At the time, it was viewed only as a cute photograph: A blonde-haired, 3-year-old boy in a white shirt, his head slightly tilted, his eyes and mouth smiling only as a child’s can, and his right hand poised and touching just above his temple in a full-fledged salute.
Two decades later, one has to wonder if it was a sign that retired Marine Cpl. William Kyle Carpenter, born in Jackson on Oct. 17, 1989, somehow already knew at least part of his life’s path, which today will include the East Room of the White House.
Carpenter became the third Mississippian to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military distinction. It is awarded for valor far and beyond the call of duty during combat.
Carpenter more than qualifies.
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On Nov. 21, 2010, in the Marjah district of Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold, Carpenter made the split-second decision to cover an enemy-launched grenade with his body in an attempt to shield his fellow Marines.
“I don’t think I’d ever thought about what I would do in that situation,” Carpenter said by phone from Columbia, S.C., where he attends the University of South Carolina. “I don’t think there is any way to know until you’re faced with it. But I did what I was trained to do, and that is protect my fellow Marines at all costs.”
He remembers almost nothing about the moments immediately following the explosion. But he does recall the overwhelming feeling that he was dying. By all accounts, he wasn’t far from it. His injuries were brutal.
He felt his skin grow warm all over, as if someone had placed a thick blanket over him. It was his blood oozing from dozens of holes created by shrapnel.
He lost his right eye and most of his teeth. His right jaw had been blown off. His right arm was broken in more places than doctors bothered to count. And much of the shrapnel lodged inside him.
Fellow soldiers pleaded for him to “fight” and “hang on.” He recalled their voices sounded far away.
“I thought about my family,” he said, “and how sad and disappointed they would be that I didn’t make it out of Afghanistan alive.”
He said a final prayer. That’s the last thing he remembers before waking up in a room at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, with Christmas stockings hanging on the walls.
He wouldn’t know until much later that, in his own words during a video produced by the Marines, “I had to be resuscitated in a MedEvac helicopter. Upon arriving at Camp Bastion (a British base in Afghanistan), I was labeled PEA — patient expired on arrival. I flat-lined at Walter Reed. The enemy killed me. I came back.”
He spent 2 1/2 years in the hospital, underwent more than 30 operations, some of them to rebuild the right side of his face. The steady hands of surgeons have helped repair his body and restore his physical appearance.
At the wedding of a relative in Laurel in May, Natalie Strand hugged Carpenter, her second cousin. “It’s great to see you,” he told her.
Strand shook her head. “No. It’s great to see you.”
Carpenter has deep Mississippi roots. He lived in Forest and Brandon with his parents, Jim and Robin, until he was about 5 years old. Jim worked for McCarty Foods. The family settled in Gilbert, S.C., where Kyle attended high school.
“But even though they moved up there, I still consider Kyle a Mississippian,” says his 78-year-old maternal grandmother, Kate Pitts of Laurel, who will attend today’s ceremony. “He was born in this state. Other than one aunt in Charlotte, the rest of his family is in Mississippi. His daddy was born in Iuka and still has family there.”
Carpenter sounded perhaps a bit weary of the interview routine. His voice gained some pep when talk turned to college football.
“Me and my dad were Mississippi State and Auburn fans,” he said. “He went to both schools and graduated from Mississippi State. But now, I’d call us South Carolina Gamecock fans, having grown up just 30 minutes or so from campus.”
He talked about how his size — 5-foot-5 and never more than 160 pounds — helped motivate him. He won a high school state championship in power lifting in his weight classification. “I could squat 425 pounds, bench 205,” he said.
He became interested in becoming a Marine “because of the Marines I met during middle school and high school,” he said. “I saw how they carried themselves ... it was something special about them. I didn’t want to wake up one day without having earned the title of ‘Marine’ and having worn that uniform.”
After graduating high school, he attended Clemson University for one semester. Just before Christmas 2008, Carpenter broke the news to his parents that he was joining the Marines.
“They were concerned — in a good way,” he said. “They worried that I was joining at a time when we were fighting two wars.”
“It was a major shock,” Strand says. “The whole family kinda freaked out. We kept hoping he would change his mind.”
“I’ll never forget getting that call from Robin, saying that Kyle had signed up with the Marines,” says Forest resident Pat Dilley, a family friend who introduced Carpenter’s parents.
She breaks down for a moment. “I’m sorry,” she says. “This is always hard to talk about. Robin and I stayed on the phone a long time that day. She was totally in shock and scared. I just tried to console her. My husband (Randy) had raised three children, and I told her that part of being a parent is allowing our children to make their own decisions once they’re grown. And I told her that Kyle would be a great soldier. I believed that. He had such a wonderful upbringing.
“I can’t say enough about Jim and Robin. He’s a great father. And Robin has been with Kyle every step of the way through this recovery. They also have twin sons who just graduated from high school. She made sure they weren’t short-changed during all of this, too.”
Much of the family attended Carpenter’s graduation from basic training in 2009 at Parris Island, South Carolina.
“They had been training out in a swamp a couple of days before we got there,” Pitts recalls. “Kyle had blisters all over his feet. They had to bring him out of there on a stretcher. But when he got to the camp’s entrance, he said he didn’t want to be carried in. So he walked.
“Before graduation, they cut the blisters. He stood up the whole time during the ceremony with those hard dress shoes on. I’ll never know how he did that.”
Shortly after her son was deployed to Afghanistan in July 2010 as an automatic weapons gunner, Robin sent prayer cards to family and friends. She asked that they put them on their refrigerators, and to say a prayer for him each time they walked past it.
“Kyle had a prayer chain,” Dilley says, “and I don’t think there is any question it’s what helped him survive that grenade. And everybody who worried about Kyle and wondered why he would join the Marines at such a dangerous time, I think it’s pretty clear now. God had a plan for him all along. Kyle is here to touch lives.”
“He’s certainly touched mine,” Strand says. “My husband (Michael) and I have three small girls — ages 4, 2 and 1. There are a lot of days I think I’m too tired to go to the gym, and it’ll just hit me. ‘If Kyle can go through all that he did, then I get myself up and go.’ I’m healthy. I’m strong. Kyle has some limitations, but he keeps going.
“I think about having these three girls that one day I’ll be able to say, ‘Look what your big cousin did.’ What an example he has set for so many people.”
In recent months Carpenter has completed a marathon and parachuted from an airplane. As he says at the end of the Marine video, “I’m just getting started.”