You Are Worth It: Kyle Carpenter On Grenades, Marathons, Marine Service, And Taking Advantage Of Your “Bonus” Days
It seems fitting, after a weekend that saw Eliud Kipchoge break the 2-hour mark for a marathon, that I’m writing about one of my favorite marathoners. You might have heard of him, but he’s not famous for his running.
He’s more famous for his diving.
Kyle Carpenter is the youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor in history, but what earned him the medal was his brave decision to dive on an enemy grenade that landed between him and his best friend during a mission in Marjah, Afghanistan in November 2010.
Here’s the official description from his Medal of Honor citation:
“Lance Corporal Carpenter was a member of a platoon-sized coalition force, comprised of two reinforced Marine squads partnered with an Afghan National Army squad… Lance Corporal Carpenter and a fellow Marine were manning a rooftop security position on the perimeter of Patrol Base Dakota when the enemy initiated a daylight attack with hand grenades, one of which landed inside their sandbagged position. Without hesitation, and with complete disregard for his own safety, Lance Corporal Carpenter moved toward the grenade in an attempt to shield his fellow Marine from the deadly blast. When the grenade detonated, his body absorbed the brunt of the blast, severely wounding him, but saving the life of his fellow Marine. By his undaunted courage, bold fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of almost certain death, Lance Corporal Carpenter reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”
What that blurb doesn’t tell you is what happened to Kyle after the grenade. While it’s obvious that he survived the blast, it came at a high price.
Kyle was hospitalized in the aftermath, spending five weeks in a coma. Once he came to and doctors could assess his full needs, they predicted it would take between two and three years for him to have all of the necessary procedures to restore him to some version of his old life.
Kyle ended up enduring 71 different procedures through 41 different surgeries.
He lost his right eye and had to regain control of his body—learning to stand, to walk, to put on his own socks. Up and down the hallways at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Kyle could hear other soldiers enduring their own pains, and in the chaos, he developed a unique perspective.
As doctors discussed the long and difficult journey that Kyle would have to regain his life, Kyle thought about the soldiers who didn’t make it home, or who didn’t have the same chance at recovery. He thought of all the things he might be able to do with his new life—run, skydive, travel—and he resolved that he would tick those things off his list one by one.
Here’s the key: He started making this list BEFORE he took his first step from his bed!
He changed his mindset to adapt to his new circumstances—a very Marine trait. Kyle began to see each day as a “bonus” day since what happened on that Afghan rooftop should’ve been the end. He dug into rehab, pushing himself to regain strength so he could go out and live for his fellow soldiers who couldn’t.
“I never stopped for one day keeping them in mind,” he said.
In 2012, Kyle lined up to run the Marine Corps Marathon, held annually in Arlington, Virginia and Washington D.C. Nicknamed “the People’s Marathon”, the race offers no prize money—just the satisfaction of completing a grueling test of personal fortitude and endurance.
Less than two years removed from his hospitalizations, Kyle, whose previous experience with running was confined to what the Marines made him do for physical fitness, crossed the finish line. He came back in 2013 and finished again.
In 2014, just to spice things up, Kyle dove out of an airplane and parachuted into the start line. He finished that year too with a time of five hours and twelve minutes. He told reporters afterward, “At the end of the run, when I’m hurting and I’m happy that it’s over, I’m really just going to be thankful that I have the ability for my legs to hurt and my feet to be sore.”
Throughout my career covering sports and leadership, no story has impacted me more at a personal level than Kyle’s. I’ve interviewed him a number of times, and he always challenges me to remember that our mindset is a choice—that while we can’t choose our circumstances, we can choose how we think about them.
As Kyle told me, while others may look at life and ask, “Why me?”, it’s healthier to look at life and say, “Thank God for today.”
It’s a reminder I need—that we all need. Today, Kyle begins a tour for his new book, You Are Worth It, and the title comes from the response he gives to those today who thank him for his service. Talk about a “wow” comeback! It’s a reminder to each person he encounters that their life, in Kyle’s estimation, was worth fighting for, and a prompt to ensure that Kyle isn’t the only one who fights for it.
Two words I’ve never said when Kyle told me what he wanted to do next: “Good Luck.” That’s because I know he doesn’t need luck. Whatever comes his way, he’ll make the best of it because he chooses that approach to life. More than the medal, or the marathons, that’s what makes Kyle such a great example—his willingness to choose the better.
I want to be more like Kyle. I hope you do, too.