WASHINGTON (AP) — A 24-year-old veteran who lost an eye after taking a grenade blast in Afghanistan to save a fellow Marine received the highest U.S. military honor Thursday in a somber White House ceremony.
President Barack Obama walked from the briefing room, where he had just announced plans to send up to 300 U.S. military advisers into Iraq, to the East Room, where he praised retired Cpl. William "Kyle" Carpenter's instinctive valor and called him a shining example for a post-9/11 generation.
"Carpenter should not be alive today, but the fact that he is gives us reason to trust that there is indeed a higher power," Obama said.
The dual events — Obama's Iraq announcement and the Medal of Honor ceremony — underscored just how much the U.S. is still realizing the human cost of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars the president pledged to end. Under a portrait of George Washington, Obama reflected on the sacrifices young men and women continue to make in the name of safeguarding U.S. citizens and their values.
"This United States Marine faced down that terrible explosive power, that unforgiving force, with his own body, willingly and deliberately, to protect a fellow Marine," Obama said.
The physical toll exacted by his act of heroism offered a sobering reminder of what was taken from Carpenter in the small Afghan village where he was wounded in 2010. Carpenter required almost 40 surgeries and multiple skin grafts, Obama said, leaving him with a prosthetic eye, a new jaw and teeth, and "one hell of a smile."
His face still scarred from his injuries, Carpenter said that as the president placed the blue ribbon around his neck, he felt the history and weight of the nation — from the deadly trenches of World War I to the sounds of his fellow Marines calling for help by radio as they bled in the fields of Afghanistan.
"I accept this honor with a heavy heart," Carpenter told reporters after the ceremony. "Freedom is a powerful and beautiful thing."
Carpenter was barely 21 years old when he was assigned to guard a patrol base in a small village in Helmand province. That's where he and Lance Cpl. Nicholas Eufrazio were assigned to provide security from a rooftop post, their presence concealed only by a circle of sandbags piled three to four high, the Marine Corps said.
Enemy forces, which had moved in while hidden by walls from a compound across the street, lobbed three grenades into the patrol base. One injured an Afghan National Army soldier. The second did not detonate.
The third landed close to Carpenter and Eufrazio.
Carpenter placed himself between the grenade and Eufrazio to shield him. The blast deflected down, with Carpenter absorbing most of the explosion.
Eufrazio received a head injury from shrapnel. But Carpenter was severely wounded from head to toe, sustaining a depressed skull and a collapsed right lung, among a long list of other injuries.
He was immediately evacuated and required brain surgery to remove shrapnel. His heart flat-lined three times during treatment, Obama said, and all three times doctors managed to revive him.
"You displayed a valor in the blink of an eye that will inspire generations," Obama said of Carpenter's actions during the attack.
A Mississippi native, Carpenter was a patient at a suburban military medical center until his retirement for medical reasons last July.
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.
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