Lance Cpl. William Kyle Carpenter doesn’t remember throwing himself between a buddy and a hand grenade on a village rooftop in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province on Nov. 21, 2010. Yet two military forensic teams determined that’s exactly what he did. Carpenter was on lookout duty with Lance Cpl. Nick Eufrazio when the grenade landed beside them. Kyle’s efforts to shield
Eufrazio, say investigators, saved his friend’s life, though both suffered life-threatening injuries. Carpenter’s courage earned him the Medal of Honor, which President Barack Obama presented him in 2014. He is the youngest living recipient of the award. Carpenter has published a book about his experiences. You Are Worth It: Building a Life Worth Fighting For, co-written by Don Yaeger, relates Kyle’s recovery and his positive outlook on life. Carpenter has become a popular speaker dedicated to helping others overcome the challenges in their lives.
What made you enlist in the Marines?
I decided to enlist because I wanted to commit my life to a greater purpose. Specifically, I chose the Marine Corps because I’ve always thrived on challenge. I wanted something that would push me to my physical, mental and emotional limits. I wanted something that would push me to the point of having to look deep down inside myself so I could get through hard times whenever they came. After going to multiple recruiters and multiple branches, I knew the Marine Corps was the path for me.
You wanted to experience combat. Why?
I didn’t really want to go into combat, but I knew that path would give me the challenge I believed I was searching for. The thought of combat, getting hurt or killed, were such surreal ideas. Based on what 19-year-old Kyle knew back then, I felt like that path was also a way to be close to where I could truly help someone who was suffering.
What was it like serving in Helmand Province?
From a combat perspective, every single day was a constant and vicious fight for survival. We had no showers for seven months. Any supplies we needed—bottles of water, food and ammo—had to be dropped to us by helicopter because we were so far in enemy territory. There was no infrastructure and no roads, so nothing could get to us except by air, including medevacs. Unfortunately, we suffered a lot of casualties. But it wasn’t all combat, combat, combat. Something that was equally as difficult for me to comprehend was seeing how the people were extremely oppressed. They feared for their lives because their kids wanted to learn how to read. They worked in their fields all day afraid to come home to find their family killed—beheaded or thrown from the tallest building in the city. That was extremely difficult and challenging to see. I continue to struggle with it.
Every single day we engaged in firefights. At times it was for many hours. It was never a question of if we were going to get shot at, it was just a matter of when. If we got into trouble, we had to rely on two mortarmen at the patrol base or air support. That was it. We were one of the first units in Marjah at Helmand. We were laying the foundation and hopefully stability for future deployments. It was very primitive, going village to village and pushing the bad guys out.
Above everything, I thought, ‘Wow, I’m still here,’ after I believed the lights were about to go out
What do you remember about Nov. 21, 2010?
Nick Eufrazio and I were on top of a roof on a post position. We were standing guard for all the Marines inside the compound of a village we had moved into two days before. We were near the end of our four-hour shift. I don’t really remember anything from that day. All I really recall is how my body felt after the grenade detonated. There were extensive and thorough investigations—two years and 250 pages of testimony—by the Marine Corps and Department of Defense. A grenade was thrown on the roof in close proximity to Nick and me, who were laying down behind a barrier of sandbags.
After the grenade detonated, I was very confused. I tried to put the pieces together about what happened. Those thoughts were interrupted by what I thought was warm water being poured all over me. Then I realized it wasn’t water but blood: I was bleeding out. I realized my time was limited. I thought about my family, specifically my mother and how devastated she would be that I didn’t come home. I said a quick prayer for forgiveness for anything I had done wrong in my life. Then I felt a tiredness that is impossible to recount or convey. At that moment I faded from consciousness and the world on a hot, dusty rooftop in Afghanistan. I woke up roughly five weeks later at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. My first sight, as I opened the only eye I had left, was Christmas stockings my mom had hung in my room. That started my three-year and roughly 40-operation recovery period.
What were your first thoughts on waking up in the hospital?
I was extremely disoriented from my injuries and medication. Even though I couldn’t remember what happened, I realized my life and body had been drastically altered. Above everything, I thought, Wow, I’m still here, after I believed the lights were about to go out.
How extensive were your injuries?
Like Nick, I had a traumatic brain injury. I had shrapnel in my brain. The doctors surgically removed what they could. Some pieces were left in there. Both eardrums were ruptured. I lost my right eye. Much of my face was fractured. My jaw was almost completely blown off. Most of my teeth were blown out. I had a hole blown in my carotid artery, in my neck. I had extensive bone and tissue damage on both arms. I had a fully collapsed right lung. And I had tissue damage to both of my legs. I received 12 units of blood. I died three times but was revived each time.
Were you surprised to learn you would receive the Medal of Honor?
Because I was facing such a daunting and unfathomable road ahead of me, my brain compartmentalized things. I was living minute to minute, day to day, surgery to surgery. I started getting calls telling me about the official investigations. A buddy told me what the Marines saw, what they believed happened, and that I should be put up for the Medal of Honor. When I got that call, I was still extremely fragile and banged up. It was kind of like, OK, I know this is going to go nowhere. I knew how much it takes to just get a Navy Commendation Medal in combat. I was honored, humbled and flattered they thought that much of me. But it was like, Thank you, I really appreciate it, but I have a recovery to get back to. It was also very strange to have that told to me and not have any recollection of that moment.
How did you feel when the medal was placed around your neck?
I’ve always known the medal wasn’t mine. By that time I was a sophomore in college. I was still emotionally and mentally healing and figuring out what this new body and life mean to me. Everything was so chaotic. After the ceremony I realized it represents not only my journey, but also my family’s journey. It represents the Marines that were there with me, serving and sacrificing. It represents the people of Afghanistan and all people around the world who live in fear and hope to taste freedom. It represents our military, our country and all the generations of service members who raised their right hand and offered to give up their lives. It represents all Marines who covered grenades in Vietnam, or those Marines in World War II who were told they probably wouldn’t make it off their landing craft. They charged forward and did it anyway, because they knew there was a cause bigger than any one individual. It represents those who gave the last full measure for their country and are still missing in action. I’m so honored and humbled my country has recognized me. This medal is a heavy and beautiful burden.
What do you mean when you say you’re living on “bonus time”?
It has been a journey. Much of my outlook on life comes from the perspective I was forced to find while searching through darkness and pain. At the time they were just experiences, but then healing turned them into life lessons. Now I’m thankful those hard times taught me something. This experience has taught me that the smallest of steps completes the grandest of journeys. My ears might still ring, I might be blind in one eye, I might wake up with pain every day for the rest of my life, but I am here, and I am alive. Every day is an opportunity. To be thinking I was taking my last breath at 21 and then to wake up and find I’m still here, it’s almost hard for me not to be positive. I tell people, “You might be different physically, mentally and emotionally, but you can come back better and stronger than before.”
What’s next for you?
My greatest fear in life has always been regret. But now, as I look back, knowing what it felt like to think I was taking my last breath, I can add a second fear to that list: unfulfilled potential. It’s an amazing bonus to be able to help people through my life. Not everyone has been in combat, but everyone struggles. In addition to helping people, I just want to live a life well lived. I want to do things that help me reclaim my life and help me realize I am living a bonus round right now.
What message do you have for fellow Americans?
For all those people who supported me and picked me up along the way, I am forever grateful. I will spend the rest of my life saying thanks, but I know that will never be enough. It’s a journey of the human spirit. You never know what you can go through as a person. You never know when you are going to be a hero for someone else. People say to me, “I could never do what you did.” You don’t know that. I didn’t know that. That’s the beautiful thing about people. You don’t have to jump on a grenade to be an amazing person to someone else. You just have to take that small step forward. If you’re going through something, know that you can make it through by taking small steps. Try to see the positive in things and the good in people, and it will take you somewhere good. The tough times teach us beautiful lessons. MH