If a hero can admit his frailty, why not others?
The hero in question is Staff Sgt. Ty Carter, a Yelm man assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Last week, the White House announced that he would become the fifth living veteran of the post-9/11 era to receive the Medal of Honor.
Very few earn the nation’s highest honor for valor; Carter will receive it for his extraordinary actions on Oct. 3, 2009, when insurgents overran much of an isolated outpost defended by a relative handful of American and Afghan troops.
Carter is now engaged in a much quieter battle – the struggle to lift the lingering stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychological illness routinely suffered by combat survivors. The human nervous system simply isn’t designed for the extreme stresses, terrors, sights and sounds of modern battles.
In previous wars, PTSD was called shell shock or combat fatigue. Soldiers often concealed the symptoms, blaming themselves for weakness and fearing the judgment of others.
Encouraged by the Army, Carter frequently talks about his own struggles with PTSD.
He came by the disorder honestly. Accounts of the battle describe an hours-long nightmare of machine gun and rocket fire, shrapnel ripping through the air, enemies penetrating inner defenses, buildings burning, 1-ton bombs exploding and soldiers bleeding. Another survivor has already received the Medal of Honor. Nine soldiers have received the Silver Star.
Much of Carter’s personal trauma stems from watching helplessly for the better part of an hour as a mortally wounded fellow soldier struggled to crawl away from danger during the furious firefight.
Carter repeatedly volunteered to rescue Spc. Stephan Mace, but his sergeant insisted that he not expose himself to the intense fire. When finally permitted, he carried the dying man to medics at great personal risk – one reason he was recommended for the Medal of Honor.
Carter describes himself as devastated. “I couldn’t hold any emotions in,” he told the Associated Press. “I was a walking zombie.”
He credits a noncommissioned officer with urging him into PTSD treatment, and he’s been in counseling ever since.
This reflects the current Army’s much more enlightened approach to the disorder. Those who try to conceal PTSD typically find the stress erupting in disturbing or dangerous ways: nightmares, flashbacks, explosions of anger, anxiety, numbness and other symptoms that can destroy marriages, ruin careers and otherwise wreck lives.
The military has lost countless exceptional people by failing to honestly address PTSD in its ranks. Carter, whose heroism is beyond question, is an ideal advocate for soldiers hesitant to acknowledge a condition that is evidence of courage, not cause for shame.