US Army soldier Ty Carter woke on October 3, 2009, to the sound of his comrades coming under attack from Taliban fighters who had surrounded their base in the Kamdesh District of Afghanistan.
It was not unusual for Ty to be woken by the sound of incoming bullets, the troops at Combat Outpost Keating were shot at almost every day. But they quickly realized this day was different. More than 300 Taliban were closing in on the barracks in a coordinated attack and outnumbered the US soldiers seven-to-one, and endless bullets and grenades were raining down from their enemy who had occupied the high ground in the mountains that surrounded all four sides of their base.
What happened next became known as the Battle of Kamdesh and was one of the bloodiest battles in the war in Afghanistan. It is the subject of a critically-acclaimed new Hollywood movie, ‘The Outpost’, starring Scott Eastwood, Orlando Bloom and Caleb Landry Jones, based on a book by CNN anchor Jake Tapper.
Ty’s brave actions in that 12-hour battle earned him the Medal of Honor, the highest accolade for a US soldier, but his work since has been just as important and has probably saved even more lives — campaigning to end the stigma attached to seeking help for post traumatic stress, and encouraging people to discuss and conquer their mental health challenges.
And he hopes sharing his experience of emerging from the intense trauma in his life will help others overcome their own stress — whether suffered in combat or the daily battles of our regular civilian lives.
“Every single person on this planet who is alive has some form of post traumatic stress,” says Ty. “It is not a disorder because it is totally natural.”
“We need to remove the idea that admitting that you are injured is a weakness. For example, people think scars are cool but when you can’t see the injury it can be considered mentally weak.
“Stress is one of the biggest killers of people in general and will eat you from the inside out. It causes blood pressure issues, heart issues, cholesterol issues and liver issues. And the after effect of that stress is that some people self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.
“But stress is a completely natural reaction. And I’ve been trying to persuade people that if it’s completely natural, then it is not a problem to seek help. The best way to relieve stress is to get the weight off your chest and that’s normally by talking to somebody.”
The Taliban had been planning the infamous 2009 attack on COP Keating for months or even years. Their aim was to overwhelm the US outpost and capture or kill all the 53 US soldiers inside.
COP Keating was notorious for being dangerously positioned and surrounded by mountains that gave their enemy the valuable higher ground. As the title card at the start of ‘The Outpost’ movie reveals, the base was nicknamed ‘Camp Custer’ by the US soldiers because “everyone at the outpost was going to die.”
But as hundreds of Taliban closed on the base, Ty, armed only with an M4 carbine rifle, fought back and helped his 4th Infantry Division soldiers prevent the base from being totally overrun.
First, Ty repeatedly ran 100 meters, dodging the gauntlet of enemy fire, to resupply ammunition for his surrounded comrades. Then Ty and four fellow soldiers — including Specialist Stephan Mace — found themselves trapped in an armored Humvee where they were peppered with gunfire and grenades. If they stayed in the Humvee, they were all going to die. So Ty and a comrade stepped out into the barrage of bullets again to provide cover for three fellow soldiers as they made a dash for safety. Two of the three soldiers were killed as they ran towards the makeshift barracks, which by now had been infiltrated by the Taliban fighters. And then Ty spotted the third soldier, Stephan, injured on the floor.
Ty — who was a Specialist at the time of the battle and later left the army as a highly decorated Staff Sgt in 2014 — wanted to run out to save Stephan immediately. But initially his sergeant, the other surviving soldier in the Humvee, feared losing more of his men and told him: “You’re no good to him dead.” But eventually he persuaded his superior officer to let him try to save Stephan, and he ran through a hail of machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenades again to administer first aid, and carried Stephan 100 meters to safety before returning to the battle.
Sadly, a few hours later, Stephan died after he was airlifted from the base for further treatment. He was one of eight Americans killed in the battle, but if it wasn’t for the bravery of Ty and his comrades this would have been far worse. But despite his heroics, Ty was left fighting with guilt caused by Stephan losing his life.
Ty is keen to stress his courageous actions were not triggered by a desire to save a best friend, as some war movies choose to depict gallantry on the battlefield — and he ensured the plot of ‘The Outpost’ also avoided those Hollywood cliches. But it was his sense of duty and fundamental respect for human life that led to him risking his own.
He explains: “I didn’t get along that well with many of the guys there. There was a generation gap. I was 28 years old and about the same rank as the 20 year olds. And they’re playing these initiation games and I didn’t want anything to do with that, so I just did my own thing.
“Stephan Mace and I were not friends. But just because I don’t get along great with somebody doesn’t mean I don’t care about them or value their life. So I wasn’t going out there to save my loved-one or my best friend. He was wearing the uniform so was part of my family, so I will do what I need to do.
“At the time of the firefight, I had a four-year-old daughter. And my brother Seth was shot dead at a party in 2000. So when we were in that Humvee and I looked out there, I saw my brother or my daughter and I felt that I needed to get out there. I knew I could help, and I knew I would.
“When you see someone you know can help out there, suffering, it turns your brain to lava and your stomach into acid, and then your limbs turn numb but are full of negative energy. You feel so angry you can hardly breathe. But as I was running out there I wasn’t thinking about the bullets that were hitting all around or the explosions. All I was thinking was that I need to help this person.
“And that’s one of the reasons I had severe post traumatic stress — because I survived but Mace didn’t.”
It was another tragedy, just under a year after the battle, that further inspired Ty to dedicate his life to preventing more deaths by campaigning to remove the stigma surrounding seeking help for post traumatic stress. In September 2010, another surviving soldier from COP Keating, Pvt. Ed Faulkner Jr., died of a drug overdose after losing his fight with the trauma that plagued him after the battle. Ty refers to him as the ninth victim of the Battle of Kamdesh.
At the center of Ty’s campaign is to remove the ‘D’ from PTSD — because he says it is not a disorder to suffer from totally natural and expected stress.
He explains: “When you are going through severe post traumatic stress you don’t actually notice it. It’s a complete mental changer — you just know you’re not feeling quite right, or a little off. But the people around you notice. I was forced to go into counselling for the next two and a half years. My superiors ordered me to go or they were going to take my rank. I was very resistant at first — I was escorted the first time I went to counselling.
“The stigma is still out there. If you’re in the military and you go to a counsellor and you are labelled with PTSD, then you may get past over for rank and you will probably be treated differently. But I would rather be past over for rank than drink a handle of Jack Daniels and follow it with a .45.
“A couple of my military buddies said that if you take the ‘D’ from PTSD then guys and girls getting out may not get compensated. But I’m not worried about the money, I’m worried about saving and improving lives. So there are challenges on both sides.
“But we need to just call it what it is — it’s just stress from the past. It’s not a disorder, it is something that’s supposed to happen. And as soon as people realize that, they are more likely to talk about it.”
Ty was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama for his heroism in 2013, one of just 14 living servicemen to have been awarded the highest military decoration for actions in Afghanistan. It was the first battle in half a century where two soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their bravery.
President Obama said at the White House ceremony: “Let me say it as clearly as I can to any of our troops or veterans who are watching and struggling.
“Look at this man. Look at this soldier. Look at this warrior. He’s as tough as they come. And if he can find the courage and the strength, to not only seek help, but also to speak out about it, to take care of himself and to stay strong, then so can you.”
We’ve all heard the advice it’s best to “talk it out” – however that can feel easier said than done. But Ty is living proof of how we can overcome even the deepest trauma if we allow ourselves to identify, and then deal with the memories that are preventing us living our lives to its fullest potential.
The 40-year-old father-of-three now dedicates his life to speaking to military and first responders, in particular at nonprofit events, to encourage them to seek assistance for stress suffered in their life.
And he says: “You can treat symptoms all day long but it doesn’t deal with the sickness. So just answer these two questions: ‘What caused the trauma and how is it affecting you?’ Once you analyze that then you can learn to work with it.
“Talk through it, write it out. The problem is when people suppress it, your subconscious is telling you to remember this traumatic incident so you can avoid repeating it. Then all of a sudden you experience a trigger and you body and mind reacts. That’s your subconscious telling you: ‘Hey, you need to remember this.’
“We fix it by forcing ourselves to remember it on our own terms so we don’t have an unexpected situation like that. If you remember and acknowledge it, it will not show up and surprise you. And talking to people is the first step.”
Now, every time Ty gives a motivational speech he is reliving that trauma. But it makes him feel better. And by advising on — and even having a cameo in — the movie ‘The Outpost’ he has continued his own therapy by bringing his story to the screen.
‘The Outpost’, now available on VOD, has received glowing reviews for its unflinching account of the realities of war and topped the Apple movie chart. Ty’s story also features in the 2018 Netflix documentary series, ‘Medal of Honor.’
And Ty, who grew up between the Bay Area of California and Spokane, Washington, says: “Every time I speak or do a lecture, I am reliving the worst day of my life. By talking about it, or watching ‘The Outpost’ or the Netflix show, I am forcing myself to relive it so I don’t get those nightmares or those flashbacks — so my heartrate doesn’t rise every time I hear gunfire. I’ve already taken care of what I need to mentally to help myself survive and grow physically.
“So every time I am feeling stressed or anxious, I grab a good whiskey and I watch the episode of the Netflix show about my story. The emotions come back sometimes, sometimes they don’t, but then it relaxes me. It’s mentally draining, but then I’m OK afterwards and I can do my own thing for the next two or three weeks until I start feeling stressed again, and I know that’s my subconscious letting me know I need to relive it again. It doesn’t work like this for everyone, but this is my process.
“I helped to make ‘The Outpost’ and I’ve got a little cameo in it. They flew me out to Bulgaria and I was there for most of the filming. I assisted the writers with the story since the beginning. One of critics who has been in combat himself in Operation Enduring Freedom said this is the most accurate war movie they have seen on the War on Terror. We’re not glorifying anything, this is how it is.”
Ty’s advice can be applied to all levels of trauma and stress — whether suffered by soldiers, first responders or on civilians in our everyday lives.
“There are lots of different levels of stress, from hurting yourself as a kid, to your crush telling you that you are ugly, to getting hit when you’re up to bat in baseball,” he explains.
“That goes all the way up to loss of a loved one, a car accident, sexual trauma, loss of a limb or trauma in battle. Everything negative that happens to you in our lives is a form of stress from the past.
“Each of these levels affects each person differently. Nobody reacts to PTS in the same way. Therefore the only way to fix it, or to figure out how to fix yourself, is to start talking it out, with your family or friends, or with a professional counselor.
“Now I have met a lot of professional counselors who were absolute idiots, and I made sure they knew about it. I would just walk out and say: ‘Ok, you’re not for me.’ But luckily I’ve had a few excellent ones too.
“Each individual finds their healing in their own way. A lot of people think that counselors are doctors. You’re just going to go in there and they’re going to cut you open and pull the bad stuff out. That’s not what they do. Counselors are guides to find a way for us to heal ourselves. You need to use them as a guide and find your own way.”