This is the unbelievable story of Kyle Carpenter who was severely injured when he jumped on a grenade in order to save his fellow Marines. When no one thought there was any hope for Kyle and that he wouldn’t make it out alive, he managed to find the inner strength to pull through and start his long and powerful journey to recovery.
When Lance Corporal Kyle Carpenter completed his training at a Marine Corps base in North Carolina he knew it was just the beginning of a long and tiring but very satisfying service. Little did he know that his life would change forever after he was deployed to Marjah, Helmand Province in Afghanistan to serve as Squad Automatic Weapon Gunner. When he was stationed at the base camp in Helmand Province, he never imagined that one day he would become a national hero.
The call on November 21, 2010
By taking one look at the scars on Kyle Carpenter’s face, you can tell that there is a much deeper story behind the man than meets the eye. The unbelievable array of severe injuries that he had suffered, both physical and psychological, were jarring. It was on November 21, 2010 that Kyle’s family had received a phone call from a Marine Corps representative that left them speechless. They knew something bad had happened to their son, but what they never expected was what the future had in store for their family.
When Lance Corporal Carpenter joined the marines, he knew that his life would be dedicated to serving his country. He knew he would have to face the harshest surroundings and face unreasonable circumstances. He went in wholeheartedly. His actions on November 21st proved that he is one courageous and selfless man. Kyle joined his squad to fight off the enemies in a small village. When a grenade was thrown at him and his fellow Marine, Nick Eufrazi, that landed right next to them, he literally threw himself, without hesitation, in front of his friend to protect him from the grenade.
Catch a grenade
With his body, Corporal Kyle Carpenter lunged at the grenade while fighting off a Taliban attack; within a few seconds his life turned around. He was lying wounded on his back on a Marjah rooftop. He was unconscious and was unaware of how severely he was wounded. Despite the fact that he was wearing body armor, the injuries from the device left his face in disarray, wounded his skull, had his right arm splintered and lost some sight in one of his eyes.
A selfless act
You’re taught many things during your service, but this kind of a selfless act, probably the most selfless act that anyone could ever do, is not something that someone teaches you or something you can read in the books; it is innate. It’s the type of behavior you are brought up with. It all comes from your home environment, your parents, your friends and your upbringing and surrounding. What Kyle Carpenter did in order to protect his friend from the blast was pure heroism.
He didn’t have a blast
His selfless act would later earn him a Medal of Honor. The kind of medal that is only given to those whose actions and personal moments of bravery are well beyond the call of duty. When Kyle was horribly injured, he was just 21 years old. He had graduated from high school a couple of years earlier and in many ways was still a young boy. You can only imagine how worried his parents were when they received that horrifying phone call. Their worst nightmare was about to come true.
What were his chances?
For seven long days, Carpenter’s family had no idea the extent of his wounds. The only thing they knew was that Kyle had been evacuated in a critical condition from Afghanistan and that they don’t what his chances of survival. Kyle’s mom and dad had received endless phone calls, emails and voicemails but were still kept in the dark regarding his condition. Four days after the incident, on Thanksgiving Day, they drove to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland to wait for their son to arrive. However, Jim and Robin Carpenter had to wait longer than expected as the flight was delayed due to the blood clots that had formed in Kyle’s legs, flying at such a high altitude would have killed him.
Robin knew she was going to see a different Kyle when he finally arrived at the Medical Center on November 28th. She expected the worse and she was right todo so. Kyle was literally unrecognizable. His head was double its regular size after he underwent brain surgery. Tubes were coming out everywhere. Robin, who was used to seeing the worst, as she worked in a trauma hospital, thought she had seen it all, until she saw her own son. She was by his side until he was taken to intensive care.
Everything seemed safe for the Marine squad when they patrolled the open canals just a day earlier, it was safer than taking the roads. The men were already four months into their service and some of them had already witnessed the worst. One of the men was Private First Class Jared Lily who had seen two of his fellow Marines killed in attacks. Lily took his one thousand man squad over to a compound in a nearby village to be their patrol base. They called the location Dakota.
The deadly message
Although there were walls at the Dakota Base, the enemy could still move around the area without having the Marines notice them. Before sunrise, there was already a line of more than 200 sandbags serving as guard posts. The former owner of the compound came to the take some of his belongings and deliver a message to the team. A message that would have shaken anyone – the next day they would be attacked.
Shout it from the rooftop
Then, at the break of dawn, the Marines at Patrol Base Dakota really had the worst coming their way. A cannonade of grenades started exploding all over the area. Not knowing what was happening at first, the squad soon put on their gear and screamed ‘an Afghan soldier had been wounded’. The last explosion was coming from the rooftop where two soldiers were known to be found there.
Without hesitation, Lily quickly ran up to the roof just in time to find Lance Corporal Nick Eufrazio, the man Kyle was protecting from the grenade, lying on his back unconscious. In the other corner there was Kyle faced down lying in a pool of blood. The image of Carpenter’s face when Lily found him will never be erased from Lily’s memory. His face was torn into four different bits of flesh. Lily couldn’t breath until he heard his soldier gasp for breath and he knew he was still alive.
‘Am I going to die?’
Christopher Frend, who was the team’s Navy medical member, had seen quite a few casualties in the past. However, he had never ever seen a severe case like Carpenter’s. The Marine’s arm was in such bad condition that he was scared it would fall off. His right eye almost fell out of its socket. The medical team noticed Carpenter was trying to speak and when they got closer they heard him ask ‘Am I going to die?’. The Marines did what they knew was the best course of action and started talking to Kyle about his family in order to keep him stable.
Lily and four of his men carried the wounded Marines all the way to the landing zone where the medical evacuation helicopter was going to land. Lily, who thought he would never see his soldier alive again, started tearing up while others started to clean the blood off his skin. It was a tragic moment. Once in the helicopter, a whole new event was occurring – Carpenter’s heart suddenly stopped and the medical team was working on reviving him. By the time they arrived at Camp Bastion, the admission code that was given to Kyle was P.E.A – Patient Expired Upon Arrival.
He needed to stay alive
Everyone was working on making sure Kyle survived this ordeal. From Neurosurgeons who were removing fragments of the explosive from his skull and Cardiovascular surgeons repairing his arteries, to plastic surgeries working on his torn flesh. They had one mission and one mission only, and that was to get Carpenter stable enough so he could fly to Germany and from there to the U.S. All he needed was to stay alive. That was Kyle’s new mission.
The race to his heart
It was on Thanksgiving Day that Kyle was in a stable condition to fly off to Germany. When he finally landed in Landstuhl, Robin was then able to talk to her son over the phone. Kyle was under heavy sedation and wasn’t very aware of his surrounding. However, a local nurse allowed Kyle speak to his family by placing the phone to his ear so he could hear his family. His heart was literally racing when he heard his mom’s voice.
The other soldier
After Carpenter’s blood clots had dissolved, allowing him to fly again, he was wheeled on the airplane that would take him back to his family, and back home to the US. There was another soldier on board – Sergeant Ryan Craig. Ryan’s mom, Jennifer, was in Germany for almost a week with her son, but that wasn’t good news for her as blood relatives are usually taken to Landstuhl when the patient’s condition is considered terminal.
Going to Germany
Jennifer Miller, Ryan’s mom, recalls getting a few phone calls: ‘I got a call at 5:22 a.m. from somebody in Afghanistan who said Ryan was hurt..They didn’t give me many details . . . . that my son’s injuries were not life-threatening. At 8 a.m. they told us about a gunshot to the helmet. By 11:30 a.m., . . . they told us the bullet hit his head, but didn’t penetrate. . . . . At 2:30 p.m., they told me they’d removed part of his skull. By 5 p.m., I was going to Germany.’
‘You’re going home’
Jennifer assumed that her trip to Germany meant only one thing and that was to give her approval to remove Craig from life support. However, there was still hope for her son. Jennifer had one important job when she was on the plane – Jennifer needed to be a surrogate mother to Kyle. Although he was unconscious, Jennifer was saying to Kyle: ‘I’m not your mom, but I am a mom. We’re going back to the United States. You’re going home.’.
The long way home
It was a 12 hour flight, and it wasn’t all smooth, but both Carpenter and Craig survived the risky flight. Upon arrival in Delaware, they were loaded into ambulances. Both soldiers started their hard and long journey to recovery, only this time they were home. Police cars blocked off the intersections to allow the two ambulances to pass freely toward Walter Reed Medical Center. Nick Eufrazio, the soldier Carpenter was trying to save, was also injured and was already treated at the center.
You can only imagine the anticipation mixed with anxiety that Robin and Jim were experiencing while waiting anxiously to see their son. As the ambulance arrived, they rushed to the parking lot. There was one other woman there and that was Tiffany Aguiar, Nick Eufrazio’s friend. When she saw Kyle, she couldn’t move or breath. His face was barely visible and whatever was exposed was unrecognizable. She recalls: ‘The image of a mother seeing her son come back from war like that is something that doesn’t leave you.’
When Kyle arrived at the Medical Center, the doctors who evaluated his condition didn’t know if his immune system would be able to handle another treatment. Before they came up with a treatment plan, Kyle had to have numerous x-rays. Dr. Debra Malone, Chief of Trauma and Surgery at Walter Reed said: ‘There’s no recipe book for combat trauma or medicine..Someone can be stable and their wounds can look clean, and a few seconds, minutes, hours, or days later, things can look very different. It’s a difficult thing to explain to patients and their families. It’s not a journey on a flat paved asphalt road; it’s a journey through a treacherous mountainous path.’
They decided to save it
Carpenter’s family knew that that their son was going to have a long journey towards recovery. With more than 30 fractures and broken bones, the one thing Robin feared the most was that the doctors would have to amputate. However, Dr. Malone assured her that they were not going to take his arm, ‘We’re going to save it.’ The waiting room had become Robin’s second home. Jim on the other hand had to go back to his job and to to take care of Kyle’s two teenage brothers.
Kyle needed a lot of resilience and patience in order to recover fully. He was in surgery on a weekly basis having surgeons working on repairing his face and body. As a way to keep up morale, the medical team focused more on the small successes of the surgeries and their treatments rather than on the recovery as a whole. The amount of surgeries and laser treatments that Kyle had undergo were unbelievable.
Apart from the surgical issues, there were also the psychological aspects that had to be dealt with. The scars went deeper than the flesh. Dr. Malone recalls visiting Carpenter back in 2011 ‘I think it was the first time since his injury that he was talking to me with a clear mind..other Marines would always come in to visit him and he didn’t like them seeing him how he looked. It wasn’t that Kyle seemed self-conscious. He knew they were deploying to Afghanistan soon, and he didn’t want them to worry more about being injured like he had been.’
His first step
Dr. Malone was there when Kyle took his first steps at the hospital. Just as heroic as Carpenter was in the battlefield, he had the same internal strength and motivation in this instance as well. ‘When a wounded warrior is about to get out of bed for the first time,’ she said, ‘everybody knows it is going to happen. We line the hallway and when they step out of their room we ring a bell and cheer.’ The brave Marine was in the greatest pain of his life but kept on walking.
Life for Kyle
Kyle made incredible progress at Walter Reed. Things were starting to look hopeful for the young Marine. His dad didn’t think at first that his son could ever have his life back or have any sort of quality of life. However, he saw how dedicated the staff at Walter Reed was trying to make sure that Kyle wouldn’t be bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. His son was coming back to himself as the days went by.
Everyone loved him
Lily, who found Carpenter after he was injured, made the trip to Maryland from North Carolina. Things have dramatically changed since that incident on the rooftop in the small village in Afghanistan. Jared Lily had a mix of emotions leading up to his meeting with Kyle. ‘Kyle was like the lovable little brother…He was the guy that everybody wanted to be friends with and he was really nice to everyone, but he was also someone who really enjoyed being by himself.’ Lily expected the worst before he saw Kyle.
Will he ever smile again?
In order to restore his face, the medical team relied heavily on imaging technologies to reconstruct his face. His injuries were so severe that alongside technology, they also needed some faith. The missing tissue on Kyle’s face needed a lot of stretching before teeth could be embedded in his mouth. The only thing the doctors and Kyle’s family were hoping for was that Carpenter would get his smile back.
Dr. Julie Durnford
As the years went by, Kyle was spending more and more time at home and less at the hospital. Kyle met with Dr. Julie Durnford, an occupational therapist on a regular basis. She recalls many touching moment throughout his treatment. She remembered how excited she was when Kyle was able to scratch his nose for the first time. He was the first Marine she had treated, and he was definitely unique in his own special way. She had never met anyone like Kyle before.
An inspiring man
‘His injuries were challenging and I had been a therapist for 20 years..He couldn’t function normally by any means. He always told me he wanted his arms to get better so he could stay in the military. He always looked exhausted by how hard he worked to recover. When he took any breaks during therapy he would try to motivate the old ladies with broken wrists or hips. And he always, always made time to speak with any World War II, Korea, or Vietnam veterans who came into the clinic. Always.’
Youngest Medal of Honor Recipient
When Kyle’s parents received a phone call from former President Barack Obama, they couldn’t contain their excitement. They were told that William “Kyle” Carpenter, their 24-year-old son would be awarded with the Medal of Honor, the highest military award in the U.S. Kyle was awarded the medal on June 19, 2014 with everyone, including his family, his friends, his medical team and his squad looking on. He was wearing a prosthetic eye at the time of the ceremony. When Obama placed the Medal of Honor around his neck, there was not one dry eye in the audience.
Carpenter remained humble throughout it all. He had every reason to be proud of himself and his heroic acts. He jumped on a grenade to save another Marine’s life, and lived to tell the tale. In fact, he is the youngest living Medal of Honor recipient: ‘ When the grenade detonated, his body absorbed the brunt of the blast, severely wounding him, but saving the life of his fellow Marine. By his undaunted courage, bold fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of almost certain death, Lance Corporal Carpenter reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.’
A real life hero
The 27-year-old hero has been doing incredibly well since that day in Afghanistan. He has run marathons and even skydived. He is now a full time student and also serves as a public speaker for service issues. For example, he likes to speak about how veterans can become a part of society and integrate better. Kyle’s mom, Robin, recalls what her son told her in the past: ‘If I don’t do this, it will be someone else’s son’.