Carter discusses post traumatic stress with Corps of Cadets
By Mike Strasser
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Sept. 4, 2013) — Less than a week after receiving the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House, Staff Sgt. Ty Michael Carter visited the U.S. Military Academy and addressed cadets during three speaking engagements Aug. 30.
Carter spoke about his actions during the battle of Kamdesh in Afghanistan and his own personal battle with post traumatic stress. The first session was for cadets enrolled in the PL300-Military Leadership course.
He later joined his wife Shannon and Dr. Melissa Peskin, a clinical psychologist from Weill Cornell Medical College, for a panel discussion with about 50 USMA cadets and a dozen ROTC cadets from Morgan State University. At Robinson Auditorium, Carter spoke for an hour to the Class of 2014 and Class of 2015.
Carter described the aftermath from the 12-hour assault on Combat Outpost Keating in 2009 which resulted in the loss of eight lives. He said all of the structures were destroyed within the outpost with the exception of the aid station, a barracks and mortar pit.
“Everything that connected us to the United States and to our families were gone—just a big layer of hot ash,” Carter said.
The greater loss, the loss of lives, was worse.
“When you lose a comrade in combat, you’re not losing just some other person in uniform ... you’re losing someone you’ve lived with and trained with for years. They’re your best friend, your brother, your sister. So imagine one day that you lose half your family,” Carter said.
Carter spoke candidly about removing the stigma associated with post traumatic stress. Calling it a disorder or syndrome, he said, causes more embarrassment to a person who is then less likely to seek help.
“If we call it post traumatic stress—what it really is—we can understand that everybody goes through stress in some form in their lives,” Carter said.
Carter’s message about post traumatic stress was making sure that people know it is comparable to a mortal wound that should be treated as life-threatening. However, the danger with PTS is that it’s invisible and requires other people to recognize the symptoms.
Carter said he didn’t recognize the symptoms himself, but those around him did.
“When you have it, at first, you don’t notice it,” he said. “Your attitude toward things change but because you’re the one feeling it, you don’t see it. With me, I believed that because I couldn’t save a Soldier’s life, that he died on the operating table, I was a failure. So much a failure that I believed my friends and family were ashamed to be around me. That was completely untrue but that’s what I believed.”
Carter would have kept on believing that if he did not get the support he needed from friends, family and Army leadership. When he arrived at Forward Operating Base Bostick from Keating, he was immediately grabbed by a senior non-commissioned officer who walked Carter over to a behavioral health specialist.
“That’s how dramatic and that’s how quick the change was,” he said. “As leaders, it is your responsibility to understand and know your Soldiers so you can witness that change. If you act quickly, and you may not know it, but you probably just saved a life.”
Carter refused to attend group counseling because of the shame he felt. Instead, the counselors sought him out and spoke with Carter personally.
“Combat doesn’t stop just because you’re having a bad day,” Carter told the cadets and he continued his deployment which involved several more firefights. When he returned stateside, Carter continued his treatment but relied on alcohol to dull the pain, and stopped eating and socializing.
“I went from counseling once a month to sometimes once or twice a week,” he said. “Eventually I figured out that my problem is not going to be solved by anyone else. I started to teach myself to find new motivations in life.”
Not everyone was as fortunate as Carter in receiving help. He spoke of a battle buddy who received a second Purple Heart along with severe post traumatic stress following combat in Afghanistan.
“We were his support group, we were his family and we gave him what he needed,” Carter said. “But while he was home he didn’t have his family with him anymore.
The Soldier recovered from his injuries but the PTS was left untreated. He left the service and within a year after, committed suicide, Carter said.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m talking to you today,” Carter said. “You have the ability to save lives in more ways than one.”
Carter said the Army is getting better at recognizing and treating these invisible wounds, as he observed first-hand on his last deployment with one of his Soldiers.
“Post traumatic stress is a combat wound and it will be treated as a combat wound. I saw it,” Carter said. “It’s now treated the same way in the Army.
Carter described his wife as the most trusted person in his life who knows him better than anyone and is a constant companion while he tours the country to share his story.
“She’s always by my side for this,” Carter said. “Luckily, the military has helped me through this by making sure my beautiful wife is always by my side.”
Staff Sgt. Ty Carter is joined by his wife Shannon for a panel discussion inside Thayer Hall Aug. 30 to talk about post traumatic stress. Photo by Anthony Battista/DPTMS
Staff Sgt. Ty Carter's first of three speaking engagements Aug. 30 at the U.S. Military Academy was with cadets enrolled in the PL300-Military Leadership course. Photos by Anthony Battista
Inside Washington Hall, Staff Sgt. Carter receives a standing ovation from the Corps of Cadets before having lunch at the Cadet Mess Aug. 30 with some of the brigade staff and senior leaders of the academy.
Carter remains committed to the Army and said he is embracing the role he’s been given upon receiving the nation’s highest military honor.
“I’m hoping that this new message that I have will help me have the same feeling, purpose and motivation as serving with my brothers in combat,” Carter said.
During a Q&A session, one cadet asked Carter what they could do to prepare for the type of combat he experienced.
“To prepare for combat you need to train like you fight. You train hard and that will make you fight harder,” Carter said.
Carter said that everyone will react differently in a combat situation and that preparation is largely based on the individual.
“What you can do as leaders is to make sure that your Soldiers understand that not only do they need to prepare themselves for combat, but they need to prepare the families to support the Soldiers in combat,” Carter said. “If Soldiers know their families are doing well they won’t worry about them while on a mission.”
Carter told the cadets he was still dealing with the loss of his comrades when told he would receive the Medal of Honor.
“My first reaction .... I didn’t care,” Carter said. “It almost felt like I was insulted, that I would want something like that after watching good men die.”
Carter said he wears the medal to represent the Soldiers who died in that battle and their Gold Star families.
“Every time I get up to speak I have a sinking feeling in my stomach and feel physically nauseous. Not because I’m afraid of public speaking but because I’m afraid of messing up,” Carter said.
But because he is passionate about the opportunity to talk about PTS, he overcomes that fear every day.
“The hardest part and the best part is this message,” he said. “The hardest part is the fear of failure. The best part is that I can actually reach out and maybe improve the Army and the world sees this combat wound.”
Carter ended his visit at the academy by taking in the Black Knights’ home opener that evening. He participated in the coin toss for the Army-Morgan State football game at Michie Stadium that evening and received an ovation with his wife in between the first and second quarters as the Black Knights secured its first victory of the season.
Staff Sgt. Ty Carter, the fifth living Medal of Honor recipient, visited the U.S. Military Academy and discussed his battle with post traumatic stress during three speaking engagements Aug. 30 at West Point.