“I wasn’t gonna make it. I had come to terms that I was gonna die, and I was very sure of that.”
Those thoughts raced through Marine Corporal Kyle Carpenter’s head in the moments after he dove on top of a Taliban grenade, taking the brunt of the blast and saving the life of his best friend.
Covered in blood, Carpenter’s vision was fading. Shrapnel had torn into his face and taken his right eye. With his eardrums ruptured, he couldn’t hear anything except loud ringing.
“I thought about my family and how devastated they would be that I was killed in Afghanistan and never made it home,” Carpenter, 24, told me of the 2010 incident in Marjah, in southwestern Afghanistan. “My last thought [was to] make peace with God, because I knew from how I felt and how much blood that I could feel I was losing — I knew that I was not gonna wake up.”
But he did wake up six weeks later, in a hospital bed at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center. Now, almost four years after the incident, the retired Corporal will receive the nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honour, on Thursday in a ceremony at the White House.
Our ‘alarm clock’ was AK-47 fire
On Nov. 19, 2010, Carpenter and his squad moved south by foot to a small village, accompanied by engineers, an interpreter, and Afghan National Army troops. Their mission: build a new patrol base to wrestle control of the area from the Taliban.
It wouldn’t be easy. Any time they pushed south, he told me, “we would take enemy fire. It was pretty much guaranteed enemy contact. It was definitely a rough deployment up to that point.”
That “contact” came one day later, when their small patrol base came under blistering attack from small arms, sniper fire, rockets, and grenades. Two Marines were injured and evacuated. “The rest of the day it was sporadic but still constant enemy [AK-47] fire on our post that was on top of the roof.”
Along with his friend and point man Lance Cpl. Nick Eufrazio, Carpenter was on a rooftop — filling sandbags and dodging incoming fire — trying to watch over the southwest corner of the base.
But with the sun still overhead and a Taliban sniper zeroing in on the Marines, their staff sergeant told them to get off the roof.
“Not too soon after I jumped off the roof, a rocket came in and destroyed the post that I had been working on,” he said.
We ‘take care of our fellow Marines’
The next day, Carpenter and Eufrazio set up on a new post on the base’s northeast corner, with limited protection from sandbags stacked about 4-feet high. They first received sporadic fire around 9 a.m., forcing them to lie on their backs to avoid getting hit.
But one hour later, the shooting continued — and it got closer. “Enemy forces had maneuvered in close through the use of the walls of the compound across the street to the east,” according to the summary of action. The Taliban threw three grenades into the compound.
One landed in the center of the base, injuring an Afghan soldier. The second harmlessly detonated near the post that was destroyed the previous day. The last landed on the roof, dangerously close to both Marines.
“I only remember a few moments after I got hit,” Carpenter said. “But nothing before.”
An extensive investigation found that Carpenter had actually jumped on the grenade, absorbing the majority of the explosion. “The majority of the grenade blast was deflected down rather than up, causing a cone-shaped hole to be blown down through the ceiling of the command operations center,” the summary reads.
Carpenter was severely wounded, with injuries to his face, jaw, and upper and lower extremities. Eufrazio received shrapnel to the head. Both were immediately evacuated and survived. Eufrazio is still recovering from the attack.
“As Marines, it’s drilled into us from the moment we step on the yellow footprints, to take care of [our] fellow Marines,” Carpenter said. In training, Marines are taught about others who have jumped on grenades in combat. At boot camp, it’s even a drill that’s practiced, with instructors throwing dummy grenades on the ground and shouting “Grenade!” while watching young privates fight to “save” the others.
“Honestly, not patting myself on the back, but I won’t say I’m surprised,” Carpenter said, when asked if instinct had taken over in that moment. “Because I know that, if a thousand other Marines were put in my situation, they would do the same thing for me.”
Now going into his sophomore year at the University of South Carolina, Carpenter has bounced back from injuries that are often fatal. He goes to the gym almost every day of the week, and completed the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. last October. He wants to finish school and use the platform the Medal of Honour will provide to do good things for others.
And in a recent video release from the Marine Corps, Carpenter says “I’m just getting started.”
But if he could have done anything differently, I asked, was there something he would change about the day he dove on a grenade in the middle of a Taliban attack?
“I mean I would grab that [grenade] and kick it right back,” Carpenter said, half-joking. “But besides that … I wouldn’t change anything. We’re both alive and we’re here and I’m fully appreciating my second chance.”
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