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How young the heroes

Medal of Honor recipent Kyle Carpenter, right, talks with the Vail Veterans Program's Dan Riley. Riley is a double amputee after being injured fighting in the Middle East.
Zach Mahoney|Special to the Daily |

VAIL — U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Kyle Carpenter wasn’t old enough to legally buy beer when he threw himself on a grenade, saving the life of the fellow Marine with him in that rooftop bunker in Afghanistan.

That grenade almost blew Carpenter to heaven.

His right arm was broken in 30 places, he lost his right eye, his jaw was blown away … the list of catastrophic injuries goes on and on. His heart stopped three times. He’s lucky he’s alive.

His mom decorated his hospital room for Christmas. When he awoke from a five-month coma that’s what he saw.

He spent three years in Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where dozens of surgeries put him back together. As part of his rehab, he tried to walk from his room to the nurses station and back. It took months, but when he finally made it the entire floor erupted in cheers.

He ran a Marine Corps Marathon a couple months after his last surgery … because he could, that’s why.

Carpenter was awarded the Medal of Honor ultimately for his heroic actions. He is the eighth living recipient to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This week, he made his fourth trip to Vail as part of the Vail Veterans Program. It was his first time here after receiving the Medal of Honor.

How young the heroes

You first notice how young he is, and how you probably have T-shirts older than him.

He was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and those Southern manners go to his very marrow. He calls Cheryl Jensen, “Miss Cheryl.” Miss Cheryl started the Vail Veterans Program more than a decade ago, and hosts wounded warriors several times a year — more than 1,000 and their families, all at no cost to them.

“The Vail Veterans Program has been so important to me and so many others who are recovering with me at Walter Reed,” Carpenter said.

He was injured in 2010. In 2012, one of his therapists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center asked if he wanted to go to Vail, Colorado.

“I had no idea where that was, but I said, “sure!’” Carpenter said.

That was winter, and he was told the summers are incredible and he’d have to come back. So he did.

He has made some of his closest friend on the Vail Veterans trips, he said. This was his fourth trip.

“It has been more of a challenge to get me to stop coming out here,” he said. “Vail has such a special place in my heart. To able to come to a place like Vail and tackle the side of a mountain … you feel that you are not down and out. You come down this mountain and know that no matter what your injuries, you can overcome anything and the rest of your life is just beginning.”

It’s sometimes more radical than relaxing.

“It’s sometimes hard to relax when you’re on the mountain and you know at any minute you’re going to eat it pretty hard,” he said.

Act of heroism

In Carpenter’s Medal of Honor citation, the U.S. Marines say it went like this:

“Lance Corporal Carpenter and a fellow Marine were manning a rooftop security position when the enemy initiated a daylight attack with hand grenades, one of which landed inside their sandbagged position. Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own safety, Lance Corporal Carpenter moved toward the grenade in an attempt to shield his fellow Marine from the deadly blast. When the grenade detonated, his body absorbed the blast, severely wounding him, but saving the life of his fellow Marine.”

He travels extensively, extolling the glories of the Marines and the United States.

“I just try to relay to people what we can be thankful for. We can come to events like this one and leave our families at home without worrying that our families might be killed because they believe something different than our next door neighbor,” he told a group of Vail Veterans Program supporters gathered at Vail’s Larkspur restaurant.

Honor not carried lightly

The Medal of Honor is not a burden, but he doesn’t take it lightly, he said.

“When the president put that Medal around my neck it weighed very, very heavy, and it still does with the responsibility I know I have and the good that I can do.

There are so many I recovered with. To see amputees zooming around Walter Reed in wheelchairs with their small children on what’s left of their legs,” he said. “The Medal has taught me a lot every single day. I’m grateful for the platform it has given me to advocate for the Marine Corps, the Vail Veterans Program and great Americans like yourselves.”

Three years in the hospital gave him plenty of time to consider his future. The Marines would have let him stay on active duty, but he chose to medically retire and headed to the University of South Carolina where he’s finishing his bachelor’s degree in international studies.

He interned in a Florida congressman’s office, where he compiled legislative packages and answered the phone when cranky constituents called.

Another internship put him in counterterrorism with the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies.

“There are so many who didn’t make it back and gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Carpenter said. “For me to get this spotlight is a double-edged sword. I’m thankful for the opportunities, but there are so many out there who have give so much more than me. You’re never forgotten. We will always remember and be thankful for those who have come before me, and those who will come after, and those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.”

“(The Medal of Honor) represents more than any person, it represents freedom and sacrifice. It’s never mine, and I just hope to do good things with it,” he said. “If I can inform one person of what we do and what we’re about, or what we sacrificed over there, I do it for that. I wear it for all of you.”

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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