It’s hard not to feel invincible. First, the Marine Corps trains you so well that you know you are part of one of the most elite fighting forces on earth; it seems impossible that the forty-year-old Soviet weapons and homemade detonating devices of the Taliban could possibly pose a serious risk. Second, you’re in your late teens or early twenties, and the risk-reward center of the brain is not fully developed, so the possibility of danger seems thrilling rather than sobering. It’s hard to think about death when the world seems so full of life, possibility, and excitement. You feel invincible because, up to this point, you basically have been. Broken arm from falling out of a tree fort? No problem; the doctors can fix you right up by putting you in a cast for a month. Concussion from a bad hit in football? Concerning, but you’ll probably bounce back in a few weeks. When that is your frame of reference, it’s hard to imagine the degree of injury that might be awaiting you. If you can imagine it, it still seems like something that would happen to someone else. I had no idea how laughable the idea of invincibility is in the face of war.
HELMAND PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN
There is a scene in Forrest Gump where Forrest and Bubba join up with their unit in Vietnam, only to find that there are steaks grilling and music playing, and nothing looks at all like they expected an active war zone to look. That wasn’t quite my experience, but I was definitely blown away by the creativity of Marines to make even the most grim, austere conditions more livable and even enjoyable. We didn’t have many luxuries, but someone had received a volleyball in a care package and a couple of guys had immediately set to work weaving a net out of 550 cord so that they could set up a decent court on the hard-packed dirt ground of our compound. It was a great morale booster in between patrols until we started hearing ratta-tat-tat-tat-tat from outside the perimeter every time the ball volleyed to the other side. It was gun-fire from local Taliban, who didn’t want to get close enough to do real damage, so instead settled for trying to pop our ball.
The area around Marjah is incredibly flat, and we could see the nearest village, about one thousand yards from our compound. Every time the ball rose above the walls, the shooter there would fire frantically. The bullets would fly right over the compound, so no one was ever in danger of being hit by them, but the situation struck us as strangely hilarious—as if a popped volleyball would devastate us and send all the Americans packing. And even if our Taliban killjoy had managed to succeed in hitting the ball, we had others. A couple guys had written home about our “court,” and people kept sending us balls: volleyballs, footballs, even a basketball, though we were never able to rig up a hoop because it wasn’t worth the risk of being exposed over the walls long enough to do so, and the rocky dirt floor of our compound wasn’t the best surface anyway.
Despite the levity, there were times when the reality of a combat zone shone through. We didn’t jump into patrols on day one; there was a kind of leadership-training down period. The higher-ranking Marines went out on patrol first to get a feel for things before leading patrols of their own. It was a way to help everyone get acclimated to being outside the wire. But our time to step into an active role came quickly enough.
My first patrol took place four or five days after we arrived. We stopped at a compound at the end of a road, after pausing to talk to the owner about his family, the area, and whether he had seen any Taliban nearby. As expected, he had, so while the other guys started to fan out, I set up my SAW across the street from the man’s house, next to a low, mud-brick shed; just like hundreds of others in the region, it was used for drying out the marijuana and poppy crops that help fund the Taliban.
As I lay on my stomach behind my gun, scanning the landscape, I remember thinking that the field before me was a perfect rectangle, as if it had been laid out with a ruler. In a region where so much is scattershot, adapted to the land, it was unusual to see something so precise. It was oddly beautiful. All of a sudden, it was as if the skies had opened and the clouds were dumping hail: So many rounds were hitting the ground around me that I couldn’t even see through my scope for all the dust they were kicking up. There was a thunk as a bullet ricocheted off the side of the shed, and at almost exactly the same time, I felt something hit my lower back, about two inches to the right of my spine, just above my belt line and below my body armor—probably the only inch of skin that wasn’t protected.
“I’m hit!” I yelled, grabbing my gun and leaping about ten feet behind me to where my buddies were holding security. Two thoughts raced through my brain: Did bullet wounds really not hurt as much as I had imagined, or did I just have so much adrenaline in my system that I wasn’t registering the pain? And after an hour outside the wire, was I already a casualty? I was furious that I wouldn’t get to contribute anything to the effort if this stupid Taliban bullet sent me home. I couldn’t imagine leaving my guys behind because of an injury on our very first patrol.
As I bounced back, another Marine instantaneously moved forward to man the end-of-the-road security position while the corpsman checked me out behind the compound. Amazingly, the bullet had not penetrated the skin, but it did leave a dark bruise, almost like a paintball fired at point-blank range. I was hurting, but grateful my tour wasn’t over quite so quickly. The mark grew uglier for well over a week as the blood pooled, then finally started to fade; and since there was no real damage done, I conveniently left out any mention of it in my letters home. In fact, I didn’t tell my mom until at least three or four years afterward.
No matter how mentally prepared you think you are, you will never be ready for that first fight, let alone that first casualty. A guy gets blown apart by an IED or takes a bullet to the chest, and suddenly, everything you’ve ever believed about the world collapses in a moment. I turned twenty-one on October 17, but the day really didn’t make me feel any older; my experiences in Afghanistan, however, felt like they aged me years at a time.
We had left early in the afternoon on my birthday, and were now trying to make it back to Patrol Base Beatley by nightfall. It had been a four-hour game of cat and mouse. As we had entered one patch of woods, our patrol had frozen midstep as the dreaded sound of M203 fire echoed around us. A 203 is a grenade launcher that attaches to the bottom of a rifle and when fired makes a distinct thump sound, followed by an anxious wait to see where that deadly thump impacts. Immediately, our squad leader got on the radio to tell the other half of our squad to stop firing 203s until we could get their exact location. We had intentionally split up to cover more ground, but during the intense fighting through thick tree lines and scattered villages, we had become unsure of our exact proximity to one another.
A voice crackled back over the radio, “That’s not us. Those are not our 203s.” In an instant, we went from frozen to executing some quick maneuvers to find cover. For the first time in three months, the enemy was launching grenades at us. Happy birthday to me.
Maneuvering out of the tree line, we approached a compound on the outskirts of the village we were nearing. As usual, family livestock were hanging out around the home. Two goats were tied up to a tree, and chickens strutted around pecking at the ground. We slowed down, just in time to hear another dreaded thump from the 203. The scene couldn’t have been scripted more perfectly: The grenade ripped through the air and struck a chicken, vaporizing it in an instant. I felt terrible for the chicken, but part of me had to laugh because I was just relieved that our latest casualty wasn’t another Marine.
We eventually made it back to PB Beatley safely, but I couldn’t shake the image of that unfortunate chicken. It was there one instant, and then it was simply . . . gone. Little did I know that, just a few weeks later, I would be able to empathize with that bird.
Kyle Carpenter is a Marine veteran who received the Medal of Honor on June 19, 2014.
Adapted from You Are Worth It by Kyle Carpenter and Don Yaeger, available Oct. 15 from Harper Collins.