Army Staff Sgt. Ty Michael Carter — who grew up in Antioch — Monday became the fifth living recipient to be awarded the Medal of Honor for duties in Iraq or Afghanistan.
But the honor — the highest U.S. military award — is a bittersweet accomplishment for Carter, whose latest battles are fought against post-traumatic stress disorder from the very event he’s being honored for.
On Oct. 3, 2009, Carter performed gallantly when up to 400 insurgents attacked the Keating combat outpost in Nuristan Province of eastern Afghanistan.
Though the insurgents’ outnumbered them nearly 8-to-1, the troop of 53 battled through the surprise attack and managed to inflict massive casualties.
For more than six hours, Carter resupplied ammunition to different posts, provided first aid, killed enemy troops and risked his life to save an injured soldier under unrelenting enemy fire.
In the end, almost half his men were injured and eight were dead — including the soldier Carter tried desperately to save.
Carter blamed himself. For the army staff sergeant, it was the worst day of his life:
“I believed that I had failed [the deceased soldier] and I had failed my platoon and I had failed my troop and my family because I couldn’t save him.”
After the Keating battle was over, Carter found he had trouble sleeping. Then, the nightmares began.
The man known as “Wheat Bread” for his lack of emotion found himself crying all the time, and took to wearing sunglasses to hide his tears.
Carter, though, didn’t believe he had PTSD. In fact, he didn’t believe the disorder actually existed:
“[PTSD was] an excuse. It was crap. It was a reason for soldiers to get out of work.”
With encouragement from the platoon’s sergeant, Carter reluctantly agreed to visit the brigade psychologist.
With one painful session at a time, Carter began facing the demons from that day and learned how to work through his flashbacks:
“[Flashbacks are] an involuntary emotional response. You feel trapped or you feel like you’re being assaulted and there’s nothing there, just because of the memories you’ve had in the past.”
But now that the army staff sergeant has received the Medal of Honor — an honor he barely wanted at first — a new flood of feelings are rushing back.
Through media interviews, Carter said he’s reliving the experience over and over again.
His platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Hill, said he understands the bittersweet feeling of receiving a Medal of Honor, as it can only mean something horrible has happened:
“Sometimes [...] it’s a curse. I’ve got [a Silver Star from the COP Keating battle] that reminds me every day of the shit storm that I survived and the shit storm when I lost my men, the shit storm that has affected all of us for the rest of our lives.”
According to army officials, Carter’s quick thinking and decisive actions helped save lives:
“Carter’s remarkable acts of heroism and skill, which were vital to the defense of COP Keating, exemplify what it means to be an American hero.”
But Carter doesn’t want anyone to think he survived the battle of Keating alone:
“I really don’t want people to see this [award] as, ‘You deserve this.’ It’s what happens when soldiers come together who are cornered. They fight to the death for each other. I did what everybody else would have done.”
When President Barack Obama bestowed the award on Carter in the East Room of the White House Monday morning, he recognized Carter’s courage in battling both his enemies and his demons:
“Look at this man. Look at this soldier. Look at this warrior. He’s as tough as they come. And if he can find the courage and the strength, to not only seek help, but also to speak out about it, to take care of himself and to stay strong, then so can you.”
In addition to receiving the Medal of Honor, Carter’s military awards include the Purple Heart, the Army Commendation Medal and the Army Achievement Medal.