Published: August 26, 2013
WASHINGTON, D.C. - As he wore the highest symbol of a government's wartime gratitude - the Medal of Honor - Staff Sgt. Ty Carter on Monday wanted to talk about what can't be seen.
Minutes earlier, the former Fort Carson soldier, who was awarded for his fighting in Afghanistan with the post's 4th Brigade Combat Team, smiled as he hugged President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House near huge portraits of George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, presidents who were military heroes.
Outside the White House after the ceremony, Carter told a tightly packed gaggle of media from across the globe that he may not be the best example of a hero, but he's a great example of a survivor of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"Almost everyone was left with deep, invisible wounds on our hearts and on our minds," Carter said of his comrades from the October 2009 battle of Combat Outpost Keating in the eastern Afghan highlands.
Carter spoke carefully from notes and didn't take questions. His smile when he hugged the president was a rare show of emotion for the soldier who remained stonefaced throughout the festivities.
Carter, 33, suffered shrapnel wounds during the fight at Keating that claimed the lives of eight Fort Carson troops. Despite his injuries, he repeatedly exposed himself to hellish enemy fire - even sprinting across open ground in a bid to rescue a severely wounded comrade, Spc. Stephan Mace.
"It was chaos," Obama explained before he hung the medal on Carter's neck. "A blizzard of bullets and steel into which Ty ran."
The fight at Keating, which pitted 53 Fort Carson troops from the brigade's 3rd squadron of the 61st Cavalry regiment against 300 Taliban fighters, left Carter with nightmares, anxiety, depression and other markers of stress-related mental wounds.
Obama not only praised Carter's actions during the battle, but also "his courage in the other battle he has fought," referring to post-traumatic stress and Carter's path to recovery.
It's a battle also fought by other veterans of Keating. During the ceremony, Obama recognized Spc. Edward Faulkner Jr., who lived through the ordeal near the Pakistan border but didn't survive the mental illness that followed him home. Faulkner took his own life less than a year returning to Colorado Springs.
"No one should die waiting for the mental health care they need," Obama said.
Nine of Carter's comrades from Keating traveled to the White House to watch him receive the medal. They got a standing ovation from the crowd of more than 200 gathered at the ceremony, including Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill.
Carter also was joined by 40 family members.
Carter is one of five living Medal of Honor recipients from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another of those five is Fort Carson's Clint Romesha, who also was at Keating and exposed himself to enemy fire to defend his comrades, allowing them to retake the remote outpost. Romesha was off volunteering his help for homeless veterans Monday, Obama said.
"They are a family forged in battle, loss and love," Obama said of the unit.
The 53 Fort Carson soldiers in the Keating fight not only earned the two Medals of Honor - the nation's top award for gallantry - but also nine Silver Star Medals, 18 Bronze Star Medals for Valor, 27 Purple Heart Medals and 37 Army Commendation Medals, leading Obama to describe them as the most decorated unit in the Army.
Obama praised that valor, but said veterans need to look at Carter's example.
Carter got help for his PTSD and resumed his life: He got married, is raising a family and has advanced in the Army.
He's now serving at Fort Lewis, Wash.
"Any of our troops who are watching and struggling, look at this man," Obama said.
Obama said he understands that Carter deeply feels the pain of the battle but hopes he can also look upon it with pride.
"Because you helped turn back that attack, soldiers are alive today," he said.
The Carter ceremony came as the White House debates military action against Syria, where U.S. authorities say a government-sponsored chemical attack slaughtered civilians last week.
Obama, who has spent the weekend mulling the Syria crisis, looked drawn at points during the ceremony, but gave an occasional smile and wink to Carter's children in the front row.
Obama said he'd keep the ceremony brief, so that the sergeant's youngest child, a 9-month-old daughter, "didn't run out of Cheerios."
After the ceremony, Carter said he was "nervous about the responsibility" of representing the soldiers who fought at Combat Outpost Keating.
But he does have a mission.
His goal is to help soldiers survive the unseen wounds of war. As many as one soldier in four comes home from Afghanistan with some form of war-related mental illness, the Pentagon has estimated.
Obama pledged to help Carter and other troops, calling it a top priority for his administration.
Carter's not done battling his own PTSD. In his mind, he's still fighting at Keating.
Mace, who succumbed to his wounds despite Carter's effort, still haunts the man who tried to save him.
"I will hear his pleas for help for the rest of my life," Carter said.