The Profile Dossier: Kyle Carpenter, the Fearless Warrior Who Came Back From the Dead
“The smallest of steps eventually complete the grandest of journeys.”
November 21, 2010. For 21-year-old U.S. Marine Kyle Carpenter, it was just another day in Marjah, Afghanistan.
Carpenter stepped out of his sleeping bag around 8 a.m., to the sound of AK-47s. The Taliban had initiated another attack on his patrol base, which had become a daily occurrence.
When his time to be on post came, he was positioned on a roof with his best friend and fellow Marine Nick Eufrazio. A hand grenade landed beside them, and without hesitation, Carpenter threw his body on top of the explosive to shield his friend from the blast.
Carpenter has no memory of what happened next. “The next thing I knew, and felt, I had warm water running over my body,” he says. “What I thought was warm water, was actually me bleeding out. I went to sleep for what I thought was going to be the last time on this earth.”
Carpenter was evacuated out of Afghanistan in critical condition — the grenade had shredded his flesh, torn his bone, severed major arteries, splintered his right arm, collapsed a lung, and taken his eye. His heart flatlined three times, and doctors labeled him P.E.A, patient expired on arrival.
Miraculously, Carpenter woke up from a coma five weeks later. “It’s hard to comprehend that I survived,” he says. “My mindset was never ‘I might get injured.’ It was, ‘We’re coming back perfectly fine or we’re coming back in a box.’ So when I woke up, I was very confused.”
He spent the next three years at the hospital, undergoing more than 40 surgeries to reconstruct his face and body. During that time, his physical injuries consumed him entirely, so he never quite processed his emotions.
One day, after he was discharged from the hospital, he was struggling to hold the spoon to eat a bowl of cereal. “Struggling to hold onto my spoon, and with milk and cereal dribbling down my chin, I suddenly felt something inside me break,” Carpenter says.
In what he describes as his lowest moment, Carpenter began to sob uncontrollably and asked his mom this devastating question, “Look at me. Who is ever going to love me again?” That’s the day that Carpenter made a decision that would define the rest of his life. “I was either going to get up and live the rest of my life,” he says. “Or, I could spend my life sitting at that counter. I chose to get up and live.”
Since that day, Carpenter has run marathons, gone skydiving, written a book, and found love — he proposed to his girlfriend six weeks ago.
On June 19, 2014, Carpenter became the youngest living recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest and most prestigious personal military decoration. Today, when people thank him for his service, he responds with these four words: “You are worth it.”
On living a life worth fighting for: Carpenter’s memoir, You Are Worth it, is a story of re-birth, which details how he reclaimed his life on his own terms. His heart flatlined three separate times while being evacuated off the battlefield in Afghanistan, and it took dozens of surgeries to reconstruct his body. As horrible as those experiences were, they weren’t capable of breaking his spirit. Some parts of the book are so heavy and heart-shattering that I had to pause reading for a moment or two. It’s a beautiful and moving account of the ugly realities of war.
On his remarkable recovery: When Carpenter’s mom laid eyes on him for the first time since the incident, she thought he looked worse than anything she had seen while working in a trauma hospital. The exploding grenade left entry and exit wounds in her son’s skull, shredded his face, severed major arteries, splintered his right arm, collapsed a lung, and left him hemorrhaging. This is an amazing story about his painstaking recovery.
On dealing with the physical & emotional scars: In this podcast, Carpenter recounts what happened on that fateful day. “After the grenade detonated, I couldn’t see anything,” he says. “My vision was like watching a TV with no connection. It was just white and gray static.” He closed his eyes and woke up five weeks later in a hospital bed. Surgery after surgery, the physical scars began to fade. The psychological ones, though, were harder to repair. The nightmares, the hallucinations, and the worries were all-encompassing. “The brain is a very delicate thing,” he says. “The brain can heal in a few days, a few years, or it can take an entire lifetime.”
On the life lessons he’s learned over the years: As Carpenter has gotten older, he’s had time to reflect on what he experienced abroad. In this radio show, he discusses the biggest life lessons he’s learned from years of re-learning how to live. He talks about the sacrifices of his family, his time in the military, and how he overcame his struggles by taking one small step at a time.
On stepping into the unknown: This Jocko Willink interview with Carpenter is five and a half hours long — and it’s worth every second. It’s a conversation that doubles as an audio and video biography. As a kid, Carpenter’s family moved around a lot, and he had to adapt to new uncomfortable situations and make new friends time and time again. It was one of the hardest periods of his life, he says, and it’s partly what drove him to join the military. “Those early experiences prepared me for a life of service, which really means a life of stepping into the unknown,” he says.
On gaining perspective: In this powerful 26-minute speech to the USC soccer team, Carpenter walks through the days leading up to the moment that completely altered the trajectory of his life. He saw kids working in the fields with no shoes on, families living in mud huts with no roofs, and young and old sleeping on the ground. He closes this speech with this powerful lesson: “Appreciate that you have nice shoes on your feet, and you can go to school and get an education,” he says. “You can turn the faucet on and get clean, fresh water. We are extremely fortunate here.”
On asking the right questions: What was Carpenter’s first job? Who would play him in a movie? And what’s his biggest fear? In this video, he answers 22 questions, and my favorite answer is to the following question: “Who is the most interesting person you’ve ever met?” He says, “If you take the time, everyone has an interesting story, everyone comes from somewhere, and everyone’s been through something good or bad,” he says. Take the time to listen because you never know what you’ll learn from the most unlikely sources.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Understand that you can’t plan courage: We’re in awe when we look at Carpenter’s willingness to sacrifice his life to save a fellow Marine. But Carpenter emphasizes that none of us know how we’ll react in an emergency situation until we come face-to-face with it. “If you had ever asked me, ‘Hey, in 10 minutes, will you jump on a grenade?’ I couldn’t — and I don’t believe anyone could — confidently say yes.” But, he says, you shouldn’t underestimate the courage and fearlessness that take over in a moment of emergency. “You never know when, how, or to what capacity you’re going to step up and take that grenade in combat or in life for those around you,” he says. The human spirit is stronger than we could ever know.
Leadership is found in the everyday moments: No matter who you are or what stage in life you’re in, you’re a leader. “There is someone somewhere who is looking at you and learning from you,” Carpenter says. “You can be extraordinary in the most normal occasions and settings.” We often imagine leaders to be those heading large corporations or soldiers through war, but the truth is you’re a leader if you’re a parent, a teacher, or an older sibling. Carpenter says you have to remember that leadership is inherently laced with risk. “You have to be prepared to accept that risk and bear the burden for those you lead,” he says.
The small steps are the ones that matter: When Carpenter felt as though the challenges facing him were insurmountable, he believed that he would never fully recover, his life wouldn’t amount to much, and no one would ever love him again. That day, he realized he had two choices. “Whatever life obstacles you encounter, at the end of the day, you really only have two options,” he says. “I can either get up and take that small step forward or I could sit at [my parents’] kitchen counter for the rest of my life.” Take the next step, Carpenter advises, even if it takes you a week, a year, or a lifetime to overcome your circumstances. “The smallest of steps eventually complete the grandest of journeys,” he says.
Re-claim your life: Even though Carpenter’s heart flatlined three times following the incident, he has dubbed it his “Alive Day.” “While October 19, 1989 is my birthday,” he says, “it was November 21, 2010 that became my ‘Alive Day.’” Carpenter has run marathons, gone skydiving, finished college, and backpacked through Europe. “My injuries will not define my life — I will,” he says. “And the greatest power any of us have is the power to make that choice.” So … when was the day you made the choice you’d stop merely surviving and start living?
Don’t hide your scars: We all have scars — whether they’re visible or not. Many of us hide them out of fear that people might be repulsed by them, but Carpenter says your scars tell a story about your resilience, perseverance, and grit. “Scars are a truly beautiful thing,” he says. “Yes, they can be a little ugly on the outside, but scars show that you're a survivor, that you made it through something, and not only did you make it through, but now you're stronger and wiser and more educated because of that tough time that you went through.”
Do something bigger than yourself: Carpenter refers to his Medal of Honor as “a beautiful burden” because to him, the medal represents a bigger responsibility. “It represents those who never made it home to receive the thanks and recognition they deserve,” he says. The two things Carpenter fears the most in life are regret and unfulfilled potential. Never miss an opportunity to take the next step in your journey, become a better person, and help someone else achieve their dreams. “Offer a hand of help before a turned shoulder and, remember, behind every smile is a person who is struggling, and we are all just a moment away from needing each other,” he says.
“The only limitations you have are the ones you place on yourself.”
“My life, and my future, belong only to me, and I made the decision that I was worth fighting for.”
“Circumstances may be bad, but you are not your circumstances, and the way you choose to ride them out will set the tone for everything that follows.”
“If we don't spend our time on this earth looking out for one another, what are we really doing with our lives?”
“And when things get tough, trust there is a bigger plan and that you will be stronger for it.”
“As a leader, your responsibility is laced with risk. When that risk comes to fruition, you are not only obligated, but you are expected to bear the burden for those that you lead.”
“I am proud of my scars because they show I dedicated myself to a bigger purpose.”
“It’s the deepest, darkest, lowest moments in life that teach us the most beautiful lessons.”
“I want, need, and have to make my second chance at life worth it.”
“The smallest of steps eventually complete the grandest of journeys.”
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This Profile was particularly gripping. I've enjoyed them all, but this one is truly remarkable. Our country is blessed to have such amazing men as Kyle. Thanks for sharing a story I would otherwise not have known.