Updated: August 26, 2013 at 8:00 am
It was an innocent question from an 8-year-old girl.
"Dad," she asked, "are monsters real?" "No," replied her father, Staff Sgt. Ty Carter.
Those bedtime monsters are make-believe.
Carter knows the real ones. Some have names: post-traumatic stress. Al-Qaida.
Some are faces seen through the sights of an M-4 rifle as your finger squeezes the trigger.
On Monday, the former Fort Carson soldier who has faced those monsters will be given the nation's highest honor for combat gallantry in a White House ceremony.
He earned it by running through enemy fire in a bid to rescue a wounded comrade. He says that's what anyone else would have done.
"I constantly have to take a step back and say, 'Wow, is this really happening?'" Carter said.
Son of the Pacific Northwest
Carter, 33, spent most of his youth in Spokane, Wash., a town a bit smaller than Colorado Springs that has dubbed itself the capital of the Inland Empire agricultural region of the Pacific Northwest.
His father, Mark Carter, said Ty Carter was an adventurous kid. On a camping trip when he was 5 or 6, Carter dragged a 3-foot snake back to his father. "He did stuff like that all the time," Mark Carter said.
Family members and Army colleagues say Carter is a quiet, determined guy.
"He was always lucky enough, strong enough or determined enough," his father said of the little boy who always seemed to escape trouble.
But there was a sensitive side to Carter that teachers at North Central High School noticed.
"I was intensely into art," he said.
Not big pieces with explosions of color. Carter liked fine details.
The Medal of Honor recipient found a passion for making jewelry.
He also enjoyed hanging out at an Army surplus store in Spokane, hearing tales and experimenting with another hobby - making fireworks.
And he struggled.
At the end of high school, Carter was one failure from not graduating.
"My French teacher - even though I was terrible at French, she was there to push and motivate me," he said. "She allowed me to work extra hard to get a passing grade to get through high school."
He thought about college, but he wanted to jump-start his adulthood.
"I wasn't the model teenager - I got in trouble," Carter said. "Joining the service was a chance to change my life. It was a difficult thing that would make me a better person."
'I like to blow things up'
Carter was always a Boy Scout. Always a patriot.
"He liked the idea of doing things for a purpose," Mark Carter said.
When he showed up for Marine Corps basic training in 1998, Carter wanted to become a combat engineer.
"I like to blow things up," he said.
He spent a four-year hitch in the Marines, most of it at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
There was plenty of training, but there was no war to fight.
"I trained for combat," he said. "I never went to combat."
But violence hit close to home.
On July 13, 2000, his older brother, Seth, was at a party in Spokane when he was killed by a shotgun blast.
The boys were 18 months apart and inseparable through their youth, Mark Carter said.
The family waited for Carter to arrive from Camp Pendleton before they went to the Coroner's Office to identify Seth Carter's remains.
Mark Carter said Seth's death changed Carter, added years of maturity in an instant of tragedy.
"Something clicked," Mark Carter said.
A little more than a year after the family tragedy came a national tragedy.
Carter was at Camp Pendleton when planes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
"When I found out they were passenger jets, a chill ran through my spine," Carter said. "I thought this might be the start of a war."
As war, indeed, began to engulf the Middle East, Carter decided against re-enlistment.
"I made some mistakes in the Marine Corps," Carter said. "I was ready to move on. I thought civilian life would suit me better. It didn't."
He moved in with his father in Antioch, Calif., and drifted.
Carter studied biology at a community college.
His oldest daughter, Madison, was born.
"Jobs were tough to find," Mark Carter said. "He didn't feel like he was doing anything."
Training waived for ex-Marine
As wars raged in Iraq and Afghanistan, Carter came to a conclusion: While the Marine Corps uniform wasn't a perfect fit, he belonged in uniform.
"The idea of being back in the military and fighting for his country was a big thing for him," Mark Carter said.
Carter marched to an Army recruiter.
"One of the things that being in the military I enjoyed was the camaraderie and the brotherhood," he said.
The Army waived Carter's basic training requirement and sent him straight to a school for cavalry scouts.
Scouts lead Army combat units into battle, spotting the enemy and tying them down with fire until reinforcements arrive. They're elite.
In January 2008, he reported to Fort Carson and the 3rd Squadron of the 61st Cavalry Regiment, part of the 4th Brigade Combat Team.
The unit traces its lineage to World War II, where its soldiers earned a pair of Presidential Unit Citations in combat in North Africa and Europe. The Carson soldiers had recently returned from bloody fighting in Baghdad.
"At first, I was an outcast because of my Marine Corps background," Carter said.
The squadron trained at Fort Carson, Pinon Canyon and Fort Polk, La., to get ready for Afghanistan.
It wasn't going to be like Iraq, troops were told. They were heading to a land of steep mountains and few roads where they faced a determined, experienced enemy that had been in battle against one enemy or another since 1980.
Combat Outpost Keating
Carter's first memory of Afghanistan was a heart-stopper.
He'd just landed at Jalalabad, near the Khyber Pass.
"We landed and our first impression was standing at attention as a few trucks rolled by with caskets," he said. "It was an eye-opener with what we were getting into."
The cavalry squadron, including Carter's B Troop, was heading to Kunar Province, an area on the Pakistan border with topography resembling the landscape around Cripple Creek. The squadron's goal was to destroy the Taliban and build up local governments. Commanders dispersed the troops into combat outposts across the province, which is about the size of El Paso County.
Many of the outposts were on the high ground, looking down on the enemy.
Just over two months into his deployment, Carter went to Combat Outpost Keating, at the bottom of a narrow canyon on the Korengal River.
"You've got to be kidding me," Carter remembers thinking when he saw the tiny, nearly indefensible outpost.
Keating took sporadic fire almost daily. Taliban mortar crews rained rounds on the compound from nearby cliffs.
"There was very tight living space," Carter said. "Hot meals weren't very often. The patrols were straight up and down the mountains. A lot of us were losing weight."
'I could see their eyes'
Oct. 9, 2009, was the bloodiest day for Fort Carson soldiers since the Vietnam War.
It was the day that put Carter and comrade Clinton Romesha, a former Carson staff sergeant, into the history books.
Taliban fighters, who knew of American plans to close Keating, massed in a nearby village.
The Taliban launched an attack at sunrise. More than 300 insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles, heavy machine guns and mortars raked Keating, which was defended by a shorthanded B Troop and a crew of Afghan soldiers who quickly quit the fight. It was the Taliban's largest operation since the famed battle of Tora Bora, eight years earlier.
Carter was in the barracks when the gunfire hit and roused himself to join comrades 100 yards away. That meant sprinting across open ground and through bullets and shrapnel - something he'd be doing all day.
At least he was dressed for it.
"I was in a tan shirt and PT shorts," Carter said.
His first job was to supply machine gunners.
Carter ran through fire and shot the locks off the ammunition storage facility to grab what was needed.
The enemy was close.
"You could see them, you could definitely see them," Carter recalled. "Every time I would squeeze the trigger on my M-4, they were close enough I could see their eyes."
The battle raged for hours.
Rescuing his injured friend
Carter took shelter in a Humvee, which rocked on its springs as enemy bullets and shrapnel smacked its armored hide.
He was wounded when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the Humvee and sprayed the interior with shrapnel. Still, Carter braved enemy fire to grab more ammunition.
A small group decided to link up with other B Troop soldiers while Carter provided covering fire. They were mowed down.
One of the wounded was Spc. Stephan Mace, a friend to whom Carter had given his spare magazines when the enemy attacked.
He wanted to help Mace but was restrained by a comrade. Mace cried for help.
"Knowing that he would almost certainly be killed, and with no regard for his personal safety, Carter jumped from the truck and sprinted forward to Mace," the Army's nomination for Carter's Medal of Honor reads.
"With small-arms fire riddling the Humvee and the ground around him, Carter stanched Mace's bleeding and placed a tourniquet on his shattered leg. With enemy fire intensifying around him, Carter summoned the strength to lift Mace and carried him through the hail of bullets up to the rise and to the Humvee."
Carter doesn't recall feeling like Superman when he made his dash for Mace. He was a little fatalistic, "When it's my time to go, I'm going to be the biggest pain in the butt for the enemy."
He was certainly single-minded.
"All I could think about was getting to Mace," Carter said.
Despite Carter's heroics, Mace died. So did seven other B Troop soldiers.
Eventually, air support pounded the Taliban into submission. The outnumbered Fort Carson soldiers held.
Battling a new enemy
There's a difference between illness and weakness, Carter has learned.
You can be the strongest, the best and the bravest and be felled by a virus, or a memory.
"Most soldiers think if you need help that's a weakness," Carter said.
After the fight was over and he was evacuated to safety, the hero shattered.
He couldn't sleep and grief hit like waves on a beach.
"I was so ashamed I was feeling this way," he said.
Carter later learned that his new enemy was named post-traumatic stress disorder.
Commanders pushed him into counseling.
It never leaves you, but you can learn to live again. It's like survivor's guilt, in Technicolor.
Carter gained the strength to deploy to Afghanistan again with a unit from Fort Lewis, Wash., and the courage that allowed him to meet and marry the love of his life, Shannon, in 2012. They're raising three kids in Yelm, Wash.
What drove Carter on Oct. 9, 2009?
Mark Carter has a theory.
When Seth Carter was slain in 2000, Ty Carter was away in the Marines. Too far away to help.
Seeing his brother in death was powerful enough to change Carter.
"That wasn't the way Ty started out, but when he stood over his brother, something clicked," Mark Carter explained.
In the cavalry squadron, Carter got more brothers - dozens of them.
"There's no way he would see another brother killed," his father said. "That was all Ty could take."