It was 2010 when Marine Cpl. William Kyle Carpenter was rocked with a grenade blast that left him barely clinging to life in Afghanistan. The injuries were horrific: He’d sustained catastrophic wounds to his face and arms, and dozens of broken bones. He was bleeding badly, and sure he would die, he says.
Nearly four years later, Carpenter, 24, will receive the Medal of Honor, on Thursday in a White House ceremony. An investigation found that Carpenter deserved the nation’s highest combat valor award for positioning himself between the grenade and Lance Cpl. Nick Eufrazio in an effort to shield his fellow Marine from the blast, knowing that it could probably kill him.
Carpenter’s actions have been celebrated in the Marine Corps and by military supporters for years. Lesser known, however, are the actions of the fellow service members who scrambled to his side on a dusty rooftop in Marjah, the violent district in Helmand province where Carpenter, then a lance corporal, and Eufrazio were wounded on Nov. 21, 2010.
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Getting Carpenter home alive was no small thing. It required dozens of individuals, from his platoon members in Afghanistan to doctors in Maryland, to respond quickly and fearlessly, putting to use training and modern technology that has kept tens of thousands alive who may have died in previous conflicts. As of 2012, there were some 16,000 severely wounded U.S. service members in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The medical care for Carpenter and Eufrazio started within moments of the grenade blast. The platoon — with 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, of Camp Lejeune, N.C. — had worked under fire for most of the previous day to build an outpost, Patrol Base Dakota, named after another Marine, Lance Cpl. Dakota Huse, who had died nearby two weeks before.
The first Marines to respond realized the severity of Carpenter’s injuries immediately, and called for Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Christopher Frend, now 25. He served as the unit’s corpsman, trained in all manner of combat medicine. An investigation found that the grenade that hit Carpenter and Eufrazio was one of three tossed into the Marines’ compound within moments, and Frend said he was worried about another coming or about insurgents opening fire on him from outside.
“I had to fight my little inner demon and man up and get on top of that roof and see what was going on,” Frend said in a phone interview. “If I had to put a time on it, it was probably a minute, or two minutes.”
Marines said Carpenter’s body was still smoking when they found him. The extent of his injuries meant it was not only urgent to work on him quickly, but complicated. Notably, Frend said, the blast seat of the grenade — the point of detonation — was under Carpenter, indicating he tried to shield Eufrazio from the explosion.
“He had pieces of his forearms missing, so the best way to handle those is to pack them with gauze, and then you would also wrap it in pressure dressings,” Frend said of Carpenter. “But, because of the extent of the broken bones in his arms, it was really, really difficult to put on a tourniquet. There really was no support. It was like trying to put a tourniquet on a burrito, if you know what I’m saying. We tried to wrap his arms as much as we could and get the tourniquet as high as we could, as well. We ended up trying to put it under his armpit and up around his collar bone a little bit as well, just to get some good pressure on there.”
Frend said the helicopter they called for medical evacuation arrived within about 10 minutes — relatively quick, and helpful considering the extent of Carpenter’s injuries. Still, he flat-lined several times in coming days, spawning these Marine Corps videos recently:
Carpenter underwent emergency surgery at the military hospital at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, and was moved afterward to the military’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. He wasn’t expect to live when he arrived, a chaplain’s assistant there at the time, Chuck Williams, told me in an interview for Marine Corps Times in 2012.
Somehow, Carpenter made it. He has undergone about 40 surgeries now, improving to the point that he can run marathons, do pull-ups and sky dive. Frend and other members of Carpenter’s platoon are in Washington this week to watch their friend receive the Medal of Honor.
The “doc” says he doesn’t mind telling his part of Carpenter’s story, and is excited about the recognition he will receive.
“Truthfully, even if you look at the heroic actions that he has done, look at where he has come from,” Frend said of Carpenter’s injuries. “He was basically battered and beaten by a grenade. The surgeries he has gone through, the rehabilitation he has gone through, it’s amazing what the world has come to these days that helped him get there.”