RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The events on a battlefield four years ago will be remembered today during a Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House. Staff Sgt. Ty Michael Carter earned the nation's highest military honor for his actions during an ambush in Afghanistan.
He was a specialist at the time, and stationed with the Army's Black Knight troop at Command Outpost Keating. Their location was vulnerable, a remote valley surrounded by three steep mountains. It's the kind of place the military stopped posting troops in Afghanistan, in part because of what happened on Oct. 3, 2009.
Even though Taliban fighters were firing at the outpost nearly every day, Ty Carter says it was immediately clear something much worse was happening on this day. When we spoke to him, he described a deluge of metal.
STAFF SGT. TY MICHAEL CARTER: The bullets, the rockets, the mortars, everything a wall of spikes that are pointing at you.
MONTAGNE: As the fight raged on, a comrade - Spc. Stephan Mace - went down from a shrapnel wound. That torrent of incoming fire and orders from a commanding officer, Sgt. Brad Larson, kept Ty Carter from quickly answering Mace's increasingly desperate cries for help.
CARTER: Mace was able to see me; I was able to see him. By the time he asked me for help, he had bled out so much that it looked like he was crying, but he was too dehydrated to actually have tears.
MONTAGNE: You ran for him, and you did bring him back.
CARTER: Yeah. The amount of incoming fire was shifting, just enough to where Sgt. Larson let me go get him. Once back at the truck, Sgt. Larson and I agreed that due to Mace's injuries, that he wouldn't last very long. And so again, I left the truck to establish communications 'cause we didn't have any communications, so there was a possibility that everybody else had been killed - 'cause we saw enemy walking through carrying our weapons that they must've removed from one of the downed soldiers. But luckily, when I rounded the corner where Sgt. Gallegos was killed...
MONTAGNE: Sgt. Gallegos, and that was Justin Gallegos.
CARTER: Yes, ma'am. I found his radio and said, this is Blue Four Golf, is anyone still alive? And I heard a voice, and that's all I needed. And I sprinted back to the vehicle and handed the radio over to Larson. And then Larson coordinated a type of counterattack with the aviators, the teams on the ground - just everybody put their finger on the trigger and wouldn't let go until they knew we were safe. And because of that, Sgt. Larson and I were able to get Mace to the aid station.
MONTAGNE: You must have rolled this over in your mind. At the point at which you ran to save Stephan Mace, you knew that he wasn't going to make it.
CARTER: No. No. I totally believed that I could save him. Through all my training - I mean, Boy Scouts, Marine Corps; I was a lifeguard - I believed that we could save him. And his mother told me that in a way, we did. The fact that he believed that he was coming home; he was with his friends; and before he went under surgery, he received his - excuse - he received his last rites. And for religious people, that is one of the very few things that puts a soul to rest.So in a way, Sgt. Larson and I and the rest of the Black Knight troop, we did kind of save him.
MONTAGNE: Yes, you did. In the end, you were able to repel hundreds of Taliban fighters. It was at a great cost; and among the costs for you, it was that you developed post-traumatic stress. Help us to understand from the inside, what the world looks like when you have PTSD.
CARTER: Well, I think part of the stigma, or the fear, is because of that last word on it. They call it post-traumatic stress disorder, or syndrome; and it's your body's natural way to remember and prevent a traumatic experience from happening again.
A very small form of post-traumatic stress is a baseball player, and he receives a pitch - hits him in the head. Now, for the next three or four games, every time he steps up to bat, he's going to be thinking about that pitch that caused him the pain.
And that's just a form of it. In fact, he might even have a minor flashback of seeing the pitch - and the ball come through the air. What happened with me pretty much changed my view of a lot of things. For example, I was walking through an airport, and I saw a picture that advertised travel, and there was a mother and a father and a little girl there at, like, the Grand Canyon or some national park.
Instantly, I felt a large amount of sorrow because I was transported back to the night after the firefight, where I imagined my daughter growing up without a daddy. So all within a fraction of a second, you're slammed with all these emotions and memories. It takes a lot of effort to choke back the tears, and try to act normal.
MONTAGNE: You know, the services are now taking PTSD quite seriously. Has that been your experience - because it has had a stigma for so long.
CARTER: In my experience, the military understands it a lot better. And because of the help they've given me, I was able to not only redeploy but before that, I was - or I am a good enough person socially to where I was able to meet my beautiful wife and have a brand-new baby. And I credit that to the NCOs that, you know, almost forced me to go to behavioral health, and also the behavioral health people for being so understanding and helping me through my issues.
MONTAGNE: You have every right to feel pride in your actions of the day that has earned you the Medal of Honor. I'm just wondering - it being such a public award, if there are also a mixture of emotions that you're feeling?
CARTER: Oh, big time. Even though this award is an awesome honor and a great privilege, in order to get such a prestigious award, you have to be in a situation where your soldiers - or your family, your brothers - are suffering and dying around you, and then you just did everything you could to either save lives or prevent further loss. And so I would never tell any soldier or service member, hey, go out and get the Medal of Honor because of the amount of pain and loss and tears that - has to be shed in order to receive it.
MONTAGNE: Certainly, your country is grateful for what you've done. Sgt. Carter, thank you very much for joining us.
CARTER: You're welcome, ma'am. Thank you for having me.
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MONTAGNE: Staff Sgt. Ty Michael Carter will receive the Medal of Honor today for his actions in 2009 during an ambush at Command Outpost Keating in Afghanistan. This is NPR News.
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