A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to spend time sketching wounded marines at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond. It is a place of great sadness and great hope. Men and women who have been whisked mangled from the battlefield are thrown into the medical equivalent of boot camp. They may have been brought low by their injuries, but these are the best and the brightest and bravest of you — and with little in the way of hesitation they attack the despair and physical damage that stand in the way of their recovery. There is pain, there are setbacks, but they are doing what they are trained to do. Finishing the mission of healing as best they can.
Myself, and Marine Combat Artist CWO2 Mike Fay spent two days at the hospital drawing and getting to know Marines as they grimaced and struggled through their daily therapy. Mike and I worked together like a journalist/artist team. When he talked to the subject I did the drawing and when I was speaking he was sketching.
I am always filled with a gnawing fear before I enter a room with a wounded soldier inside. Their physical injuries are jarring and their pain obvious and raw. I worry that I am crossing a line into a private world of anguish where I have no right to be. I don’t ever want to feel like I am taking something and not giving something back. Without exception though, as soon as the door is opened and I cross the threshold I am never less than warmly welcomed.
One of the last Marines we met during our visit was Lance Cpl. William ‘Kyle’ Carpenter. Carpenter had been blown apart by a grenade and then put back together again by the brilliance of surgeons. His layered scars and disfigurement, though, could not hide his energy, sense of humor or intelligence. He didn’t shy away from any question we threw at him.
Carpenter was with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, operating in Marjah district of Helmand province of Afghanistan in 2010.
“I was hit in a village we called Shadier, but I don’t think that is its real name. We called the village south of our patrol base Shady — the further south you went the more [messy] stuff you got into. So the village slightly further away was Shadier and the next village was Shadiest.” He said, waiting for the laugh.
For the last couple of months of his tour, his area of operations had seen so much action that room had to be made for all the replacements coming in. Carpenter was sent out as part of a 12-man unit, which planned to create a new patrol base.
“So we got a squad of about 12 guys, and with our heavy packs filled with water and food and empty sandbags, we headed for this village. We took contact going down there — we got hit with rockets and grenades all day — but finally made it down into this village where we paid this family and they gave us their compound.”
Carpenter told us how the Marines started fortifying the roof of their new bivouac, but quickly found themselves being targeted by Taliban snipers, Chinese rockets … and hand grenades.
“Myself and my best friend, Corporal Nick Eufrazio, were up on post together when they lobbed a hand grenade up there. I was about a foot away from it … I was up on my knees looking down. I took 99 percent of the blast. But unfortunately one tiny piece of shrapnel made it by me and hit Nick in the forehead.”
As we sat in his hospital room listening while Carpenter narrated the events that had so nearly taken his life it didn’t occur to me then and didn’t occur to me in all this time since, what had really happened, and what remained unsaid.
“The grenade went off and everything went white, I heard a loud ringing. Then another friend, Lance Corporal Jared Lilly, came up and I heard him say, ‘Oh my god.’ I could feel the blood running over me. He and the corpsman started working on me, then I blacked out.”
Today I read the announcement in the Marine Corps Times and it all clicked together. In an astonishing exhibition of self-sacrifice Carpenter had shielded his friend from the grenade by placing his body in between them. He was 20 years old at the time. Next month Lance Cpl. Kyle Carpenter will be presented with the Medal of Honor by President Obama.
I like to think that the sketches soften what would be unpalatable photographic images of carnage enough that people can be made to look without looking away. Regardless of your politics these survivors and their injuries are well worth looking at and dwelling on. At the very least they deserve our unflinching gaze and acceptance.
Lance Cpl. Carpenter definitely does.
POST SCRIPT: Here is a link to the traveling exhibition of Wounded Warrior art. Right now in Philadelphia.
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