Medal of Honor winner takes aim at mental war wounds

Rob HotakainenMcClatchy Washington Bureau

At first, Army Staff Sgt. Ty Michael Carter couldn’t sleep. But then came the nightmares, cold sweats and uncontrollable shaking, all caused by the stress of watching eight fellow soldiers die on a battlefield in Afghanistan in 2009.

“When they hit, they hit hard,” said Carter, 33. “I started seeing my mother, my father and my daughter’s face, dressed in uniform, but getting killed by these people.”

As the nation’s newest military hero, Carter is promising to put a spotlight on the mental wounds of war, hoping more soldiers will get help for post-traumatic stress so they can get back to the business of enjoying their lives.

“If you’re constantly worried that the guy who has his hands in his pockets has a weapon, then you’re not going to focus on kissing or holding your daughter or pushing her on the swing,” Carter said in an interview.

On Monday, Carter, who grew up in Spokane, Wash., and who’s now assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, received the nation’s highest military honor from his commander in chief.

At a White House ceremony attended by about 200 people, including 40 of Carter’s relatives, President Barack Obama made Carter only the fifth living recipient to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.

While Carter’s relatives were eager to see the sights in Washington, Obama had a message for his three children: “Your dad inspires us, just like all those big monuments and memorials do.”

And the president was eager to embrace Carter’s cause.

“Look at this man,” Obama said. “Look at this soldier. Look at this warrior. He’s as tough as they come. And if he can find the courage and the strength to not only seek help, but also to speak out about it, to take care of himself and to stay strong, then so can you.”

Obama cited Carter for his heroic actions on Oct. 3, 2009, when eight of his comrades died and 25 more were wounded during a 12-hour battle in which 53 soldiers defended an isolated outpost in northeastern Afghanistan from more than 300 Taliban attackers. Carter repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire trying to save his fellow soldiers.

“The outpost was being slammed from every direction – machinegun fire, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, sniper fire,” Obama said. “It was chaos – the blizzard of bullets and steel – into which Ty ran, not once or twice, or even a few times, but perhaps 10 times. And in so doing he displayed the essence of true heroism.”

Carter said he has had to take medication to help him sleep and to stop his shakes, but that he has benefited the most from therapy over the last four years. He said he still takes medication for his high blood pressure and chronic acid reflux, but his post-traumatic stress no longer makes him jump at every sound.

“You’re still good,” he said. “You can still function, you still have a wife, have a house, go to work and do everything else. It’s just talking to somebody will help you out where it’s not as difficult.”

At the height of his symptoms, Carter said he felt uneasy in any crowded room if he did not know where the exits were or if a room was too brightly lit. He said constant ringing in his ears made it hard to sleep and that he was quick to anger and never comfortable, even at home.

As he launches his campaign, Carter said he wants the media to drop the “D” from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), saying the condition is not a disorder, only a normal reaction to the horror of war.

And he said that that merely using the word “disorder” implies there’s something with you.

“There’s nothing wrong. In my eyes, I see post-traumatic stress as your body’s natural reaction to a traumatic experience,” Carter said. “In a way, everybody suffers a minor form of it. . . . I’m trying to use this whole experience to let people know that everybody is susceptible to this.”

Reading a statement to reporters outside the White House after he accepted the award, Carter said he represents “the thousands who suffer the invisible wounds of war.”

And he made a plea for Americans to “please take the time to learn about the invisible wounded,” adding that “only those closest to me can see the scars that come from seeing good men take their last breath. . . . Know that a soldier or veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress is one of the most passionate and dedicated men or women you’ll ever meet.”

Carter, who’s headed to New York for an appearance with David Letterman and then to Los Angeles as part of a media tour, said he’s getting used to the media attention, but he never expected to get an invitation to the White House.

“When you’re a kid growing up, you think of the White House and government and all that big-wig stuff as something completely distant and far away,” he said in the interview. “And then even in the military, I tried to avoid anybody over my platoon sergeant. Now that has dramatically changed.”

By Rob Hotakainen
McClatchy Washington Bureau