For Soldiers stationed at Combat Outpost Keating in the fall of 2009, it was immediately evident that this particular Saturday would be unlike any other.
In the predawn hours of Oct. 3, 2009, a hail of gunfire descended on the outpost, which sat in a narrow valley surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains in the eastern Afghanistan province of Nuristan near the border with Pakistan. A force of about 400 Taliban fighters began assaulting the compound from five vantage points in the mountains.
COP Keating was defended by 50 American Soldiers, an Afghan National Army unit and its two Latvian Army trainers. The American Soldiers, assigned to B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, had been at the outpost since May of that year. Having faced enemy fire almost daily in the difficult-to-defend complex, the Army had planned its closure. The all-out attack Oct. 3 hastened those plans.
As insurgents targeted the outpost’s mortar pit with a barrage of bullets, others nearly overwhelmed every other spot within the football-field sized compound from their positions in the mountains. A simultaneous attack was carried out on nearby Observation Post Fritsche, which cut off support to COP Keating for most of the day. Taliban forces would breach COP Keating and inflict casualties within an hour of the start of the attack. They wouldn’t be completely driven back until late in the afternoon.
The American Soldiers fought fiercely, killing an estimated 150 Taliban fighters en route to retaking COP Keating. Later in the day, OP Fritsche was secured and able to provide indirect support. Overhead, two U.S. Air Force F-15E fighter bombers helped coordinate airstrikes. Eventually, COP Keating was secured.
Eight of the 50 U.S. Soldiers defending the outpost were killed in the battle, which lasted 12 hours. An additional 27 were wounded.
The daylong firefight was vaulted into the spotlight this year after two NCOs — Staff Sgt. Ty M. Carter and Staff Sgt. Clinton L. Romesha — were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the battle.
Carter, a specialist at the time of the attack, received the medal in August. He displayed bravery in traversing a wide-open expanse of the compound three times to provide ammunition to a group of Soldiers pinned down behind a humvee. Carter also exposed himself to enemy fire to rescue a fellow Soldier, Spc. Stephan Mace. Carter then retrieved a radio that belonged to a fallen Soldier that helped him and Sgt. Bradley Larson flee their pinned-down position and get Mace to safety. Mace eventually died from his wounds after being airlifted from the outpost.
Romesha was awarded the medal in February. Though wounded early in the battle, he continued fighting. Romesha was instrumental in leading a group of Soldiers who reclaimed the outpost’s ammunition depot and repelling insurgents who had breached COP Keating near its entry control point. He also directed air support and led Soldiers in laying down suppressive fire, which allowed Carter and Larson to move Mace to safety.
The honors mark the first time two living Americans were awarded the nation’s highest military honor for the same battle since the Battle of Ap Pac in South Vietnam in 1963. Nine other Soldiers were decorated with the Silver Star for their actions during the fight. COP Keating was evacuated two days later.
Staff Sgt. Ty Michael Carter knew he wouldn’t be available.
Carter, 33, currently assigned to the 7th Infantry Division’s headquarters at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., was being asked by a lieutenant colonel calling from Washington, D.C., if he had an opening in his schedule for a phone conversation in mid-July. He didn’t. He was going to be on vacation with his family. But the caller’s urgency was apparent.
“I could tell in the strain in his voice that this would be one call I didn’t want to miss,” Carter said.
So, just as he has done so many times throughout his military career, Carter rose to the challenge.
Carter and his wife, Shannon, who intended to be traveling with their three children — Jayden, Madison and Sehara — adjusted their schedule so they’d be in an area with cellphone service. The family pulled into a gas station on a lonely ribbon of highway between Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park and California’s Redwood National Park. Carter climbed into the camper behind his pickup for some solitude and to wait for the call. His watch quietly trudged past the scheduled time. He waited. And waited.
Finally, a sharp chirp from his cellphone broke the silence. A woman’s voice on the other end asked if he was willing to take a call from President Barack Obama. Carter obliged.
“He sounded just like he does on TV,” Carter said. “He first said that he was thankful for my service.”
Then, Carter heard the words that will lead him and his family to Washington, D.C., this weekend for a momentous ceremony at the White House.
“He said he approved the Medal of Honor,” Carter said.
The commander in chief proceeded to say he looked forward to meeting Carter and his family during his decoration ceremony, which occured Aug. 26 at the White House.
Carter ambled out of the camper and told his wife the news. Her joyful outburst startled the handful of travelers gathered at the gas station. The pair called their families to inform them of the news. Carter received calls to inform him on the procedures that would follow. Then, the family simply continued on its vacation, en route to a reprieve from their daily grind and down a path that will forever change their lives.
‘We were all fighting for the same thing’
Carter’s route to the Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military honor, began nearly four years ago.
Carter was a specialist at the time assigned to the “Black Knight” Troop of 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, from Fort Carson, Colo. The group was stationed at Combat Outpost Keating, a remote outpost plunged in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains near the town of Kamdesh in the Afghanistan province of Nuristan, when it was attacked by a force of about 400 Afghan fighters on Oct. 3, 2009. The 12-hour battle that ensued to regain the outpost resulted in the deaths of eight U.S. Soldiers and injuries to 25 others.
Another survivor of the battle, former Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha, was awarded the Medal of Honor by Obama in February for his efforts to direct air support and recover casualties, all while engaging the enemy during the firefight.
Carter’s actions during the battle were just as notable.
It began at 6 a.m. that day when Carter was rousted from his slumber by the cacophony of small-arms fire peppering the compound. The enemy was attacking from five vantage points in the mountains, attempting to choke off support from nearby Observation Post Fritsche in the process, according to the battle narrative. Carter exited his barracks on the eastern fringe of the outpost and rushed across a 100-meter expanse under heavy fire to join Sgt. Justin Gallegos, Sgt. Bradley Larson and Spc. Stephan Mace, who were digging in on the southwestern edge of the complex behind a humvee. Carter would run this gauntlet twice more under fire to supply ammunition to the party.
Later, rocket-propelled grenades pelted the humvee, resulting in several injuries to the group. That provoked Gallegos to attempt to reunite with other Soldiers deeper inside the outpost. Carter and Larson provided cover fire while attempting to bound back as Gallegos led Mace and Sgt. Vernon Martin, who had joined the group, away from the humvee. They encountered an enemy force that had breached the outpost from the north and were sprayed with machine-gun fire, which killed Gallegos instantly. Martin, wounded, scrambled under a nearby trailer, where he later died. Mace managed to crawl to low ground about 30 meters from the humvee.
“One of the things that sticks out the most is seeing Staff Sgt. Gallegos fall,” Carter said. “During the [exfil], he had Mace’s arm around his shoulder, trying to carry him to safety. When the exfil failed, he was shot right in front of me. I constantly see him in my head and in my dreams, falling.”
Carter and Larson raced back to the humvee, engaging the enemy fighters inside the compound who were attempting to overrun Soldiers in a nearby mortar pit. Their accurate fire forced the enemy to retreat from the outpost and offered a reprieve from close-range fighting. During this time, Carter saw Mace moving near the humvee and requested to attempt a rescue, despite the hail of gunfire still careening down the mountain slopes. Larson initially refused his request, stating “you’re no good to Mace if you’re dead.”
“I can’t stop thinking about the look on Mace’s face when he asked for help and I had to say, ‘No,’” Carter said.
At that moment, a second humvee carrying Sgt. Joshua Hardt, Spc. Christopher Griffin and Pvt. Edward Faulkner reached a position near Carter and Larson. It was struck almost immediately by multiple RPGs. Hardt was fatally shot while exiting the vehicle. Griffin and Faulkner sprinted north across the same area Carter had already negotiated three times. Only Faulkner made it.
Carter scrambled to the second humvee to check on its occupants and secure ammunition. Upon his return, Larson relented, allowing Carter to attempt to rescue Mace, who continued to call for help. Carter darted down an embankment to reach Mace. He staunched the Soldier’s bleeding and applied a tourniquet to his leg, then he came to the realization he wouldn’t be able to extract Mace while carrying a weapon. Carter returned to Larson’s position and explained the situation. Larson provided cover fire while an unarmed Carter carried Mace under a barrage of bullets, placing him in the passenger seat of the humvee before returning to the fight.
With their ammunition dwindling and Mace in need of medical care, the pair knew they needed to establish contact with other Soldiers at COP Keating. Carter, with Larson’s consent, made his way to where Gallegos had earlier been struck down. He found Gallegos’ radio and was relieved to hear friendly forces’ chatter coming from it. Then he turned to realize he was out of sight of Larson.
“I remember when I went out to get the radio how alone I felt not being able to see Sgt. Larson or the humvee that was protecting us so well,” Carter said.
But Carter did find his way back and the pair made contact with other Soldiers inside the outpost. Later, Romesha — the Medal of Honor recipient — led a group of Soldiers that provided cover fire to assist Larson and Carter, who were finally able to move Mace back across the clearing in the middle of the outpost to the aid station. Another element of Soldiers led by 1st Sgt. Jonathan Hill, Carter’s platoon sergeant at COP Keating, also provided cover. More than 12 hours after being wounded, Mace was flown to Forward Operating Base Bostick. He would eventually succumb to his wounds.
After a brief respite, both Carter and Larson rejoined the fight. Carter took a sniper role, providing cover fire for Soldiers retrieving the fallen and the wounded. The remaining Soldiers continued working together until reinforcements finally arrived from OP Fritsche, and COP Keating was eventually secured.
“It was blue platoon and red platoon,” Carter said. “Of course, every platoon has its rivalries. But on that day, I believe it was Sgt. Hill who said we turned into purple platoon because we were completely intermixed. Luckily, because of the excellent training from the officers and the NCOs, we knew each other’s procedures and battle drills enough to where we could quickly and efficiently adapt to each other’s style and become effective. We were all fighting for the same thing, and we were all fighting together. That’s something that hopefully isn’t rare in the military services today.”
COP Keating was promptly evacuated after the fight. The closure of the outpost was imminent as part of a plan to move coalition forces to more densely populated areas. The attack accelerated those plans.
Carter suffered various injuries, including a concussion. He also was scarred psychologically. He is open about his post-traumatic stress disorder and hopes his newfound recognition can offer him a bigger platform to raise awareness about PTSD and how Soldiers can use Army resources to combat it.
Carter credits Hill with helping him get the necessary aid to work through his psychological issues. The help he received allowed Carter to deploy to Afghanistan again in 2012. Before joining the Army in 2008, Carter served in the Marine Corps from 1998 to 2002.
“If it wasn’t for Sgt. Hill and the behavioral health teams, first at (Forward Operating Base) Bostick, then at Fort Carson and then, of course, at JBLM, I wouldn’t be the NCO that could deploy again, which I did, and also the husband and father that I wanted to be.”
When Romesha was named a recipient of the Medal of Honor, Carter was enthused. But he did not attend the ceremony.
“When I heard about Romesha’s award, I was surprised, and I was very proud,” Carter said. “There’s a guy who did what he needed to do to get things done that day. I’m very happy for him.”
Now about to receive the Medal of Honor himself, Carter says he is uneasy about the responsibility the award carries. Yet alongside his Army family, he said he has a strong support system at home that has backed him through the process.
After his time at COP Keating, Carter started spending time with the woman who would become his wife and her child. The pair have been married less than two years. Carter says his wife has been a source of strength.
“Shannon and Jayden kind of entered into the whole military life when Shannon and I started dating,” Carter said. “I was very up front and honest about the PTSD issues. When we were getting close to me asking her to marry me, I informed her about the nomination and that it could drastically change our lives. Of course, she loves me so she says, ‘Hey as long as we’re together, then it won’t be a problem.’ So she’s a very strong, wonderful woman. She and my family are my foundation and support.”
A solemn responsibility
Now that being bestowed with the award has become a reality, Carter says he hopes he can live up to what the honor means.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Carter said. “Not because of the whole media thing or being on TV. It’s the constant worry that I’ll say or do something wrong to where I won’t bring the respect and honor that the Soldiers of Black Knight [Troop] or the families of the fallen deserve. It’s a lot more than I could ever understand as far as what it represents.
“At first I thought, ‘How is this going to affect my family and how is it going to affect me?’ That just shows how ignorant I was. It’s basically, ‘How will it affect the families of the fallen and also the Soldiers of Black Knight Troop’ that I needed to be focused on. So many heroic actions happened that day, I feel kind of embarrassed that I’m one of the few that were selected to receive this award. In the end, I just don’t want to mess up.”
To be better prepared for life after receiving the medal, Carter said he has spoken to previous recipients of the award, including Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, who received the Medal of Honor for actions during a daylight raid on a Taliban compound in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktia Province in 2008. Petry is also stationed at JBLM.
“That has been excellent,” Carter said of speaking with Petry and other previous recipients. “They are great guys, great people, very informative. They helped me understand what it is to be a recipient and how I could use the medal to inspire and inform other Soldiers, and even non-service members, about what happens in a war and that this isn’t a video game we’re playing. This is real people with real lives and real injuries.”
Carter is also hopeful NCOs and younger Soldiers looking to become NCOs can learn from his experiences at COP Keating.
“Know your Soldiers,” Carter said. “Know that they will perform above and beyond the call of duty when cornered. Know that trust happens when they’re placed in those circumstances. Also, definitely, for NCOs, you really need to know them well enough to see the changes, like what happened with me and Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Hill. See the change and then act so that you can help them with whatever they need.
“In the end, it’s all about family — whether it’s your Army family or your family at home. We do everything we can to protect all the families of the United States.”
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