GWEN IFILL: And, finally tonight, an extraordinary honor for an extraordinary deed.Jeffrey Brown has our story.
JEFFREY BROWN: By November 2010, U.S. Marines were nine months into the first big push of President Obama’s Afghan surge to retake Marjah, a Taliban- held district of Southern Helmand Province.
Lance Corporal Kyle Carpenter was 21, part of F Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines.
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.), Medal of Honor Recipient: We were tasked with pushing south into an enemy stronghold territory. And it was pretty simple. I mean, we were just tasked with taking over a new compound.
JEFFREY BROWN: But things didn’t quite go that easily, right? The enemy was getting closer and closer?
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): They were. We knew it was going to be bad. We knew we were probably going to take casualties. We didn’t know how bad, but, when we got down there and, very shortly after moving in, got our first grenade attack, it became even more real than what we had anticipated.
JEFFREY BROWN: More real. Tell me, what does that mean?
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): Well, I mean, up until that point, for months and months, our worries were IEDs, stepping on IEDs, and pretty much from sun up to sundown on most days, we were in firefights.
Usually, it was very uncommon to see hand grenades, because those are very — more of a hand-to-hand, you know, very short-range-type weapon. So for them to get that close, really no fault of our own…
JEFFREY BROWN: And that tells you how close they were.
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): Very — yes, sir.
JEFFREY BROWN: The Marines knew it was a question of when, not if, grenades would be thrown on their position. On November 21, it happened.
Carpenter was stationed on a rooftop with a fellow Marine when the grenade landed. He dove on it to save the life of Lance Corporal Nick Eufrazio.
So, how much do you remember about what happened on that day when you were wounded?
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): Well, it’s kind of opposite what most people think. I don’t really remember anything of the entire day, and especially the moments leading up to being injured by the grenade.
All I remember is a few brief seconds before I went unconscious after I was injured.
JEFFREY BROWN: Carpenter had absorbed much of the blast. His arms were mangled, his jaw and mouth nearly destroyed. His skull was fractured. He lost his right eye, and had a collapsed lung. He was losing massive amounts of blood.
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): I couldn’t really hear anything, and my vision was if you were looking at a TV and it didn’t have cable hooked up to it, and it was just that white and gray static look. The next thing I remembered is feeling like warm water was being poured all over me from the blood that had started to come out.
JEFFREY BROWN: And that was your blood?
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): Yes, sir.
And then, after — after that, I thought about my family and how devastated and upset they were going to be that I was killed in Afghanistan.
JEFFREY BROWN: You were realizing at that moment that you might well die? CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): Very much.
JEFFREY BROWN: Carpenter flatlined in the medevac chopper. When he arrived at the field hospital, he was labeled PEA, patient expired on arrival, so grievous were his wounds.
What lay ahead was another grueling campaign for Carpenter, two-and-a-half years in hospitals and rehabilitation, dozens of surgeries, painful reconstructions and skin grafts. He says it got him down.
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): But that was just a few times, going into the pre-op, something I had done so many times, and getting stuck here and getting stuck there and knowing you’re going to be all cut up and bandaged up and hurting when you get out.
JEFFREY BROWN: You had to learn to do a lot of things again, right, normal everyday things, from walking to brushing your teeth.
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): Well, starting out, my mom brushed my teeth for a long time. And then, kind of when I got to be able to do it, I would.
And then months and months down the road, I finally learned how to put my socks on, so I started doing that. So it’s still definitely a learning process, I mean, just this past week, you know, doing things that you learn how to make it happen.
JEFFREY BROWN: Really, even up to today? What about the physical scars? Was that hard to get used to changes in the way you looked or maybe even the way that people looked at you?
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): No, one, because my time at Walter Reed really helped me, being with all the other injured military service members that I was.
And it’s never really been hard. I look at it more as, if I have to have these scars, I got them in defense of our nation and raising my right hand and volunteering to go into harm’s way for people back here at home, just like everybody else in the military does. So I would say I’m more proud of them.
JEFFREY BROWN: Really?
His extraordinary courage and sacrifice had not gone unnoticed, Carpenter’s name was put forward by his commanders for the Medal of Honor. And this past February, he received a phone call from the president.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Based on the recommendation of the secretary of Navy and secretary of defense, I have approved the award of the Medal of Honor to you.
JEFFREY BROWN: When you first learned you would be receiving it, you struggled a bit with it. Why?
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): I’m supposed to wear this medal when, every day, I would go down to the cafeteria in the building I lived at, at Walter Reed, and me and all my Marine buddies would be there, and you look around and you see one or two quadruple amputees, guys that have no limbs.
And I’m sitting here getting ready to be honored in front of the entire nation. But…
JEFFREY BROWN: That can be hard.
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): I did struggle at first, but now I have the mind-set of, I can wear it for them, and I can try to do good things for them, and, really, I guess my honor is their honor.
JEFFREY BROWN: And earlier this afternoon at the White House, Carpenter became the third Marine and 15th overall recipient since 9/11 of the nation’s highest military honor for conspicuous gallantry.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The man you see before you today, Corporal William Kyle Carpenter, should not be alive today.
But we are here because this man, this United States Marine, faced down that terrible explosive power.
You’ll notice that Kyle doesn’t hide his scars; he’s proud of them, and the service that they represent. And, now, he tells me this, and so I’m just quoting him — he says, the girls definitely like them.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So he’s kind of — he’s working an angle on this thing.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to say that in front of mom.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But there’s a quote there.
Anybody who has had a chance to get to know this young man knows you’re not going to get a better example of what you want in an American or a Marine.
Keep in mind, at the time, Kyle was just 21 years old. But in that instant, he fulfilled those words of Scripture: Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends.
JEFFREY BROWN: A number of Carpenter’s family members, friends, and comrades looked on. One not there was the man he saved. Nick Eufrazio suffered brain damage in the grenade attack and remains disabled.
These days, 24-year-old Kyle Carpenter speaks to young audiences about his experiences. And he’s in school himself, a psychology major at the University of South Carolina.
This all happened to you when you were so young. You’re still so young. Does it make you feel like you have a — I don’t know, a second lease on life or a mission for the rest of your life?
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): It has made me really want to experience and I guess feel life every single day.
JEFFREY BROWN: Feel life?
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): Mm-hmm. I mean, just things like driving around with the windows down in my car, or the doors off, which drives my mom crazy, but just simple things like…
JEFFREY BROWN: You’re still her young son, right?
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
Just simple things like that, if it’s something new or something that, you know, is going to get me excited or get the adrenaline going or whatever it is to make me really feel like I am really making this second chance that I have been blessed with worth it, I absolutely do that, and I try to do everything I can.
JEFFREY BROWN: I understand you’re even skydiving now.
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): I have once. I’m still letting mom recover from the first time. And then I will do the second one.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you’re being honored as a hero. Do you feel like a hero?
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): No, sir.
I feel like I’m on an even playing field and an even platform with everybody else, awards or not, with everybody else that raised their right hand and said, you know, I will going into harm’s way.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Corporal Kyle Carpenter, thanks so much for talking to us.
And on behalf of all of us at the NewsHour, we wish you the very best.
CPL. KYLE CARPENTER (RET.): Thank you very much. I appreciate your time.
JUDY WOODRUFF: They don’t come any finer.
GWEN IFILL: That’s why they call it conspicuous gallantry.
JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s right.
And we have an extended interview with Corporal Carpenter. You can watch that on our Rundown.