WASHINGTON, D.C. (CBS News/AP/BCN) — President Barack Obama bestowed the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, on an Antioch soldier on Monday, saluting the veteran of the war in Afghanistan as “the essence of true heroism,” one still engaged in a battle against the lingering emotional fallout of war.
Army Staff Sgt. Ty Carter risked his life to save an injured soldier, resupply ammunition to his comrades and render first aid during intense fighting in a remote mountain outpost four years ago. The Battle of Combat Outpost Keating — seen in a video shot by the Taliban as they fired down on the isolated base — was probably the most desperate battle of the Afghan War.
“As these soldiers and families will tell you, they’re a family forged in battle, and loss, and love,” Obama said as Carter stood at his side and members of his unit watched in the White House East Room.
Then as an Army specialist, Carter sprinted from his barracks into a ferocious firefight, a day-long battle on Oct. 3, 2009, that killed eight of his fellow soldiers, and wounded more than 20 others, as they tried to defend their outpost — at the bottom of a valley and surrounded by high mountains — from the onslaught of a much larger force of Taliban and local fighters.
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Still suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, Carter stood nearly emotionless during the ceremony, although a faint smile crossed his face near the end that turned into a broad grin as Obama hung the metal and its blue ribbon around his neck and the audience — which included 40 members of the recipient’s family — answered with a rousing standing ovation.
Later in an interview with CBS News, Carter recalled the harrowing Afghan battle. While the Army has produced an intricate recreation of what Carter did that day, no diagram can truly capture what happened.
“The enemy was above us, behind us, all around us,” Carter said in the interview. “We were cut off, surrounded, outnumbered, outgunned, low on ammo and everybody friendly who was in sight was either wounded or dead.”
Carter raced across the base to reinforce a guard post. When told that running across open ground under fire was a good way for him to get killed, Carter responded: “Yes, but I wasn’t thinking of that at the time. I was thinking the more bullets I saw impact the faster I needed to go.”
He had to cross that open ground again and again, bringing fresh supplies of ammo to the guard post.
“Except this time the incoming fire was more intense,” said Carter, “and I think they were gunning for me because the explosions were close enough to where the concussion was actually pushing me as I ran from side to side.”
Two soldiers at the guard post — Sgts. Justin Gallegos and Vernon Martin — were killed by machine gun fire, and Spc. Stephan Mace lay gravely wounded.
“It almost looked like he was crying,” said Carter, “but he was too dehydrated to form any tears. He said, ‘Please help me.'”
Carter left the shelter of an armored Humvee and went to Mace’s side. He was doing this while the enemy’s shooting at him. “I was so focused on helping Mace that I didn’t notice it and it didn’t faze me,” he said.
Carter and Sgt. Bradley Larson, both now wounded by shrapnel, dashed across the open ground one more time, carrying Mace on a stretcher.
“I thought to myself if I was ever going to run so hard to where my lungs lit on fire and my chest exploded from my heart going out, this would be the day,” said Carter.
But in war, courage is not always rewarded. Mace died on the operating table.
“The fact that either I didn’t get to him in time or I didn’t do the right thing made me believe that I had failed fully and completely,” said Carter.
When told he couldn’t have tried any harder, Carter added: “You don’t think about that when it’s happening.”
Thinking about what Carter did doesn’t make it any easier to understand where he found the courage. But it does convince you that he did not fail.
He told reporters outside the White House following the ceremony that receiving the Medal of Honor had been “one of the greatest experiences” for his family and that he would “strive to live up to the responsibility.”
He also said he wanted to help the American public to better understand the “invisible wounds” still inflicting him and thousands of others.
“Only those closest to me can see the scars,” Carter said, reading his statement. He said Americans should realize that those suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome “are not damaged, they are just burdened by living when others are not.”
Obama praised Carter for talking openly about the disorder for some time. Obama said that Carter, like many veterans, “at first resisted seeking help,” but later accepted counseling.
“The pain of that day … may never go away,” Obama said, including flash-backs and nightmares. But he praised Carter for seeking help and pushing back, and for acknowledging his struggle publicly and helping other troops with their recovery.
“Let me say it as clearly as I can to any of our troops or veterans who are watching and struggling,” Obama said. “Look at this man. Look at this soldier. Look at this warrior. He’s as tough as they come, and if he can find the courage and the strength to not only seek help but also to speak out about it, to take care of himself and to stay strong, then so can you.”
Carter, 33, claims Antioch as his home of record and is married with three children. He is a former Marine who later enlisted in the Army in January 2008 as a cavalry scout. He deployed to Afghanistan from May 2009 to May 2010 and completed a second deployment in Afghanistan in October 2012.
He is currently assigned to the 7th Infantry Division at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.
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