation.”