Kyle Carpenter doesn’t remember the moment he threw himself on a grenade four years ago to save a fellow Marine in Afghanistan.
“I don’t recall any of the events leading up to it,” he said Wednesday. “I woke up in the hospital five weeks later.”
Tom Kelley remembers the moment when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded 6 inches from his head 45 years ago as he led a naval rescue mission on the banks of a Vietnam canal.
“It threw me around the boat a little bit, but we were able to continue,” he said. “I was the guy in charge. I had to get all my guys out.”
Carpenter, then 21, and Kelley, then 30, each received the Medal of Honor for their actions. Each lost his right eye and nearly died. Kelley is among the oldest living recipients now at 75; Carpenter, who was presented the medal in June by President Barack Obama, so far is the youngest living recipient at 24.
They’ll spend this week in Knoxville with dozens of other recipients of the nation’s highest military award at the annual convention of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
“There are only 78 of us living, so it’s a reunion for sure,” Kelley said. “Each of us did what we had to do under the circumstances. What I did wasn’t for a medal. It was for the guys with me.
“I’m still the same person as before, but it’s enabled me to meet people I wouldn’t have met otherwise and help get the message out about patriotism, service to others and doing the right thing. Anybody can do what we did under the right circumstances — they just need a little extra something dangled in front of them.”
Kelley has attended various conventions of the society before; this year will be Carpenter’s first.
“It weighs heavy on me,” Carpenter said. “It represents a lot — history, sacrifice, the many who have gone before me. I just try to tell my story and the things I’ve lived and try to tell people there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Carpenter and his comrade, Nicholas Eufrazio, were on duty atop a roof in Afghanistan’s Helmand province Nov. 21, 2010, when they came under attack. Hand grenades landed inside their post, and Carpenter threw himself on a grenade to save Eufrazio.
The shrapnel fractured Carpenter’s skull, punctured his lung and caused a host of other injuries so severe the medical evacuation team expected him to die. He proved them wrong, waking up from a coma in the same hospital as Eufrazio.
“Neither one of us was able to get up out of bed,” he said. “We had to send each other messages written on a chalkboard.”
Now he’s finished with surgeries, retired from the Marine Corps and pursuing a degree in international studies at the University of South Carolina.
Kelley was a Navy lieutenant commanding a river assault division of eight boats June 15, 1969, during a mission to rescue a company of Army infantrymen on the east bank of the Ong Muong canal in Vietnam’s Kien Hoa province when a boat broke down under enemy fire. Kelley moved his boat into the line of fire to buy time for repairs, and a grenade barely missed his head and shattered a pipe instead, spraying him with shrapnel.
Kelley couldn’t stand up and could barely speak, but he kept command and got all 250 soldiers and sailors to safety.
“I still had two radios, one in each hand,” he said. “We stopped the ambush, and the boat got fixed.”
The convention lasts through the weekend.