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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

An Unlikely Hero

Aired August 21, 2013 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): October 3, 2009, was the year's deadliest day for the U.S. in Afghanistan.

A storm of bullets, rockets, grenades and mortars rained down upon a remote U.S. outpost. Combat Outpost Keating, as it was named, was a perfect target. It was deep in a valley, surrounded by mountains.

The day-long battle left eight Americans dead. But alongside the tragedy, the story of Combat Outpost Keating is also one of courage and a bulletproof loyalty that bonds soldiers when most of us would cower in fear.

(on camera): I'm Jake Tapper.

On Monday here at the White House, President Obama is scheduled to decorate one of the heroes of that battle with the Medal of Honor. His name is Staff Sergeant Ty Carter, and his selfless actions that day saved lives.

Earlier this year, Carter's fellow soldier, retired Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha, received the same recognition. So, for the first time in almost a half-century, since Vietnam, two living soldiers from the same battle received the nation's highest honor for combat valor.

It's a testament not only to them and to their comrades, but also to the long odds, defending an outpost that some say should never have been built.

Combat Outpost Keating, known as COP Keating, was built in 2006, among the 10,000-foot peeks of the Hindu Kush, built not on the high ground, but in a valley.

Ty Carter's first impression, even as a specialist just three grades above buck private was, it's a death trap.

STAFF SGT. TY CARTER, U.S. ARMY: My stomach dropped. I said, you have got to be kidding me. This can't be real.

TAPPER (on camera): Why?

CARTER: It's just, from the position I was, and I was just outside the wire, and I could see everything in there. There was no cover except for the buildings.

You look at the surrounding mountainside, and you could literally pick out fighting positions everywhere. It's one of those things where you have to deny your frustration and push forward, because this is where we're at. This is where we're going to be. And you're just going to have to deal with it.

TAPPER (voice-over): Near the border with Pakistan, COP Keating was here as part of a larger strategy to win over local villagers with American-funded construction projects and to shut down the route insurgents used to smuggle in weapons and fighters.

(on camera): Were you accomplishing either of those tasks?

CARTER: From my eyes, no.

TAPPER (voice-over): In part because even the area's roads were perilous. In 2006, when the road collapsed, a young officer was ejected from his vehicle and killed, Lieutenant Ben Keating. The outpost was named in his honor.

Without safe roads, COP Keating depended upon helicopters for supplies. But the rocky makeshift landing zone and enemy fire meant deliveries were sporadic, leaving the troops to live off MREs.

CARTER: When the helicopters were able to come, they gave us mail. And a lot of the families of soldiers started shipping us canned foods and snacks and anything like that. And it was -- any time the helicopters came, it was Christmas. What are you going to get? You know, I loved Red Vines licorice, you know, the power bars and the granola bars and all that kind of stuff.

TAPPER: When Ty Carter's unit, Black Knight Troop 361 Cavalry Regiment, arrived in May 2009, troops from COP Keating had already died,. including two camp commanders, Captain Tom Bostick in 2007, Captain Rob Yllescas one year later.

Enemy fire also took the lives of Sergeant Buddy Hughie, Private Chris Pfeifer, and Staff Sergeant Ryan Fritsche. Dozens of others had been seriously wounded. An Army investigation would conclude that COP Keating was seriously vulnerable.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: COP Keating, the investigation found, was tactically indefensible. That's what these soldiers were asked to do, defend the indefensible.

TAPPER: The Taliban's own video shows them using small attacks to test the outpost's defenses. They did this from the day COP Keating was built.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You see all the muzzle flashes?

TAPPER: By the time Ty Carter's unit arrived, the rate of attacks had tripled.

CARTER: That summer, it would be every other day or sometimes it would be every day, sometimes twice a day. And it wasn't just, you know, pop shots. Sometimes, they would shoot RPGs or B-10s, the recoilless rifle. So it was continuous, continuous harassing.

TAPPER (on camera): In your few short months there, how much was it just a constant fear that you could be killed at any moment?

CARTER: The anxiety was high, but the fear only hit when something was close. When you see the splash on the ground as a bullet impacts or you hear the pop as it zips by your head, and you kind of hear the hiss as it cuts through the air, so it's like a pop thing. And that was close, and that's when you're like, holy crap, that could have been me.

TAPPER (voice-over): Before 361 Cav even arrived in Afghanistan, several key commanders, including Lieutenant Colonel Brad Brown, believed COP Keating and four other small outposts in the region were not worth the effort and not safe to defend.

(on camera): And why was it so dangerous?

LT. COL. BRAD BROWN (RET.), U.S. ARMY: A number of reasons. One, you're in low ground and you're surrounded on 360 degrees by dominating terrain. And I don't mean just a little bit, but it's completely dominating. So your capability to defend yourself is really, really limited.

When you're leaving the base, you're under continuous observation 24 hours a day. There's no way that you can even leave with any operational security.

TAPPER (voice-over): Brown, among others, made the case directly to General Stanley McChrystal, commander of all U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

BROWN: And he certainly agreed that they were -- it was a tactical problem. They were costly and they were risky.

TAPPER: But at the time, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was running for reelection. Abandoning COP Keating might have been interpreted as a lack of American support. So McChrystal kept the outpost open.

BROWN: It was incredibly frustrating. And when you come to a common agreement that this isn't the type of mission, this is not where we should be doing this, and you agree with that, and you start planning to stop it, and then say, yes, I know we have all come to that conclusion, but we're going to keep doing it, it's very hard to explain to soldiers, you know, why.

TAPPER: After Karzai won the August 2009 elections and other U.S. assets became available, the top brass finally approved a plan to leave the outpost.

CARTER: Our task at Keating was to survive long enough to close it down.

TAPPER: The troops were to start packing up on October 4. But on October 3, the enemy launched a well-planned attack.

When we come back:

CARTER: People were yelling. They were calling out enemy over here, enemy over there.

TAPPER: Combat Outpost Keating ends its mission in bloodshed, as an unlikely hero confronts death.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): For Army Specialist Ty Carter, the road to Combat Outpost Keating in the Afghan mountains was twisted and filled with detours. His was an unlikely path to valor.

At the remote outpost, Carter had few friends, perhaps not surprising given his background.

(on camera): What were you like in high school?

CARTER: In high school, I was kind of a loner, a skinny kind of guy who didn't really get along with anybody and I didn't have a whole lot of good friends.

TAPPER: Carter was raised by his single mother in Spokane, Washington, with his sister and brother, Seth. Seth was a year older, with a knack for getting into trouble.

CARTER: My brother was into, I wouldn't say gang stuff, but he definitely had a chip on his shoulder. And when I hung out with him, I would get into fights and, you know, vandalism and stuff like that.

TAPPER: It got so bad, Ty's mom threw Seth out of the house.

(on camera): Where did he go?

CARTER: Wherever he was going to go. He didn't spend very much time at the house anyway. He was off with his friends and eventually he would just come home and do some bad things and then he would get kicked out, and that's how it kind of went for a while.

TAPPER (voice-over): With his brother gone, Ty straightened up, graduated high school, and headed to the Marine Corps in 1998.

(on camera): Why did you join the Marines out of high school?

CARTER: One of the reasons was I had gotten in trouble as a teenager, and it was a constant step to push my life in the right direction.

TAPPER: But you had some trouble in the Marines? CARTER: There was one individual that -- my roommate -- that I ended up getting into a fight with, and I got in trouble for that, and I lost rank.

TAPPER (voice-over): Two months later, Carter was honorably discharged from the Marines. So he headed out hopscotching the country, looking for work and a new purpose. He found staying in a job was a challenge.

(on camera): Let's just walk through the list of jobs.

CARTER: First, I started out working with a yacht maintenance service, a motorcycle apparel store, assistance manager at a theater/projectionist, armed security, a hot cub spa place, a dairy mill, and then a sawmill, and I worked with a chain saw.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: That's pretty comic. Like, it's an unbelievable list. And it's just five years, right?

CARTER: Yes, it was five years.

TAPPER: Here's the thing. You missed the purpose that you thought you had when you were in the military.

CARTER: When I was a civilian working, there was nothing there. There was no motivation, there was no purpose. It felt like I was a drone. There was no emotion, there was no pride to go to work, there was no real pride in what you were doing. You were just doing that so you don't get fired or laid off, which happened a lot.

TAPPER (voice-over): At the same time, Carter was going through a divorce and had a daughter to take care of.

CARTER: All I was doing was trying to support her in any way I can. I couldn't get her any medical benefits. I couldn't afford to pay child support, and all in all, I was thinking, well, man, get back in the service. That was awesome. I was doing what I enjoyed, and I was actually happy to wake up in the morning.

TAPPER: So Carter enlisted in the Army, but, once again, had a hard time fitting in.

SGT. 1ST CLASS JONATHAN HILL (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Ty Carter wasn't a sociable person.

TAPPER: Then Sergeant 1st Class Jonathan Hill remembers Carter as too serious.

HILL: We had a platoon, you know, full of guys that were on the lighter side of life, obviously, and liked to joke around. Carter really never got involved. He didn't like it. He thought it was immature, it was childish. You know, a lot of guys didn't really make friends with Carter. Carter didn't really make friends with a lot of guys. TAPPER: Carter would eventually make a few good friends. But those friendships would be short-lived. Combat Outpost Keating was about to be attacked.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): The first shots ring out at 5:58 in the morning. It is October 3, 2009, one day before the 53 U.S. troops at Combat Outpost Keating are supposed to start packing up to leave. They are excited to go. Since their arrival, they had heard rumors that an overwhelming attack was coming.

CARTER: We knew something was going to happen. We just didn't know when.

TAPPER: Now as many as 400 Taliban fighters are amassed on the high ground, as the men of Black Knight Troop Third Squadron 61st Cavalry Regiment sit in an outpost that is virtually defenseless.

Specialist Ty Carter had often tried to imagine this day.

CARTER: I was like, well, if it's my time to go, how am I going out? Or even if I get captured and they break both my arms and legs, I still got my teeth and my forehead, and I will be gnawing on some ankles. So there is no giving up. There is no surrender. You just -- I'm going to be the biggest pain in the butt I can be.

TAPPER: This dawn-to-dusk battle would test that resolve. The Taliban had studied how the Americans responded to previous attacks.

CARTER: When the enemies weren't shooting at us, they were shooting at the weapons. So they were disabling the weapons.

TAPPER: The insurgents know the outpost relies heavily on it mortars, so they make the big guns their first target, killing Private Kevin Thomson as he races to his post.

Troops begin running much-needed ammunition to the men on guard duty. But casualties begin mounting. Sergeant Joshua Kirk is killed while returning fire.

HILL: You could hear the rounds coming in from every direction and it was just basically a hornet's nest.

TAPPER: Platoon Sergeant 1st Class John Hill sees more young soldiers taking enemy fire.

HILL: Michael Scusa was gunned down 10 feet outside of our door. Another one of my soldiers, Griffin, who immediately ran out the door without hesitation, met the enemy head on, and he didn't make it back.

TAPPER: On the open ground, a Humvee equipped with two machine guns and surveillance equipment known as LRAS-2 is returning fire on the opposite end of the outpost. But ammunition is running out. Ty Carter volunteers to deliver more.

Carter did not think of himself as a great athlete, and this 100- meter sprint, starting at the barracks, would literally be a matter of life and death.

CARTER: I got to the door and the -- there was bullets impacting the concrete wall right in front of me and also the dirt in front of me. And I didn't realize it right then, but I took a step back, not because I was afraid or anything, but because, man, I have got to hit this at a running start.

HILL: Carter is kind of like -- for lack of better words, a robot. Tell him to do something, he's going to do it, and he's going to do it to best of his ability. So, he gathered up as much ammo as he could and he took off.

CARTER: And I can see explosions going off and impacts. And the more impacts I saw, the faster I ran.

TAPPER (on camera): Had you ever seen anything like that? Had you ever seen that kind of fire coming in?

CARTER: No. It wasn't just the seeing. It was the hearing. There was so much incoming fire and outgoing fire that there was no break in any type of explosion or sound.

TAPPER (voice-over): Three men are in the Humvee that Carter is trying to reach, Sergeant Bradley Larson, Specialist Stephan Mace, and Sergeant Justin Gallegos. The men need even more ammo and lubricant for their .50-caliber machine gun. So Carter runs back to the barracks through a barrage of enemy fire.

CARTER: I remember entering the door and a lot of yelling. And I remember Sergeant Hill telling everybody to be quiet.

HILL: Carter returns, and he's very sweaty, very tired.

CARTER: And he said that we need to know who needs what. And I caught my breath. And that's when I yelled, everybody needs everything.

TAPPER: Carter grabs lubricant for the machine gun and ammo.

CARTER: Right then, Sergeant Francis asks me where I was going. I says, LRAS-2 needs this. He says, no, you can't go there. You are going to get killed. And I says, no, they really need this. I have to go.

TAPPER: Carter runs the deadly gauntlet a third time.

CARTER: I used cover as I went. This wasn't a straight shot anymore. And every time I would sit behind something, another explosion would go off so close, it's like, time to move. I got across to LRAS-2 finally, and I opened up the door and Gallegos, Larson and Mace were inside the vehicle. Mace was hunched over. In the floorboards, there was about six inches of just hot .50- cal brass. You could almost taste it in your mouth. It was just metallic everywhere. It smelled like keys.

TAPPER: The smell of hot brass triggers a chilling reminder of just how vulnerable they are and what enemy munitions can do to a human body.

CARTER: And then the sinking thought that, metal vs. flesh, flesh will always yield.

TAPPER: When we come back: The battle grows even deadlier, when the enemy enters the outpost.

CARTER: And then at about that time is when I see Mace coming around the corner of the latrine dragging -- dragging his legs.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER (voice-over): October 3, 2009. Hundreds of Taliban fighters are attacking the U.S. troops below them in a valley. Combat Outpost Keating is in chaos.

Specialist Ty Carter is pinned down in a disabled Humvee with three other troops, Brad Larson, Stephan Mace, and Justin Gallegos.

(on camera): How often were bullets hitting the Humvee?

CARTER: It was pretty constant. It would be just a ting-ting, or you'd hear boom and the vehicle would move a little bit.

TAPPER (voice-over): At that point, Sergeant Vernon Martin, the unit's chief mechanic, comes to help.

CARTER: And that's when I grabbed him. I just yanked him in. He was extremely polite. "Oh, excuse me, you know. Sorry about that," as he was crawling over me. I didn't care. I just wanted to get him in and get the door shut.

TAPPER: Now there are five men trapped in a space roughly the size of a closet.

(on camera): So here you are, these five soldiers in a Humvee. Can you leave?

CARTER: No. And we all knew that sooner or later, the firepower is going to breach.

TAPPER (voice-over): A rocket-propelled grenade hits nearby. It disabled the Humvee's big gun and seriously wounds the men inside.

CARTER: It just sounded like a truck hitting another truck, just loud and metallic. And I remember feeling the impact on the side of my face like just somebody slapping me as hard as they could. I didn't know if I lost consciousness, but I definitely was stunned to the point where I forgot where I was.

Once my eyes were open and I saw what was going on, it was like, holy crap, I'm alive, I'm still in this. It wasn't a night mire. And I checked myself for holes, and I didn't find any at the time.

And then I remember hearing Martin cursing, yelling, "This hurts bad. It burns so bad." So he got peppered really bad with shrapnel. And that I think was the time when Gallegos started making the decision that we needed to get out of there.

TAPPER: On the other side of the outpost, staff sergeant Clint Romesha approves a plan to use a truck and a .50-caliber machine gun to rescue the men in the Humvee. Sergeant Joshua Hart and two others have volunteered.

STAFF SGT. CLINT ROMESHA (RET.), U.S. ARMY: I remember talking to Hart about before he goes over there, that he needs to find a good position to put that truck in, because that was one thing I -- you know, I tried to teach the guys: dead bodies attract more dead bodies. You know, if you go to the same position that someone else is getting shot at, you're going to be shot at, too.

TAPPER: Romesha monitors the radio as Hart's rescue team talks to Gallegos in the stranded Humvee.

ROMESHA: I remembered listening to him on the radio, the conversation between him and Gallegos, and Gallegos just telling him, "This isn't a good spot. You can't do a whole lot, you know. Stay away, stay away." Gallegos, you know, trying to beg Hart to stay away and Hart doing everything he can to once again help those guys break out.

And I mean, it seemed like an eternity, but Hart came across the net and said, you know, "I got an RPG pointed right at me." And that was the last we heard from Hart.

TAPPER: With the collapse of the rescue mission, Sergeant Gallegos believes their only chance is to make a run for it.

CARTER: He said, "Well, I don't want to do this without everybody's approval or agreement."

And I says -- I says, "No, this is on you. You've got the experience; you've got the knowledge. It's up to you, man. You need to lead us. What do you want us to do?"

And he says, "Well, I think we should exit."

And I says, "OK, well, I'll hang back here and I'll provide cover, and Larson did the same." So it was -- it was almost like a football, ready, break. And people started exiting the vehicle.

TAPPER: Then they realized the situation is even worse than they thought.

CARTER: There's insurgents just 30 meters in front of me.

TAPPER (on camera): In the camp?

CARTER: In the camp, yes.

TAPPER: Had you seen them in the camp?

CARTER: I hadn't seen them.

TAPPER (voice-over): Carter uses the last of his ammunition. He wounds several insurgents, and then he makes a perfect head shot.

(on camera): So the first time you killed someone?

CARTER: Yes.

TAPPER: Did you -- did you feel anything from it? Or...

CARTER: The only feeling I got was the -- the same feeling you get when you hit a bull's-eye on a target. The only difference is that every time I squeeze the trigger, my head or my mind took a very detailed picture that just kind of lasts with you.

TAPPER (voice-over): But the Taliban still has the advantage, and the three men Carter is covering go down. Sergeant Vernon Martin.

CARTER: And I saw him kind of go towards the rocks, jump over the rocks. And the last time I saw him is that he had blood coming down from his Kevlar on the back of his neck.

TAPPER: And Sergeant Justin Gallegos, who is trying to help a badly wounded Specialist Stephan Mace.

CARTER: Bullets were impacting all around him. He turned to fire, and he was taken down. The bullets hit him, and they spun him around. And he goes down on the ground, and I yelled, "Gallegos is down."

And that's when Sergeant Larson, I heard him say that, you know, "I just took out two guys over here. Get back in the vehicle."

TAPPER: But Mace is still out there, still alive. Just out of reach.

CARTER: About that time is when I seen [SIC] Mace coming around the corner drag -- dragging his legs. He was on his -- he was on his forearms and his elbows, and he went towards Gallegos. And that's when I said, "Hey, Sergeant Larson, Mace is alive. I can get to him; he's right there."

And I think he looked and he says, "No, you can't get to him."

I said, "No, he's right there."

He says, "You're no good to him dead." And, you know, I knew he was right, but it ate me up so bad.

TAPPER (on camera): Yes. Take as much time as you need.

(voice-over): When we come back...

CARTER: We were low on ammo. Everybody around us that was friendly was either wounded or dead.

TAPPER: The rush to save Mace and take the fight to the enemy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER (voice-over): Hours into the battle, the soldiers of Black Knight Troop are fighting back. But two of them, Ty Carter and Brad Larson, are pinned down in a Humvee.

CARTER: What Larson and I had to do all the time, is we had to completely shift positions, you know, fire like this and, OK, there's another guy over there, and then open the window, fire over there. If there's somebody over there, get up over there.

TAPPER (on camera): You're in this Humvee, and you're just like sitting ducks.

CARTER: Yes.

TAPPER: You can't leave, but you can't stay. And then what happened?

CARTER: It got to a point where a sniper knew where I was at, and I would open the window and fire across the river at insurgents, and then I remember closing the window, and as soon as I closed it, sparked shot out. The two-inch gap that I had my rifle out there , the sniper has zeroed in on and was trying to put a bullet inside the vehicle to get either myself or Sergeant Larson.

TAPPER (voice-over): To make matters worse, Taliban fighters are now inside Combat Outpost Keating.

CARTER: We were low on ammo. Everybody around us that was friendly was either wounded or dead.

TAPPER: Specialist Stephan Mace was severely wounded outside the Humvee, exposed to the enemy.

CARTER: He says, "Help me, please."

And I saw the look on his face, and that's the look that tears me up. The look of sheer pain and just need. And I couldn't do anything.

TAPPER: Carter wants to run out and grab Mace. But the incoming fire is too intense. Sergeant Larson tells him it's a suicide mission.

CARTER: Because of Larson, I survived that day. And he held me back when I could have died going to get him, because I was going to go get him.

TAPPER: Time passes, and the enemy fire focuses on other parts of the camp. Carter thinks he hears a horn from a nearby truck. He darts to it. Inside, he finds more ammo, and he realizes now is the time to rescue Mace.

CARTER: I thought I would ask Sergeant Larson again, "Hey, can I go get Mace now?"

He thought about it, and he says, "All right. You know," he said, "but wait for me. I want to make sure that I got you covered."

TAPPER: So Carter again jumps out of the Humvee and into the line of fire.

(on camera): How much of the bullets are coming in at this point?

CARTER: There were only a view, but I wasn't really paying attention to that. I was completely blocking any of that out. There could have been an entire array (ph) of rounds coming in, but my entire focus was on Mace.

TAPPER (voice-over): Carter reaches Mace.

CARTER: I asked Mace, "Are you still alive?" He said yes. And he started to turn, so I turned him over.

TAPPER: Carter ties a tourniquet on Mace's legs. He stuffs gauze into his bullet holes. He then tells Mace to pretend he's dead and sprints back to Larson in the Humvee.

CARTER: And he says, "Well, what is your plan?"

I said, "We're going to bring him to the Humvee? It's the only safe place."

TAPPER: Larson lays down cover fire as Carter runs back to Mace.

CARTER: I was able to pick him up and carry him up the hill to the Humvee.

TAPPER: Enemy fire had taken out their radio, so Carter and Larson have no idea if any other American troops are alive. Carter makes yet another run to find a radio.

CARTER: The loneliest, most terrifying movement I've ever done.

TAPPER: He discovers a radio in the dirt and rushes it back. Larson radios the camp's operations center for help. And the men there hatch a plan. With massive cover fire, Carter and Larson carry Mace to the aid station.

CARTER: We almost stepped on or over the two insurgents that he shot, and to my right, I saw an American soldier dead on the ground, and I had a feeling. I couldn't see his face, but I knew it was Griffin.

And then we just kept on sprinting. Every muscle in my body was on fire, and I couldn't breathe. And tears were coming down my eyes, because everything hurt so bad, but there's no way I was going to quit.

TAPPER (on camera): Were you and Mace close?

CARTER: No. We'd met a couple of times at a -- at, you know, platoon gatherings or every once in a while.

TAPPER: But you were driven, even though you didn't know him?

CARTER: It doesn't matter. He was an American in uniform. He's a Black Knight. He is my -- at that point in time, he is my blood brother, and I'm willing to do whatever I can to help him.

TAPPER (voice-over): At the aid station, the medical team gives Mace five blood transfusions to keep him alive. The battle now shifts. There's much increased air support.

LT. COL. BRAD BROWN (RET.), U.S. ARMY: When those first bombs started dropping, you knew it was going to be OK. It was bad, but they were going to hold it, and they were going to take it back.

TAPPER: American bombs falling on the enemy. Mace at the aid station. And for the first time in hours, Carter can exhale.

CARTER: I believed in my heart that Mace would survive this, and because of that, I was able to find a sense of peace that Larson and I had did something to where we -- our actions saved a fellow soldier.

TAPPER: By nightfall, the battle is over. Lieutenant Colonel Brad Brown arrives later that night and, over the next few days, hears myriads of accounts of heroism. But Ty Carter's stands out.

BROWN: The last three soldiers that got out with him were either wounded or dead, and Ty Carter got out under fire. And he went forward in an extremely exposed position after he'd been told by Larson, "Hey, you're not going to do any good if you're dead," and he did it anyway. He hauled him up a bluff under fire, got him back in the Humvee, and he gave Stephan Mace a chance.

TAPPER: Mace had been rushed by helicopter to a well-equipped medical unit and into surgery. But it was too late.

CARTER: And when I overheard that -- I overheard that Mace died on the operating table. And that blow destroyed me. I felt that we had failed. The idea of all those guys that died, and the fact that I could have been one of them, and I imagined my daughter crying over a flag-draped casket.

TAPPER: Mace was one of the eight U.S. troops to die in the battle of Combat Outpost Keating. The fighting raged from sunup to sundown that October day in the Afghan mountains. The battle had ended. But for Ty Carter, a new struggle was just beginning. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Left face. Turn to the left. March. Exercise. One, two.

TAPPER (voice-over): Ty Carter, now Staff Sergeant Ty Carter, is back from Afghanistan. He's assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, outside Tacoma, Washington. Carter will soon receive the Medal of Honor for his heroism during a crushing Taliban attack.

(on camera): I think a lot of people out there probably think that Medals of Honor go to people who were raised in middle America, two-parent homes, you know, were clearly on a path to valor. It doesn't always work that way.

BROWN: You know, Ty, like every soldier, was -- he's a complex character. I think he looks more like what an average soldier that you meet in any unit on any given day, what he looks like.

And a lot of those kids, given the same position and the same -- with the same choices, may have done the very same things that Sergeant Carter did. But certainly, he was one of those people that had that capability, that sense. And when the time was there, he did what he needed to do.

CARTER: This is Nala (ph). This is actually...

TAPPER (on camera): This is your dog?

CARTER: This is my dog.

TAPPER (voice-over): Today, Carter lives in this bucolic home, not far from the base.

CARTER: These are brand-new additions to the Carter estate. They are Labradoodles.

TAPPER (on camera): Oh, goodness.

CARTER: And they're just barely starting to get their eyes open.

TAPPER: How old are they?

CARTER: A little over a week and a half, I believe.

TAPPER (voice-over): Since his return from Afghanistan, life here for his wife, Shannon, and their three children, appears normal. It is a world away from the bloodshed. Even so, his home hints at how the war changed him.

CARTER: Firing.

TAPPER: There's a shooting range, so Carter can maintain his skills as a sniper, and security cameras all around.

CARTER: I got two up there. I've got a couple in the trees back there and a couple in the tree right above the vehicle.

TAPPER (on camera): Do you think your experience at COP Keating has anything to do with how you've secured this place?

CARTER: I think so. Even inside my own house I always carry a pistol.

Dear heavenly Father, we thank you for this nice day and we thank you for the ability to travel to and from work and other places without any incident.

TAPPER (voice-over): As the family prepares for a presidential ceremony and the Medal of Honor, Carter is humble when others talk about his valor.

SHANNON CARTER, TY'S WIFE: To him it just brings back those memories and that day and everything that they had to go through. To me, it's like, I knew you were a hero all along. You know? I do.

TAPPER: Carter doesn't feel like a hero, just a survivor.

T. CARTER: The constant ring in my ears is a reminder.

TAPPER: When a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Humvee, Carter lost part of his hearing.

T. CARTER: Ever since that day, I've had this high-pitched ringing in my ears.

TAPPER: And in the dark, quiet moments, the constant ringing in his head brings him back to the battle.

T. CARTER: When you're alone in your room, and you hear the ringing, that's when -- that's when the memories start kicking in. You can't sleep because the whole, I should have done this, I could have done this. I mean, you see the faces of the soldiers that died or the soldiers who are wounded and you hear the cries. And it's just not -- not very good, happy memories.

TAPPER: On his wrist, the names of the eight who didn't make it home. Carter says one more name should be added to the list.

T. CARTER: Ed Faulkner was funny. He -- he was an excellent team player. He was basically the guy that lightened the mood for our platoon.

TAPPER: Ed Faulkner left the outpost alive. But the outpost never left Ed Faulkner. He struggled with drug abuse and mental health problems, eventually leaving the Army with severe posttraumatic stress disorder.

Faulkner was haunted. He would stay up late at night, watching the videos of the attack that insurgents had posted online. In September 2010, not even a year after the attack, Faulkner took a fatal overdose of methadone and Xanax. Although there was no evidence of suicide, Faulkner's friends believe his death was linked to the horror of that October day in 2009.

T. CARTER: I honestly believe that, yes, he was the ninth victim of Combat Outpost Keating. And I also believe that he won't be the last.

TAPPER: To varying degrees, all the men of Black Knight Troop carry a weight.

T. CARTER: Everyone there came away with some type of stress or memory that still haunts them today.

TAPPER: Carter himself has regular therapy for PTSD.

T. CARTER: I didn't believe it was real until I experienced it. I thought it was just an excuse to get out of duty or not do a job. But once it hit me and I realized it, I was blown away. How could I be so ignorant?

TAPPER: And that is Ty Carter's new mission: to be a voice, to de-stigmatize the invisible wounds of war.

T. CARTER: What we need to do is take the first few steps. We need to realize that, yes, this is affecting me and I need to fix this.

TAPPER: The Medal of Honor, a symbol of strength, may help him convince others there is nothing weak about seeking help. Because even as the war winds down, some of these psychological scars will take years to heal.

(on camera): Approximately 60,000 U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan. President Obama has said no combat troops will remain in the country after 2014, but it remains to be seen if residual forces of any kind will be there after that date.

I'm Jake Tapper at the White House.