The traditional portrayal of the Medal of Honor recipient in American culture is of the stoic hero preserved in the moment of their greatest valor. We use words like “conspicuous gallantry” and “selfless courage” to describe their actions, though too often these words appear only in memoriam. Staff Sergeant Ty Carter, awarded with the Medal of Honor last week by President Obama, lived to receive his commendation after leaping recklessly through a hail of gunfire to save an injured comrade in the face of a relentless enemy attack.
Staff Sergeant Carter’s actions occurred during the 2009 Battle of Kamdesh in Afghanistan, events captured in Jake Tapper’s book, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, excerpted below, which presents a narrative of the battle that shows Carter acting with a level of bearing and deliberation uncommon even in most heroic depictions of war. Carter’s actions were not inspired by adrenaline-fueled bravado or ignorance of the impossible odds he faced, but from a rational assessment of the dire situation facing his fellow soldier, SPC Stephan Mace, who was lying wounded just out of reach. That Mace died not long after he pulled him to safety was not the end of the story for Carter, but the beginning.
Carter has been the first high-profile soldier to publicly speak about the depths of his struggle with post-traumatic stress following the battle, acknowledging that the loss of Mace and the seven others in his unit has weighed heavily on him over the years. His honesty and candor about behavioral health treatment has helped shift the narrative away from his actions as an individual to address the elements of his story common to most modern combat veterans.
Carter’s story may also begin to change the perception of veterans in American society, which has been dominated by sensational headlines that fail to capture the nuanced motivations of those who serve and the complex ways they are affected by their experiences. Carter is the embodiment of these conflicting narratives, an example of someone who acted with incredible and undeniable heroism under desperate circumstances but has lived with the consequences ever since.
Our nation has no higher award for valor that we can give Staff Sergeant Carter, but we can continue to honor his sacrifice by ensuring that we do not neglect the other side of his story, the side that didn’t begin until the first battle was over.
The following is an excerpt from Jake Tapper’s book, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, available in paperback on October 22.
The area afforded the two soldiers no shelter as insurgents unloaded their weapons on them. Carter was waiting for Larson to cue him, to tell him he could move, when he saw Gallegos come back around the corner, returning to the Humvee. Bullets were splashing all around his feet, and then one hit him. Gallegos turned around and fired; another round hit him. He kept firing. Mace, on the ground, on his elbows, was also struggling to get back toward the truck. He’d been hit with small- arms fire and RPG shrapnel. Both of his legs had been shredded with enemy metal, and thanks to two bullets in his back that had exited out his front torso, he was bleeding out of his abdomen.
As Larson aimed his fire to try to provide cover for Mace, a sniper round hit his helmet. Larson felt his head snap back, but the Kevlar worked: the bullet stuck in the helmet. He kept firing, yelling to Mace to follow Gallegos back to the Humvee. Mace turned and started crawling in the direction he’d indicated, but Gallegos was hit a third time now, in the head, by machine- gun fire. The bullets spun him around as if he— a man so enormous he was nicknamed Taco Truck— were practically weightless. As Gallegos landed on the ground, Larson turned around and saw two insurgents walking in the general direction of the Humvee, one with an RPG, the other with a PKM machine gun. Larson snuck around the truck— apparently they hadn’t seen him— and waited until they were ten feet away, and then he stood and shot each one in the head. It was the
first time he’d ever killed anyone.
“Gallegos is hit!” Carter yelled. “He’s down!”
“Get the fuck back in the truck!” Larson yelled back. “I just smoked two dudes back here! They’re in the wire! Get the fuck back here!”
Carter scrambled back into the Humvee. The gunfire continued steadily showering down upon the camp; more RPGs fell on the truck.
“Gallegos was hit,” Carter told Larson. “I don’t know what happened to Mace or Martin.”
Then Carter saw Mace, ten to fifteen yards in front of the truck, crawling on his elbows, trying to reach them.
“Mace is there,” Specialist Carter said. “I’m going to get him.”
“No,” replied Sergeant Larson.
“I can see him; he’s right there,” Carter insisted.
“You’re no good to him dead,” Larson said.
They argued. Larson said it was senseless to try to get Mace. He made a crack about Carter’s wanting to earn a medal.
“Fuck the medals, he needs my help,” Carter said.
“No,” Larson repeated. The indestructible Gallegos had been killed, Mace was gravely wounded, and neither of them knew what had happened to Martin. Larson wasn’t about to let Carter be a fourth man down. It was just too hot out there.
Trapped once again inside the Humvee, the two men tried to secure what they knew could very well end up being their coffin. The turret was jammed, and they couldn’t close it. The radio wasn’t working. They wondered if any of the other Americans at the outpost were still alive.
Larson and Carter began to lose hope.
“Can you swim?” Carter asked Larson.
Larson thought about the question. He was a really bad swimmer.
“Enough to survive,” he finally said.
“Good enough for me,” responded Carter. “If this is as bad as we think it is, we should wait until dark, low- crawl to the river, and float down to (Combat Outpost) Lowell.”
Larson was quiet; he’d been shot in the shoulder. They were surrounded and cut off, with no communications and little ammunition. Everyone friendly in sight was either wounded or dead, and they still had no idea how many Taliban fighters there were. Sure, he could swim.
Inside the Humvee, Carter fired at a three- man enemy RPG team standing next to the Afghan National Police building near the outpost, and other insurgents. Then he saw Mace crawl out from behind a truck.
Carter opened the window to talk to him. Shots were still coming at them. “Mace, are you all right?” Carter asked.
Too dehydrated to cry, Mace wore his pain on his face. He didn’t seem to have the energy to yell. “Help me,” Mace said plaintively. “Help me.”
“I can get to him, he’s right there,” Carter told Larson.
“Tell him to stay where he is,” Larson said. “He’s got cover there.”
“Help me, please,” Mace pleaded.
“I will get to you as soon as I can,” Carter said. He was irate. When the horn on a nearby truck blared, he for some reason became convinced it was a distress call from a fellow soldier. “Can I go to the truck?” he asked Larson. “There’s someone calling for help in there. What if I get
out and get underneath the Humvee just to see the truck?”
“Fine,” Larson agreed.
There were still bursts of intense machine- gun rounds every fifteen seconds or so, but the enemy, having apparently shifted his attention to other targets, seemed no longer to be specifically focused on them. Carter jumped out of the Humvee on his recon mission, only to see that its tires were flat from bullet rounds and there was no way for him, with all his gear on, to fit underneath. He hopped back in with Larson. “The truck is ten feet away, can I go check for survivors?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Larson said. Rounds were still being fired at them, but the enemy was now concentrating more closely on other parts of the camp. Carter jumped out again and ran to the truck. There was no soldier inside, so he recovered some ammunition that was in there and brought it back to the Humvee. He wasn’t sure where the sound of the horn had come from. “Can I go to Mace?” asked Carter, back inside. He’d given Mace his word.
“What do you plan on doing when you get to him?” Larson asked.
“Give him first aid.”
“Where are you going to take him?” Larson asked.
They discussed the options and decided that the nearby concrete bridge— outside the camp— would provide the most cover.
“You plan on dragging him that far?” Larson wondered.
“Fuck, no,” said Carter. “I plan on carrying him.”
Larson rolled down his window so he could fire and cover Carter, who got out and ran to Mace. He was facedown. Carter gently shook him.
“Hey, Mace, you all right?”
Mace mumbled something, and Carter turned him over. He couldn’t distinguish between Mace’s uniform and his legs; they were all a dark red mess, with just a stretch of skin and bone keeping his left foot attached to his leg.
“Where does it hurt?” Carter asked. “What should I do? Are you okay?”
He applied a tourniquet to Mace’s shredded left leg, then used a tree branch he found to splint his ankle. He took out his special “Israeli” bandage—elasticized and fitted with a pressure bar, the invention of an Israeli medic— to stanch bleeding from the largest hole in Mace’s abdomen,which was roughly the size of a tangerine. Other cavities were smaller but still gruesome and troubling. One was in the shape of a teardrop, Carter noted. Turning to Mace’s bloody right leg, he took out the dagger that’d been a gift from a karaoke buddy back home and cut open Mace’s pants.
Using tape and gauze, he then tried to plug the holes in that leg. Mace was in shock and did not seem particularly aware of what was going on. He was pale, and his lips were turning blue. “Don’t worry about your ankle,” Carter said. “It will be fine as soon as we can find it.” He thought he could discern the faintest chuckle from Mace.
Carter looked at Gallegos, who was lying facedown next to them.
“Sergeant Gallegos is dead,” Mace said.
“I believe you, but I need to check his pulse anyway,” Carter replied.
He reached over and felt the carotid artery in the sergeant’s neck. There was no pulse.
“Okay,” Carter told Mace, “you play dead. I’m going to check with Larson about what we should do now.”
He ran back to the Humvee.
“I don’t think it’s safe to take him to the bridge, it’s too exposed,” Carter explained to Larson. “The truck’s the only safe place.”
Larson agreed and got out of the truck to provide cover for Carter. Carter scurried back to Mace and reached down to hoist him up. He thought about his lifeguard training and how he would’ve picked Mace up if instead of being shot up he were drowning in a swimming pool. Carter told Mace to wrap his hands around his neck, and then he slid his left arm around Mace’s back and under his arms, and his right arm under his legs. Cradling him that way, he carried the wounded soldier while bullets flew by them, tripping over ammo cans and pieces of generator wreckage as they went, until at last they reached the Humvee, where Carter carefully placed Mace in the front seat.
Sitting in the Humvee, it became clear Mace’s wounds were so serious that Carter knew he would die if he didn’t receive medical attention soon.
“That settles it,” he told Larson. “I’m going on a recon. If I’m not back in ten minutes, either I made it or don’t worry about me.”
So much had happened, but in fact it had been only minutes earlier that the other three men in the truck had jumped into the maelstrom. Gallegos had been killed, Mace gravely wounded, and Martin unaccounted for. Carter hopped out of the Humvee and sprinted to the corner
of the latrines, where he took a knee. He’d made it. He gasped for air.
Carter glimpsed Mace’s gun at the corner of the laundry room. That was as far as he’d gotten, Carter figured. He saw Gallegos’s radio and snagged it. “This is Blue Four Golf— is anyone still alive?” he asked. He heard some sort of response in English; he wasn’t sure exactly what was being said, but it was enough to send him on a sprint back to the Humvee to give the radio to Larson, who dialed up the operations center. At the operations center, (Lieutenant Andrew) Bundermann got on the radio. “Red Dragon, what’s going on?” he asked Larson.
“I’m with Carter,” Larson said. “We got Mace. Mace is pretty jacked up. We need to get him to the aid station.” And then, with gratitude in his voice, he added, “We didn’t know if anyone else was still alive!”
There was a stretcher near their position— someone had brought it out earlier and leaned it up near the truck. Now Bundermann wanted to know if Larson and Carter could get Mace onto it.
Larson told Bundermann that they needed cover fire before they could make a run for it and try to bring Mace to the Aid Station. Bundermann radioed his counterpart, Lieutenant Jordan Bellamy, up on Observation Post (OP) Fritsche and asked him to fire mortars into the nearby town where enemy fighters had set up their base. He also called Specialist Clint Romesha, on the western side of the camp, and Sergeant 1st Class Jonathan Hill, who was in charge of the men on the eastern side, and told them to fire into the mountains. Bundermann then radioed Larson.
“If I lay down a fuck- ton of cover fire, can you guys get back on your own?”
“Fuck yeah,” said Larson.
The plan was this: a B‑1 bomber would drop its explosives while OP Fritsche, Romesha and his men, and Hill and his men unleashed everything they had at every enemy position they could target— at which point Larson and Carter would grab Mace and sprint to the aid station. Everyone got ready.
Carter scurried out to prepare the stretcher and clear the area, but within seconds, a mortar from OP Fritsche had hit Urmul, and Larson was yelling, “Go! Go! Go!” Prep work now short- circuited, Carter kicked the ammo cans out of the way and snatched up the stretcher. He opened
the back door of the Humvee, where Mace was trying ease himself out.
“Mace, you need to shift your legs,” Larson said.
“You need to hold the fuck on, because we’re going to haul ass,” added Carter.
The aggressive fire echoed the morning’s earlier sound track, but this time, the bullets and mortars were outgoing, as the men of 3‑61 Cav, together and all at once, began giving the enemy everything they had. Mace threw himself onto the stretcher, and Carter and Larson started moving, trying to achieve a balance of speed and smoothness. As they chugged toward the aid station, they passed by the bodies of the two dead insurgents Larson had killed. Not far from them lay a dead U.S. soldier: Chris Griffin. Carter had never been so exhausted; he was in so much pain, and so spent, that tears started streaking from his eyes. He was dehydrated and in agony. As soon as they reached the aid station, the docs grabbed Mace and got to work on him. Carter fell on the ground and started crawling. He had just enough breath to say “Help”— for himself and for all of them.