Beyond the Medal of Honor, A Genuinely Good Marine
William Kyle Carpenter enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2009.
In 2010, at the time of his deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, he was a lance corporal serving as a squad automatic rifleman with Company F, 2d Battalion, Ninth Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 1, First Marine Division (Forward), I Marine Expeditionary Force (Fwd).
On Nov. 21, 2010, LCpl Carpenter and LCpl Nicholas Eufrazio were providing security for Patrol Base Dakota. The enemy attacked, throwing three grenades into the compound. One of the grenades landed near Carpenter and Eufrazio.
Carpenter positioned himself between the grenade and his fellow Marine in an attempt to shield him from the blast.
In July 2013, Carpenter was medically retired as a corporal due to his wounds. He currently is a full-time student at the University of South Carolina.
My good friend and fellow combat artist, former Lance Corporal Robert “Rob” Bates, phoned me at 11:30 a.m. I was late, very late, crawling north on Interstate 95 toward Washington, D.C. Rob nervously asked, “I’m here at the Pentagon Sheraton. Where are you?” It was the morning of Thursday, June 19, and we were supposed to meet around 11 a.m. at the hotel overlooking the Pentagon. Frustrated by one traffic jam after another and cursing myself for not allowing three hours for the otherwise one-hour drive north from my home in Fredericksburg, Va., I replied, “I’m stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.” Rob could hear the panic in my voice.
The evening before, the Marine Corps protocol officers had told us in no uncertain terms that after a security screening, the buses taking us to the White House from the Pentagon Sheraton would leave exactly at 1 p.m. I was a long way off and still needed to change into my dress blues. Rob said he’d check with the protocol officers and call me back. The answer was as expected from the Marines; the day’s schedule was carved in stone, and I needed to be sitting on the bus in uniform by 12:50. I’ve known the stress of combat, but the level of anxiety I had looking through the windshield at the unending lines of cars and trucks jammed into four lanes and slowly snaking north was unbearable. There was no way I was going to miss this once in a lifetime experience—my friend Corporal William Kyle Carpenter’s Medal of Honor ceremony.
On March 8 of this year, Kyle’s mother, Robin, sent a message through Facebook asking me to give her a call. Knowing Kyle still was undergoing surgeries, I was a bit concerned. During the summer of 2006, after my final tour in Iraq and while I was still the official combat artist for the Marine Corps, I began sketching wounded Marines in the various military hospitals of the Washington, D.C., area. Although I retired at the end of 2009, I’ve continued visiting and drawing at those hospitals. While sketching wounded Marines at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond, Va., during January 2011, I first met then-LCpl Carpenter. It had been barely two months since he’d been wounded on Nov. 21, 2010. His injuries were extensive.
Since January of 2011 a group of artists, including Rob, have been spending time with and sketching battle-wounded and recovering soldiers and Marines (see also “Marine Artists Capture War’s Realities,” Leatherneck, June 2014). Our artistic endeavor, called The Joe Bonham Project, involves members of the International Society of War Artists and the Society of Illustrators. A few of the wounded warriors we’ve sat with and spent hours drawing and talking with at the surgical trauma and occupational therapy wards have turned into close friends. Occasionally we hear bad news, very bad news.
I called Kyle’s mom, and trepidation turned into astonishment. Robin had a completely different message for me. She was letting me know that Kyle had placed Rob and me on the list of personal invitees to his Medal of Honor ceremony and supporting events. She told me that the official announcement from the White House would be 30 days prior to the actual ceremony. There were two other Medal of Honor events scheduled, so it probably wouldn’t happen until sometime in mid-June. She let us know to expect contact from the White House once Kyle’s Medal of Honor became official. I was choked up, to say the least. What an honor! I called Rob immediately to let him know, and swear him, as Robin had with me, to secrecy.
Rumors about Kyle being recognized with the Medal of Honor had been circulating for a while. In March 2011, the same month I’d written and illustrated an article about him for the New York Times’ Opinionator, his home state of South Carolina’s legislature recognized his heroism, and local politicians started floating the rumor. Later that same year, while doing art-related work for the Vietnam Commemorative Commission, I had the chance to speak with Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient Colonel Harvey “Barney” Barnum. Col Barnum, like Kyle, was in the Ninth Marine Regiment. He told me he was providing Kyle with advice and counsel.
Being selected for a Medal of Honor is an exhaustive process, and the outcome is never guaranteed. On March 5 of this year, the Marine Corps Times let the proverbial cat out of the bag, and Robin’s request to call her confirmed it. Those of us who have the privilege of knowing Kyle, although not surprised, were relieved this great honor would be a reality.
The traffic on I-95 finally opened up, and I pulled into the Pentagon Sheraton at 12:15. I changed into my blues and joined the other invitees in the lobby just as the protocol Marines began ushering us through the first of several security screenings conducted by the Secret Service. Rob and I climbed aboard the first of two buses, sat down, breathed a sigh of relief and enjoyed the ride to the White House.
Around us on the buses sat an extended circle of family and friends gathered from across the nation. We would be spending the next two days together. The process of getting to know each other had started the evening before during a formal reception in the Galaxy Ballroom on the 16th floor of the Sheraton.
Among those gathered in the expansive ballroom with dramatic views of the Pentagon and the nation’s capital were members of Kyle’s family, medical personnel, University of South Carolina fraternity brothers, squadmates from 2d Bn, 1st Marines, his boot camp drill instructors, members of the Wounded Warrior Regiment, a college professor, a disabled Vietnam Marine, several Medal of Honor recipients, Marine Corps general officers and two combat artists. Everyone had wonderful stories and insights into who this genuine hero really is.
The first close relative I spoke with at the reception the evening of June 18 was Kyle’s Uncle John Carpenter. I asked him what people might not know about Kyle, and he quickly responded, “He’s probably the funniest person I know. … Nothing gets him down.”
Kyle’s father, Jim, would confirm this later in the night by telling a couple of anecdotes from the family’s visits that day with several South Carolina politicians on Capitol Hill. Two of the prominent representatives initially didn’t know who Kyle was and asked him about himself and what had happened to him. He responded to one that he was a Coast Guard cook who had hot soup splashed all over him and to the other that his wounds happened in Afghanistan as the result of a shark attack. Kyle appeared on “Late Show with David Letterman,” and when asked by the host about the 30 broken bones in his arm, he quickly responded, “I’m an overachiever.” The audience erupted in laughter and applause.
After talking to Kyle’s uncle, I met two of his boot camp drill instructors, Staff Sergeants Luke Billingsley and Anthony Richard. Billingsley was “third hat” and Richard the “heavy” of Platoon 1040, “Bravo” Co, 1st Bn, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C.
Kyle stands 5 foot 5 inches, and I asked his drill instructors if they had made him their “house mouse.” “No!” was their immediate answer; they had made him their 2d squad leader. They joked that Kyle spent a lot of time on the quarterdeck, but he had “heart.” Billingsley called him his “Mini Me,” and at the end of the Crucible, he gave Kyle the eagle, globe and anchor directly off his campaign hat.
The two drill instructors said there is a recruit in each platoon that you remember, and in Plt 1040 that was Kyle Carpenter. What in particular was so memorable? Due to blisters, Kyle did the Crucible, all 56 miles, on his tiptoes.
Perhaps one of the most insightful conversations was with U.S. Army Medal of Honor recipient SSG Ty Carter. SSG Carter, a former Marine combat engineer, spoke with me about what this honor would mean to Kyle. The first thing SSG Carter mentioned was the weight of memory that comes with talking about one’s medal. While others see the blue ribbon with field of stars and metal star, the recipient is reliving the events surrounding the recognition. SSG Carter poignantly stated, “Although a ‘good burden,’ if you’ve gotten the Medal of Honor, you can be assured others around you were wounded and died.” Asked what his advice to Kyle would be, he responded, “Follow your passion, help who you can and always take care of yourself and your family.”
SSG Carter also said, “It’s relatively easy for me to take off the uniform and return to relative anonymity when I need to step out of the limelight, but for Kyle, with his facial scars, it’ll be hard to step away to relax and recharge.”
During our three days of events, there were speeches and introductions from President Barack Obama, other Medal of Honor soldiers and Marines, general officers and Pentagon officials. From the Medal of Honor presentation by the Commander in Chief in the East Room of the White House, to the Medal of Honor flag presentation by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James F. Amos, at a special morning parade at Marine Barracks Washington, “8th and I,” into Kyle’s induction to the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, certain themes resonated.
Each speaker recognized Kyle’s best friend, LCpl Nicholas “Nick” Eufrazio. Nick was unable to attend due to the ongoing treatment for the wounds he sustained in the grenade blast that wounded Kyle and for which he was being awarded the Medal of Honor.
The two Marines from Kyle’s company who died in Afghanistan, LCpls Timothy Jackson and Dakota Huse, were remembered.
In each ceremony, the speakers, from the President to Kyle himself, had Kyle’s medical team stand to be recognized. From the immediate medical attention he received on a dusty Afghan farmhouse roof by Navy Hospital Corpsman Third Class Christopher Frend, to the team at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center led by U.S. Air Force trauma surgeon Col Deborah Malone, nothing short of medical miracles were visited on Kyle during 40-plus surgeries.
The most important people to be singled out, however, were those intimately responsible for the depth of Kyle’s character, his parents, Jim and Robin Carpenter.
Over the last three years I’ve had numerous occasions to talk with Jim and Robin. In July of 2011, Robin and Kyle joined singer-songwriter Marine Lieutenant Colonel Mike Corrado, Rob Bates, disabled combat veterans Cpl Aaron Mankin and Master Sergeant William “Spanky” Gibson Jr., a team of video and recording artists and engineers and me for a week in Greenville, S.C., at recording artist Edwin McCain’s studio to create the music video for Corrado’s song “Still in the Fight.” You can see in the video a time-lapsed sequence of Rob sketching Kyle.
In talks with Robin over the three days of events, I asked her to share about Kyle’s life and his decision to become a Marine. The choice to become a Marine is more than a career move; it’s a calling, and it directly impacts a whole family in ways few other life choices can. Robin confirmed this.
Kyle had been talking about his desire since the 11th grade, but bowed to his parents’ wish that he attend college. After one semester at Clemson University, his mind was made up. Robin was honest and direct; Kyle’s decision in 2008 to enlist in the Marines the following year came as a shock. She admitted to crying for three weeks straight. The surge in Afghanistan was building up, and she knew he eventually would find himself in combat.
No one in Kyle’s family had been in the military. Initially, she was hard-pressed to understand where the motivation had originated. The combat-camera Marines she had allowed to comb through family photos helped her realize where and when this unique “calling” began. Among the trove of photos, they found a picture of Kyle from the summer before eighth grade. He’d gone on a church trip and returned with a Marine T-shirt.
Kyle was born and raised in Flowood, Miss., but shortly before the 11th grade, his father took a new job and the family moved to Batesburg, S.C. Robin said the transition was particularly tough on Kyle. He went from a small high school where he knew everyone to being a stranger in a large school. Kyle soon transferred to a small private school, W. Wyman King Academy, and found himself again. Active in sports, Kyle excelled in football. It was while playing football at the Christian school that Kyle was to meet the gentleman who would provide the ultimate inspiration to become a Marine—disabled Vietnam Marine, author, coach and motivational speaker Lieutenant Clebe McClary.
I had the honor of sitting next to Clebe at Kyle’s Hall of Heroes ceremony at the Pentagon. At the ceremony, Kyle’s name was added to the list of seven Medal of Honor awardees of the global war on terrorism.
McClary, a native South Carolinian, was severely wounded on Hill 146 southwest of An Hoa. His 13-man patrol was attacked and overrun by a numerically superior force of North Vietnamese Army regulars. In the ensuing battle Clebe lost his left arm and eye to an NVA suicide satchel charge. Robin said she finds it interesting that Kyle and the Marine who inspired him share almost the exact same wounds, but on opposite sides.
Kyle first heard Clebe give a talk at his high school during 11th grade. The following summer, his high-school football coach, Jolly Doolittle, took the team to work at a retreat McClary had created for wounded veterans at Lake Lure, S.C. In the Vietnam Marine, Kyle found the example of profound spirituality coupled with the warrior ethos for which he longed.
At first Kyle’s parents admitted feeling guilty with his plan to leave Clemson and enlist. His father asked him, “Is it because we moved to South Carolina that you feel like you don’t belong?” Kyle replied unequivocally, “No, I feel like I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.” And so, as Kyle has said in multiple interviews, “I stood on those yellow footprints and joined something bigger than myself.”
After so many trials, tribulations and miracles, Jim and Robin Carpenter said they finally “get it.” They understand their son’s calling and his devotion to something bigger than himself, to that ineffable thing called “service” which they themselves planted deeply within Kyle. Joining the Marines was literally the ultimate expression of a seed they had planted; getting to know Clebe McClary had merely triggered it.
Robin then shared a final revelation. On the morning of June 19, mere hours before their son would be awarded the highest honor our nation can bestow, when the President of the United States and general officers would humble themselves before a corporal of Marines, his father penned and gave his son a letter. In that letter a father thanked his son for protecting his family, not just on the battlefield with an incredible act of selflessness, but for shielding them through years of surgeries without one word of pain or hopelessness in the face of his catastrophic wounds and all the challenges they have and will continue to present.
My most recent conversation with Kyle happened during an afternoon break on the final day of events, June 20. I had taken a short walk from the hotel to Arlington National Cemetery. As I returned to the hotel, from the direction of the cemetery Kyle came jogging up, dressed in our Corps’ ubiquitous silkies and green T-shirt. There he was, a young man who supposedly would never run or do another pull-up, his healed but heavily scarred arms, legs and face sweating profusely, coming in from a run while others rested in their rooms before attending the Friday Evening Parade at “8th and I.”
My first conversation with him took place in a hospital room more than three years earlier. At that time his arms and legs were heavily wrapped in gauze, his face deeply etched with blue gunpowder “tattooing” from the grenade blast and the effect of pain medication evident in his tired good eye and speech. He’d already endured 40 surgeries to remove shrapnel, piece together a shattered right arm and rebuild his jaw.
On the afternoon of June 20, he was the picture of health and clarity, grinning from ear to ear and ready, as always, to give me as much time as I needed to ask him questions. I had one question: “Give me one word for these past 3½ years.” Kyle shot back without a moment’s hesitation, “Surreal.”
My response was easy: “Semper Fi!”
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as an Automatic Rifleman with Company F, 2d Battalion, 9th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 1, 1st Marine Division (Forward), I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in support of OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM on 21 November 2010. Lance Corporal Carpenter was a member of a platoon-sized coalition force, comprised of two reinforced Marine rifle squads partnered with an Afghan National Army squad. The platoon had established Patrol Base Dakota two days earlier in a small village in the Marjah District in order to disrupt enemy activity and provide security for the local Afghan population. Lance Corporal Carpenter and a fellow Marine were manning a rooftop security position on the perimeter of Patrol Base Dakota when the enemy initiated a daylight attack with hand grenades, one of which landed inside their sandbagged position. Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own safety, Lance Corporal Carpenter moved toward the grenade in an attempt to shield his fellow Marine from the deadly blast. 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.