Soldiers reunite to pay tribute to fallen comrade Spc. Stephan Mace
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sgt. Thomas Rasmussen cracked open a can of Coors Light inside Arlington National Cemetery.
Nine other men did the same — each aluminum click echoing over acres of meticulously manicured graves.
The men who fought to save Spc. Stephan Mace — the youngest soldier to die in 2009 in fierce fighting at Combat Outpost Keating in Afghanistan — each had his own reaction this week to the attention that suddenly was focused on the battle that left eight comrades dead.
Many of the soldiers at the outpost during that battle traveled to Washington, D.C., to watch President Barack Obama drape the Medal of Honor around former Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha’s neck. And that gave them the opportunity to gather at Mace’s grave — an afternoon that brought emotion, as well as healing, some of the men said.
But at least one man stayed away.
“Everything I trained for my whole life pretty much led to that moment,” said Ty Carter, who stayed home at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington this week. “And when he died, I figured that I had failed.”
Carter doesn’t speak of the muscle twitches or the specific way that Mace’s eyebrows raised as he fired his M4 rifle as the battle began.
Carter just saw “terror” on the 21-year-old soldier’s face.
Later, Mace lay behind a rock, bleeding from wounds suffered when a rocket-propelled grenade struck shortly after Carter handed the young specialist ammunition.
Color seeped from the young man’s face.
The fight to save Mace kicked into gear at that rock, where Carter bandaged him and carried him into an armored Humvee that served as a temporary safe haven in their Taliban-infested post.
There, Mace’s lips turned blue and he sat motionless. Carter urged him to pull his knees to his chest — a tactic to stave off infection in serious abdominal wounds.
“He was basically just trying to keep himself together,” Carter said. “He was completely exhausted. He was getting kind of groggy.”
For five hours, they were pinned inside the vehicle. To get out, they needed a radio.
Suffering from scratches, bruises and a concussion, Carter ran from the Humvee and grabbed a fallen comrade’s radio. Finally, Carter and 1st Lt. Brad Larson raised their comrades in the cavalry troop’s command center.
They asked for a rescue team.
No one could come, Carter remembers hearing.
So Romesha and Rasmussen stepped from the protection of their own building and offered cover fire — a roar of firepower against the Taliban’s deafening assault.
Carter and Larson ran, carrying Mace across 100 yards littered with the bodies of insurgents and Americans to reach the aid station.
“All I could think is how fast can I run,” said Larson, then a sergeant.
“The next task, the next step, how do I make this more efficient,” Carter remembered thinking. “I mean, we’d been receiving steady fire for more than two hours now, and you start to disregard things like pity or fear or anything that would stop you from doing your job.”
At the aid station another soldier, a medic, went to work.
The medic placed a needle in his own arm so his blood could flow into Mace. Rasmussen followed suit. Still more soldiers lowered their M4 rifles, drew blood, then went back to work.
Despite their efforts, enemy fire kept a medical helicopter from picking Mace up. He stayed at the aid station for eight more hours.
Fourteen hours after the battle began, the medical helicopter landed.
Rasmussen remembered shaking Mace’s hand as the specialist lay in a helicopter, bound for surgery.
“See you on the other side,” Rasmussen said.
Three years and four months later, Rasmussen finally saw Mace again.
He walked slowly to the specialist’s tombstone, one of thousands lining the hills of Arlington National Cemetery.
“To sit there and have a beer with Mace, it was really awesome,” Rasmussen said. “It brought a lot of closure.
“It hurts because I figured he was going to make it. It didn’t look like he was that bad off.”
The week in Washington, D.C., alongside his comrades — talking about what happened, catching up with men he has barely seen since their return from Afghanistan — offered healing.
“Everybody, including Clint, was I think more excited just to be here with everybody,” Rasmussen said. “I think that was the real highlight of the weekend.”
Carter stayed away, stricken with guilt that he could have done more.
“I thought he was going to make it, yes,” Carter said. “I thought we got to him in time, even though it went against most of the rules that I understand about first aid.”
Both men suffer from the emotional wounds of trying to save Mace, only to have him die.
Rasmussen attends counseling — something he initially fought.
“It took me awhile to actually, I guess, man up and figure out that I couldn’t do it on my own,” Rasmussen said.
Carter also is in therapy, albeit reluctantly.
“I didn’t want to talk to anybody because I couldn’t talk,” Carter said. “I was too embarrassed, because every time I started to talk about it, I started to tear up.
“I didn’t want to seem weak or, you know, overly emotional in front of the other guys.”
Carter has yet to visit Mace’s grave — partly due to finances, partly as a nod to the guilt that, perhaps, tells him he doesn’t deserve to go.
“Had I been able to get him sooner, he might be alive,” Carter said. “But then again, we could both be dead right now, along with Sgt. Larson. So I guess it happened the way it happened.
“I’m still here. And I’ve got a beautiful little girl and a beautiful wife. And things are going OK, I guess. You know what I mean?”