(Editor’s note: This is part two in a two-part series about Staff Sgt. Ty Carter, his heroic actions at Combat Outpost Keating, Afghanistan, and his struggle to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder. Read part one here: http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2013/08/return-to-cop-keating-second-soldier-to-receive-moh-from-desperate-battle/.
The battle for Combat Outpost Keating was over. The men of Bravo “Black Knight” Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division had triumphed over a Taliban force seven to eight times their size, fighting back from the low ground and inflicting massive casualties, even as the enemy breached their wire. It had been a horrifically close call, and the battle was costly. Eight Soldiers had died. More than 25 (about half) were wounded, and almost everyone was left with deep, invisible wounds to their hearts, minds and souls.
Waiting for extraction from the ruined COP (Blue Platoon’s barracks had burned to the ground, as had the operations center), the men of Black Knight Troop barely slept. They remained on alert, reacting to every noise and even silence. As they packed anything salvageable and destroyed anything they’d have to leave behind, they wondered “Why did we make it through that day?” remembered now-retired 1st Sgt. Jonathan Hill, a sergeant first class at the time and Blue Platoon’s sergeant.
“It couldn’t have gone any worse,” he continued, describing the events of Oct. 3, 2009. “The only thing worse than what we went through is if somebody would have dropped a nuclear warhead and we were ground zero. What we went through and how we escaped death is beyond me.”
With five deployments under his belt, Hill had never seen anything like that battle before, and he was deeply concerned about how it would affect his Soldiers. He was especially concerned about then-Spc. Ty Carter, who had been one of the Soldiers missing during the battle, spending hours trapped in a Humvee with four other Soldiers. Hill was still fuzzy on the details, but three of them were dead, and after the unit arrived at Forward Operating Base Bostick, he realized that Carter was shattered.
“I saw Carter standing there in the dark, holding his weapon across his waist,” Hill recalled, “you know, sort of slouched and his head was down. … I put my hand on his shoulder and I looked at him. I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ … He looked me in the eyes and he had tears streaming down his face. And he says, ‘I just couldn’t save him.’ I hugged him and he hugged me and we both cried right there.” Hill “knew that he was hurt bad on the inside.”
Carter was talking about Spc. Stephan Mace, who had been severely wounded early in the battle and lay about 30 yards from the Humvee. Carter watched in horror and anger and shame as Mace tried to crawl toward the Humvee, begging for help, but at first enemy fire was far too intense to attempt a rescue. At grave risk to himself, Carter did eventually get Mace to safety, actions for which he will receive the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony Aug. 26, but Mace’s injuries were too severe. He died in surgery and Carter blamed himself.
“I had a lot of anger,” Carter said. “I believed that I had failed Mace and I had failed my platoon and I had failed my troop and my family because I couldn’t save him.”
Carter hadn’t really slept since the battle, and when he finally could sleep, the nightmares started. He didn’t believe post-traumatic stress disorder was real, however: It was “an excuse. … It was crap. It was a reason for Soldiers to get out of work.” So when Hill suggested that Carter visit one of the behavioral health specialists the Army had sent to Bostick to help Black Knight Troop, Carter was resistant. He didn’t need help, he told Hill. He was fine.
Hill knew Carter wasn’t fine, because he wasn’t fine either. Hoping to set an example and encourage them, Hill made sure to tell Carter and all of his Soldiers over and over again that he himself had gone to behavioral health and that it had helped.
“One great man told me if you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your Soldiers,” Hill said. “So if you’re a leader and you’re not taking care of yourself … you may not be making the right decisions. You may not be effective on the battlefield. … So I knew that after what I had gone through, and what my Soldiers had gone through, I thought it was best for me to set the right example. … I stood in front of my platoon and I said, ‘If you’re not getting the help that you need, that you know you need, you’re wrong. I want everyone to take a moment of their time and go at least talk to one behavioral health specialist or the chaplain or somebody to make sure that you’re ready to continue the fight.’
“If you’re a leader in any branch of the armed forces today and you’re not doing that, you’re a (failure as a) leader,” Hill said. “There are people out there who think they know their Soldiers and there are people who do know their Soldiers. And I knew my Soldier (Carter), and I knew he needed to go.”
When leaders get to know their Soldiers personally, he explained, it’s much easier to tell if they’re slower to react to something, if they talk more or less, if they’re different. And Carter was different. The men had nicknamed him “Wheat Bread” because he never showed emotion, but now he couldn’t stop crying. About a week after the battle, Hill decided it had been long enough. He sat down, put his arm around Carter and asked, “What do I have to do to get you to go to behavioral health? I need you to go. You know you need to go.”
“The only way that I’m going to go,” Carter replied, “is if you go with me.”
“It’s done. That’s easy.”
They went to see Capt. Katie Kopp, 4th Inf. Div.’s brigade psychologist, who Hill credits with saving his life. When she told Hill that she’d take good care of Carter and that Hill could leave, Carter said, “If he leaves, I leave.” So Hill stayed and they talked through what happened, and it was painful for them both, but at the end, Carter said he could go back on his own. It would be a long journey, but he knew that he could face it.
Counseling is supposed to be hard, Carter said, describing his sessions. “This isn’t something that happens to the normal person, this situation, but the thing about counseling that a lot of people don’t realize is that you go to counseling and you’re supposed to feel good instantly. It doesn’t work that way. You’ve got a serious injury that can and will affect you in the future and you need to get it fixed.
“So counseling – you go there and it’s like a wound,” he continued. “In counseling, you open the wound and let it bleed out or whatever and then you go home and you feel not very good. You feel drained. You feel emotional. You go to counseling again. Same thing: You feel drained and emotional and you keep doing that and it absolutely is difficult, but it’s completely necessary. Because after awhile, by talking about it, over and over again, by opening the wound, then your body and your mind get used to it. You begin to accept what happened, and when these flashbacks do come, you’re OK with it.”
The flashbacks are mostly gone these days, but anything can trigger one. It could be as simple as seeing a little girl who reminds Carter of the age his daughter Madison was during that deployment. That might remind him of how scared he was that she would grow up without a father.
“All that happens in a split second,” he said. “I remember looking at my knuckles, which were white because I was gripping the steering wheel so hard. My mind was racing. My heart was racing. I was breathing heavy and I was doing everything I could not to cry.
“It was very difficult for me at first to acknowledge what it is, to remember where I was at and to move along without doing anything that would endanger myself. Like if you’re in a car – it would be terrible if I slammed on the brakes and caused an accident. These little things are what I believe the normal Soldier with PTSD has. It’s an involuntary emotional response. You feel trapped or you feel like you’re being assaulted and there’s nothing there, just because of the memories you’ve had in the past or the experiences.”
Since the news of his Medal of Honor broke in July, Carter has had to relive the nightmare of Keating over and over again in media interviews, but he tries to think of it as the same as therapy. His wife, Shannon, joins him as much as possible, to hold his hand, to rub his back, to calm him down when “he gets choked up and he gets fidgety and he gets teary-eyed,” she said.
The two met online after Carter returned from Afghanistan with Black Knight Troop, shortly before he deployed a second time in 2012 with Alpha Troop, 8th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. They knew they would spend forever together almost immediately and she quickly became his rock. Carter’s daughter Madison from his first marriage is eight, Shannon’s son Jayden is 14 and they have a nine-month-old daughter together, Sehara. Carter recently re-enlisted, and with Shannon’s encouragement, hopes to serve at least 20 years.
Carter told Shannon about Keating early in their relationship, and she listened in disbelief, thinking that a story so horrible couldn’t actually be true. But he never specifically told her about his PTSD. He didn’t have to. She figured it out on her own when he would revert back into a memory or his anxiety would go up. The kids are mostly oblivious to it.
“It’s something you can overcome,” she tells other spouses. “You can work together and get through it with the right guidance and support. If you just are strong with your husband and you support him and give him what he needs, it will be OK. You can make it through it.”
Today, Carter is embarrassed by his early beliefs about PTSD. It’s very real, he said. “It’s not a disorder. It’s actually just a natural part of being human, because something bad happened.” And if it hadn’t been for Hill and Kopp and other behavioral health professionals who were paying attention and cared enough to get him help, Carter said that he wouldn’t be here today.
“So for people who feel embarrassed by it, it’s because of the myths that are associated with it,” he said. “I was totally believing the myths until it happened to me, and now I’m hoping that I can help people through what I have to say, what I’ve experienced, to help them go seek help, or else we’re going to have more (Soldiers) out there who self-medicate and end up taking their own lives.”
Editor’s note: View the related video here: http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2013/08/moh-nominee-stresses-the-importance-of-seeking-ptsd-treatment/. To learn more about the behavioral health program that helped Carter, Hill and others, read “Bringing behavioral health to the troops,” which first appeared on Soldiers Live in September 2012: http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2012/09/bringing-behavioral-health-to-the-troops/.