Staff Sgt. Ty Carter sees loss, pain, triumph
By KAITLIN GILLESPIE | The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash. | Published: August 26, 2013
SPOKANE, Wash. — Ty Carter’s journey to the White House began with a phone call from home in 2000.
His older brother, Seth, had been killed by a drunken friend playing with a shotgun during a party.
Carter, just 20 and stationed with the Marines as an intelligence clerk in Okinawa, Japan, flew home.
The brothers grew up together in Spokane, but they took different paths into adulthood, said their father, Mark Carter.
Ty preferred the discipline of sports, leading him to join the Marines after he graduated from North Central High School. He became an excellent marksman. Seth, meanwhile, struggled to find his place in life before he died at age 22.
He fell in with the wrong crowd, said his dad. “He didn’t get his chance.”
After Ty’s plane touched down, he connected with his family and went to see Seth’s remains.
“He didn’t even get out of his military duds,” Mark Carter said. “He and we all went together to the morgue to identify Seth. All of us broke down at the same time.”
Ty Carter would leave the Marines two years later and enroll in community college to study biology.
It wouldn’t be the last time he served his country. And it wouldn’t be the last time he lost a brother.
Flash forward seven years, and Ty Carter was in a fight for his life.
On Oct. 3, 2009, he dove into a rain of bullets as more than 300 Taliban insurgents opened fire on Combat Outpost Keating, a military camp in a mountain valley along the Pakistan border. He risked his life to deliver ammunition and medical aid to members of his troop.
Eight U.S. soldiers died and 25 were wounded in the Battle of Kamdesh that day, one of the bloodiest of the Afghanistan war. For his actions that day, Carter will be honored Monday when he accepts the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama.
Mark Carter believes his sons’ lives converged that day when the hills at Keating exploded. Ty’s bravery and determination were driven, he said, by a desire to never again lose a brother.
At 5:59 a.m., Taliban insurgents emptied their weapons toward Keating: Rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire smashed into the isolated camp of 54 soldiers trapped at the bottom of the bowl-shaped valley.
Ty Carter, a cavalry scout, only hesitated for a moment before tearing into battle. With enemy fire upon him, Carter darted into the fray to deliver ammunition to his brothers in arms. In spite of shrapnel wounds and the deafening din of explosions, Carter risked his life multiple times to help.
“All the heroic acts of that day are immeasurable,” Carter said during an interview. “Simply stepping out the door was an act of courage in itself. You could see the impacts of the bullets. You could smell the smoke of the rocket-propelled grenades.”
Hours after the battle began, Carter volunteered to provide covering fire for the others as they ran for safety.
Then he heard a voice. Spc. Stephan Mace, wounded by gunfire and shrapnel, lay on the ground trying to crawl as gunfire continued to pound around him. He was exposed and 30 feet from the safe cover of a Humvee.
Mace, on the verge of death, pleaded for help. Carter ignored his sergeant’s orders to stay behind and darted into enemy gunfire. He reached Mace, carried him to cover and treated his wounds.
“For Ty to sit there and watch a brother, a brother in arms, just out of his reach and not be able to reach him and hear him, it was just making him sick,” Mark Carter said. “It was making him sick that he couldn’t get to him.”
Reinforcements arrived 12 hours after the battle began, driving off the Taliban fighters and ensuring safety for the Keating outpost. The battle was won, but Mace later died from his injuries.
“We were able to win the day,” Ty Carter said. “Now we’re able to mourn our losses.”
Carter can’t say for sure why he faced death to try to save Mace. But his father, Mark, circles back to Seth. His son couldn’t bear to lose another brother.
Seth is buried in a Spokane cemetery. The man who killed him, Richard Sheppard, will be eligible for parole next March.
Sheppard “was joking around, stuck it (the shotgun) to my son’s ribs,” Mark Carter said.
“The death of his brother did trigger more drive for Ty to do the best he could for his brothers,” Mark Carter said.
Ty Carter doesn’t know if that’s true, but his voice quiets as he struggles to talk about Seth.
“I believe that everything that happens in our lives prepares us and makes us who we are,” he said. “I did lose a brother. That day I lost several other brothers. In the end they were all family.”
The memories of war don’t haunt Ty Carter the way they used to.
The clenched teeth, pounding heart and heavy breathing that signal he’s having a flashback only come once or twice a week now. It used to happen two or three times a day, making it impossible for him to live a normal life as he relived the bloody battle over and over again.
“It was difficult to function regularly,” he said. “I guess the worst time was night, when everything got quiet. Not only did you see it, you heard it.”
After Kamdesh, Carter has a new cause to fight for: helping other soldiers learn to live with post-traumatic stress disorder.
There are 502,546 veterans diagnosed with PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 31 percent of them from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s recovering now, he said, and wants to use his stature as a Medal of Honor recipient to help fellow soldiers overcome the depression that stopped him from living normally.
Carter said he was at first embarrassed to speak of his depression, instead preferring to avoid soldiers in his unit.
“I had trouble sleeping,” Carter said. “I would see the event over and over in my head and it would choke me up. I didn’t work out very much. I didn’t eat a whole lot.”
But when a platoon sergeant stepped in and told him he needed help, Carter couldn’t refuse.
“When he grabbed me, I broke down,” he said. “I knew he was right.”
After hours of treatment and a strong support network, Carter was able to recover and now hopes he can help others do the same.
He is stationed with the 7th Infantry Division at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where he lives with his wife, Shannon, and their three children, Jayden, Madison and Sehara. His wife is his “on-the-call behavioral counselor,” he said.
Carter’s story isn’t unusual. Though PTSD diagnoses have nearly doubled since 2006, the disease’s stigma is still strong among members of the armed forces, said Brandy Henson, a PTSD specialist and lead psychologist at Spokane’s Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center.
“I think there’s some pressure in a lot of ways to suck it up and go on,” she said.
Henson said VA medical centers provide a safe environment for people to express their feelings and heal from PTSD. Though it can take months to see improvement, even the smallest help makes life easier for those who suffer from the disorder, Henson said.
“They’re not trying to make things worse,” she said. “They’re trying to make things better.”