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‘When the president put it around my neck, I understood the weight of it'

Marjah, Afghanistan — November 2010

The past year has been a wild one for Kyle Carpenter. Awarded the Medal of Honor in June 2014, the former Marine lance corporal has appeared on “Late Show With David Letterman,” tossed the first pitch at a baseball game in San Diego and run the Marine Corps Marathon. He has traveled across the country speaking with veterans and servicemembers, tweeting every step of the way.

But on a weekday afternoon in April, Carpenter could be found doing something more common — studying for a college chemistry exam.

The 25-year-old from Gilbert, S.C., is a college student, after all, struggling to juggle academics with his personal life like any of his classmates. But as one of only 79 living Medal of Honor recipients — and one of two Marines awarded for the war in Afghanistan — Carpenter has more on his plate than most students.

“It’s just a balancing act really,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Just learning how to make time. I think the biggest struggle I have is learning how to take care of myself and learning how to put myself first.”

It’s a new direction for someone honored for a remarkably selfless act. Carpenter used his body to cover a hand grenade thrown onto a rooftop where he and his buddy, Cpl. Nicholas Eufrazio, were standing guard on Nov. 21, 2010, in Marjah, Helmand province.

The blast tore out his eye, shattered his jaw, broke his arm in several places and embedded shrapnel in his body. Carpenter went into cardiac arrest and nearly died while being treated.

He spent five weeks in a coma and nearly 2½ years in hospitals, facing dozens of surgeries. Eufrazio was also seriously injured, suffering brain injuries that would prevent him from talking for two years. Neither man remembers the attack, and there were no witnesses.

Marines and doctors said Carpenter’s wounds could only have come from him attempting to smother the grenade, a narrative that would end up before President Barack Obama.

Carpenter was medically discharged from the Marines in 2013. His body is still heavily scarred, but he has returned to activities like running and snowboarding, and he is taking a full load of classes at the University of South Carolina.

He vowed not to let the medal change him, but it has been a difficult adjustment, he said.

“It’s a tremendous honor, but it is a double-edged sword,” he said.

The medal gives him a platform to talk with strangers about the Marines, honor and sacrifice, something he is good at and seems to enjoy. His Twitter account, @chicksdigscars, has more than 31,000 followers.

It has also put new demands on his time. Interview requests and speaking engagements have flooded in, he said. He has found it hard turning down requests, making things difficult when he needs to focus on school.

“I would just say it was frustrating at times,” he said. “To go to class all day long and then get out of class and talk to five people on the phone.”

He reached out to Dakota Meyer — the only other Marine to have received the medal from the war in Afghanistan — for advice. Meyer surprised him by flying down to see Carpenter in South Carolina, where he told him to be more selective with requests and carve time out for himself.

Carpenter said he has followed that advice while remaining active, a role he considers crucial. In April he traveled to Afghanistan to visit servicemembers as part of the nonprofit Troops First Foundation. He continues to speak to groups across the U.S.

Finishing school is still his priority, he said. He is wrapping up his sophomore year and has plans to major in international studies. He worked an internship at the National Counter-Terrorism Center and hopes to work in intelligence when he graduates.

Whatever direction he takes, he’ll always be a Medal of Honor recipient, meaning he’ll always be someone’s hero, most likely a lot of people’s hero, before being just a normal student. He’s learned to embrace it, he said.

“When the president put it around my neck, I understood the weight of it,” he said. “It wasn’t just a medal for me. It represents so much else.”

beardsley.steven@stripes.com
Twitter: @sjbeardsley

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