Nearly four years ago, Marine Cpl. William Kyle Carpenter jumped between a grenade and a fellow Marine while they were guarding a patrol base in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
Carpenter, now 24, took the brunt of the blast, which shattered his jaw and other bones, collapsed his right lung and took out his right eye. He spent 21/2 years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and endured more than 40 surgeries.
On Thursday, President Obama presented Carpenter with the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions. He is the eighth living recipient from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan to receive the nation’s highest honor.
“Up close, it’s almost certain death,” 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.”
Carpenter’s doctors called his injuries “catastrophic.” His chance of survival appeared slim. During treatment, he went into cardiac arrest and his vital signs flat-lined three times. All three times, doctors revived him. His parents call his survival a miracle.
Carpenter and Lance Cpl. Nicholas Eufrazio were stationed on a dusty rooftop in Marja, a violent district in Afghanistan, when their base began to take fire on Nov. 21, 2010. Obama had ordered an increase in troop deployments to Afghanistan early in his presidency, he said Thursday, with the mission of driving the Taliban out of their strongholds and giving the Afghan people a chance to reclaim their communities.
Carpenter, then 21, remembers waking up that morning to the sound of AK-47 gunfire — an “alarm clock” for him and his comrades.
Carpenter and Eufrazio were on the rooftop alone; the rest of their platoon was posted in the compound below. They were protected only by a circle of sandbags, piled three to four high, and they lay down on their backs behind the sandbags, seeking cover.
The Taliban lobbed three grenades into the base. One injured an Afghan National Army soldier; the second didn’t detonate.
The third landed next to Carpenter and Eufrazio. It was about to explode.
Carpenter says he doesn’t remember what happened next, but he remembers being on the rooftop with his best friend, a relationship Obama described as a “friendship forged in fire.”
The president, quoting Carpenter, said, "[Nick] was my point man, and I loved him like a brother.”
Other Marines in the compound said Carpenter tried to stand, lunged toward the grenade and disappeared into the smoke. They found him lying face down over the blast area.
“I think about the Marines who were with me in Marja,” Carpenter said Thursday. “Today, I accept the medal for them.”
Eufrazio suffered a traumatic brain injury from the explosion and couldn’t speak for more than a year. His recovery continues at home in Plymouth, Mass., where he watched Thursday’s ceremony with his parents.
Carpenter, a native of Flowood, Miss., attends the University of South Carolina, where he hopes to major in psychology. He skis and snowboards, he has sky-dived, and he ran the Marine Corps marathon in October.
“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.
Obama has presented the Medal of Honor to 39 members of the armed services, 31 posthumously, in the first six years of his presidency.