The story of Kyle Carpenter has been told and retold by countless news outlets and at countless kitchen tables across America. His heroic actions in 2010, when he threw himself on an enemy grenade to save a fellow Marine, astounded and inspired many — making him a household name.
But for all this, Kyle waves off much of what he did that day in Afghanistan — even while realizing the weight and responsibilities of being the eighth living recipient of the Medal of Honor for service in Afghanistan or Iraq.
In khaki pants and casual button-down shirt, Kyle Carpenter looks every bit the part of a college student. Still, a second glance tells another, deeper story: one of courage, selflessness and the character that’s earned him the nation’s highest military honor.
“Courageous and heroic acts happen every day … I think back to the Marines who didn’t make it back home and to all the servicemen and women who gave their lives for this great country,” says Kyle, also the youngest living Medal of Honor recipient. “We, all of us who join the military, raise our right hands and vow to give up our lives to defend this country. I wear this medal for all of them. My honor is their honor.”
‘Our alarm clock was AK-47 fire’
Many were introduced to Kyle’s story during the June 19 medal ceremony in the East Wing of the White House.
“The man you see before you today, Corporal William Kyle Carpenter, should not be alive today,” President Barack Obama said. “But we are here because this man, this United States Marine, faced down that terrible explosive power, that unforgiving force, with his own body — willingly, deliberately — to protect a fellow Marine.”
Kyle’s journey started long before the act of bravery that brought him to the White House earlier this year. The South Carolina native says he was intrigued by the Marines he encountered as a youth, and that, coupled with a love of history, influenced him to join the military.
In 2009, Kyle enlisted in the Marine Corps, completing recruit training that year at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, S.C.
“I was about to leave boot camp, and one of my kill hats (drill instructor) got me and took me behind our row of bunk beds,” Kyle tells. “And he said, ‘I know I was the hardest on you.’ But he said, ‘I saw something in you and saw that you really wanted it.’ And because he saw what I went through the whole time and that I stuck with it, he unscrewed his eagle, globe and anchor out of his campaign cover and gave it to me right before I left. That was a very special moment, and it still sits on my dresser today.”
The then 20-year-old deployed in July 2010 to Marjah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. On Nov. 21, 2010, Kyle and fellow Marine Lance Corporal Nicholas Eufrazio were manning a rooftop security position on the perimeter of their base when enemy forces initiated an attack with hand grenades, one landing with a thud inside the sandbagged position where Kyle and Nicholas lay in cover.
Kyle says he does not remember moving toward the grenade in an attempt to shield his fellow Marine. He doesn’t remember much about the blast itself, which doctors who found him said literally wounded him from head to foot.
“Everything went white,” Kyle says. “It felt like warm water was being poured on me because of all the blood loss … I thought, ‘Make peace with God.’ I said a prayer. I asked for forgiveness. I was trying to make the best and most of my last few seconds here on earth.”
Drawing what he thought was his last breaths, he also thought of others: his fellow Marine who he tried to shield and also his family back in South Carolina.
“I knew I wasn’t waking up, and I thought about my family and how devastated they would be that I died in Afghanistan. Then I just felt really tired like I wanted to take a nap and woke up weeks later in Bethesda,” he says.
At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the difficult and long road to recovery started. During nearly two and a half years of surgeries and grueling rehabilitation, Kyle endured several procedures, including brain surgery to remove shrapnel from his head, and around 40 surgeries to repair a collapsed lung, fractured fingers and broken right arm. He also received multiple skin grafts, a prosthetic eye and a new jaw. Through his recovery, Kyle says he learned the value of setting and making small goals for himself.
“I learned that small goals work,” he says. “When I was in recovery, it was just the small goals of wanting to sit on the end of my bed and take three steps instead of two like I had done the day before. It’s just working on those little details that makes it easier and makes it more enjoyable to obtain those bigger goals.”
In the White House, surrounded by family members and fellow servicemen, Kyle stood stoically as a military aid recounted his actions in battle and President Obama prepared to flank his uniform with the medal.
“As the President put the Medal of Honor around my neck, I felt the history and the weight of the nation,” Kyle said in a statement after the medal ceremony. “I will wear it for those who have been wounded on distant lands who still continue to fight in battle, and through long and difficult days of recovery here at home. And for those who have given it all, I can never express in words what you mean for this nation.”
‘I know I want to help people’
For Kyle, the fall season marks the beginning of more classes and yet another chapter in the 24-year-old’s life. He’s studying psychology at the University of South Carolina in addition to balancing more public speaking engagements and appearances.
Though he’s one face among a sea of others shuffling to and from classes at the University, Kyle knows he’ll always stand out from the crowd.
“I know the weight and responsibilities that this medal carries and all the military members and people of this country that I am going to wear it for and represent,” Kyle says. “Right now, I’m focusing more on the short term. As far as the long term, I know I want to help people and make a positive impact.”
His legacy has already started, right here in South Carolina. Since earning his Medal of Honor, Kyle has been requested to speak before dozens of groups and organizations, led Gamecock fans in the school chant during the first game of the season, completed a mud run and has been hailed as an example for educators, everyday citizens — even national leaders — on what true leadership, character and American values are all about.
“If any American seeks a model of the strength and resilience that define us as a people, including this newest 9/11 generation, I want you to consider Kyle,” Obama said. “I’d like to close with his own words — a message, I think, for every American: ‘It took a life-changing event to get me to truly appreciate the precious and amazing life I have been blessed with. Please take it from me, enjoy every day to the fullest, don’t take life too seriously, always try to make it count, appreciate the small and simple things, be kind and help others, let the ones you love always know you love them, and when things get hard, trust there is a bigger plan and that you will be stronger for it.’”