By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY
Ty Carter ran low and fast across an American outpost while overwhelming numbers of Taliban fighters closed in. He sprinted over ground where he could see bullets piercing the dust in front of him, gambling on getting ahead of the shooters' ability to target him.
It worked. A dozen times, Carter ran a gantlet of heavy machine gun and sniper fire - carrying ammo, recovering a field radio, cradling a wounded comrade in his arms - sometimes zigzagging to dodge exploding rocket-propelled grenades or mortar rounds.
When he wasn't moving through enemy fire in the battle in 2009, Carter and another soldier made their stand in an all-but-shredded armored vehicle - a last defensive bastion in a far corner of the fort. Surrounded by dead Americans and running low on ammunition, they shot and killed enemy fighters breaching the walls.
"When good men are dying all around you, you have to decide what your last moments are going to be like," recalls the 33-year-old Army staff sergeant and cavalry scout in an interview. "Are you going to die behind something, or are you going to die standing and firing? Are you going to die pushing forward or falling back?"
Carter, married and the father or stepfather of three, will accept the Medal of Honor from President Obama at the White House on Monday. He's only the 12th servicemember to receive the nation's highest award for valor in as many years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Critics say 12 Medals of Honor are far too few, given the 2.5 million Americans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts that left nearly 7,000 of them dead and about 50,000 wounded. And it is too few in striking comparison with the 137 awarded for actions in the Korean War, 249 in Vietnam and 467 in World War II, they say.
"We feel the number is still low, and we support a DoD (Department of Defense) review to find out why ... (and) how we can get true heroes recognized for their service on the battlefield," says Jay Agg, communication director for the 180,000-member veterans group AmVets.
The history of the Afghanistan War, the nation's longest, has nearly been written as combat operations wind down and U.S. troops prepare to come home by the end of 2014. Critics fear the time to chronicle fleeting moments of gallantry from a dozen years of war is fast slipping away.
Though many praise the growing number of Medals of Honor approved in recent years - nine given during the second six years of war compared with three during the first six years after 9/11 - they're frustrated by the paucity of these awards from Iraq. The last U.S. troops departed Iraq in December 2011.
The Bush and Obama administrations have identified no one alive worthy of that honor from that war. Obama awarded the medal to the first of five living recipients in 2010, and all five - Carter, three other soldiers and a Marine - were honored for bravery in Afghanistan. The seven others honored were killed in action.
"So the question is, how is the system broken? Because it is," says Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. "Our troops don't just all of a sudden commit courageous acts at a date certain and just because it's Afghanistan. And in Iraq I would argue that you had a lot more house-to-house fighting."
More combat troops served in the Iraq War than in Afghanistan, and more casualties were suffered.
"I think the Obama administration has actually done a really good job of awarding more people," says David Bellavia, an Iraq veteran who earned a Silver Star for combat in Fallujah. "I think the biggest problem - and I get this all the time with Iraq vets - Iraq is the 'bad war' and Afghanistan is the 'good war.' And we basically can no longer mention the stories of Iraq."
NOT ALWAYS POSTHUMOUS
The Medal of Honor is the only decoration in the military's ribbon repertoire for which a soldier or Marine, a sailor or airman must risk death. And they must do it in a manner "above and beyond the call of duty."
A central concern raised by Hunter, AmVets - and years ago by Army Secretary John McHugh when he was a congressman - is that some hidden bias within the military is preventing more Medals of Honor from being awarded.
Some fear that commanders tempered any highlighting of valor early in the wars because of false narratives such as those around the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch in 2003 or the friendly fire death of NFL-star-turned-Ranger Pat Tillman in 2004. Both drew intense negative publicity.
In an interview this week, McHugh said he was worried when he was in Congress in 2006 that military leaders might wrongly assume that a servicemember must lose his or her life in a valorous act to warrant the Medal of Honor.
At the urging of Congress, the Pentagon studied the issue and in a 2011 report defended its Medal of Honor procedures, rejecting comparisons with previous wars and arguing that new technology and drones have changed warfare, reducing "the personal risk associated with engaging the enemy."
But the authors also found evidence - although scant because of small survey numbers - that thousands of troops in the ranks believed there is an "unwritten rule" that someone must be badly wounded or killed to earn a Medal of Honor.
Several weeks before publishing the report, the Pentagon added language to the guidelines, making it clear this was not the case.
McHugh, who became Army secretary in late 2009, issued his own directives to back that up. "We've taken steps to make it very clear that one didn't have to lose one's life to receive a Medal of Honor," he says. "I think, by and large, (the process) is working well now."
PAINFUL BATTLE MEMORIES
Raised on the plains of eastern Washington, Ty Carter described himself to CNN reporter Jake Tapper as a troubled youth who was "not exactly hero material." He left the Marines after a demotion for fighting with a bunk mate and bounced around a series of odd jobs before re-enlisting, this time in the Army.
Nothing in the lengthy citation supporting Carter's Medal of Honor award can match the images he says have tormented him as flashbacks in the years since the battle, even to this day.
There is the sight of Sgt. Justin Gallegos cut down by machine gun fire. Or the sound of a mortally wounded Spc. Stephen Mace crying out, "Help me, please," when no one could reach him. Or the anguish at nightfall as shooting died down and slain Americans in body bags were stacked up inside the tattered outpost.
"It's like if I would ever imagine a hell without pain - physical pain, but all the emotional pain - that's what it would be like," Carter says.
Eight U.S. soldiers were killed and 22 wounded in the defense of Combat Outpost Keating in a remote eastern province of Afghanistan on the Pakistan border. Established at the bottom of a bowl-shaped valley and defended by fewer than 60 American soldiers, the outpost was attacked on the morning of Oct. 3, 2009, by 300 to 400 fighters.
Carter will be the second Medal of Honor recipient from that desperate fight at COP Keating. The other is former staff sergeant Clinton Romesha, who was seemingly everywhere that morning, organizing defenses, killing enemy attackers with a machine gun and sniper rifle, leading efforts to recapture overrun areas and calling in artillery and airstrikes. He directed covering fire that allowed Carter and other soldiers to move to safety and recovered dead Americans.
Romesha left the Army in 2011 and received his Medal of Honor in February. Other soldiers in the battle earned a total of nine Silver Stars and 19 Bronze Stars for valor.
When the shooting started at 6 a.m., Carter immediately moved into the open, sprinting 100 yards across the outpost to reach a distant defensive position made up of an armored Humvee fortified by sandbags, according to an Army narrative. Fighters in the surrounding hills opened fire with machine guns and rifles as Carter covered the same ground twice more, bringing ammo and machine gun lubricant back to the defenders in the Humvee.
The Humvee became surrounded as Taliban members breached the walls and, with other fighters in the hills, concentrated fire on the defensive post. Two Americans, including Gallegos, were killed as they tried running to another position. Mace was wounded. No fewer than eight rocket-propelled grenades slammed into a second Humvee bringing reinforcements, the Army says. The three GIs inside tried to flee on foot. Two were cut down.
By now, only Carter and a second soldier, Sgt. Bradley Larson, remained fighting in the first Humvee, according to Army reports.
"We were just trying to continue the firefight," Carter says. "There's no fallback. There's nowhere to go. You only have one option. You just dig in and fight to the death."
While Larson, shot through the shoulder, provided cover fire, Carter kept moving into the open: recovering ammunition and a communication radio to let others in the outpost know they were alive and bringing in Mace. Larson and Carter later carried Mace on a stretcher under enemy fire to a treatment tent. Mace died on the operating table.
With the help of air support, Americans at the outpost beat back the attack after several hours and recaptured areas that had been overrun. Many camp buildings burned in the fighting.
"It's very eerie," Carter recalls of the battle's end. "The combat outpost was still burning, there was still machine gun fire and rockets from the Apaches (helicopters) here and there. ... You see bodies stacked and that you're still in Afghanistan."
Carter later was diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury from an RPG blast. He has permanent hearing loss and ringing in his left ear. And he has post-traumatic stress disorder.
The soldier, who lives with his family near Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Seattle, says he hopes to help other servicemembers overcome the stigma of seeking behavioral health assistance for PTSD.
"For me to receive this award and also say openly, 'Yes, I have post-traumatic stress' ... I'm hoping that message will get out there that even the big-hero-type person, they have issues that they need to seek help for," Carter says.
A LIFE-CHANGING HONOR
Carter will become a member of a tight fraternity - 79 going back to World War II - of living Medal of Honor recipients. They freely concede that the fabled award is both a high honor and a heavy burden.
"Every one of the recipients will tell you it changes their life," says Harold "Hal" Fritz, president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and a recipient for valor in Vietnam. "They've got to be careful where they go, what they see, who they see, what they say. ... We all face the same type of scrutiny. You're under a microscope."
They receive endless invitations to appear at events, meet with veterans or wounded servicemembers or even travel with veteran support organizations. The members, those older and the new, few younger ones, have grown to support and mentor one another, Fritz says.
Carter, who has received training from the Army on how to speak with reporters and submitted to many interviews, says he's already felt the change.
"It's kind of turned into something a little bigger than me," he says.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry is an Army ranger who received the Medal of Honor in 2011 for actions in Afghanistan, losing his right hand while recovering and tossing away an enemy grenade that landed near two of his soldiers.
In a phone interview from Okinawa, where he was traveling with a support group and speaking to U.S. troops, Petry says he's tried to counsel Carter and other new recipients.
"The best advice I give them is to enjoy it and do the most they can with it. It's an honor. It's humbling. It can be overwhelming at times," Petry says. "One of the older recipients, I remember, patted me on the back at one of the ceremonies we were at and said, 'Congratulations, the Army just signed you up for 65-plus years of this. So pace yourself.'"