JACKSON, Miss. — At the time, it was viewed only as a cute photograph: A blonde-haired, 3-year-old boy in a white shirt, his head slightly tilted, his eyes and mouth smiling only as a child's can, and his right hand poised and touching just above his temple in a full-fledged salute.
Two decades later, one has to wonder if it was a sign that retired Marine Cpl. William Kyle Carpenter, born in Jackson on Oct. 17, 1989, somehow already knew at least part of his life's path, which Thursday will include the East Room of the White House. Carpenter will become the third Mississippian to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military distinction. It is awarded for valor far and beyond the call of duty during combat. Carpenter more than qualifies.
On Nov. 21, 2010, in the Marjah district of Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold, Carpenter made the split-second decision to cover an enemy-launched grenade with his body in an attempt to shield his fellow Marines.
"I don't think I'd ever thought about what I would do in that situation," Carpenter said by phone from Columbia, S.C., where he attends the University of South Carolina. "I don't think there is any way to know until you're faced with it. But I did what I was trained to do, and that is protect my fellow Marines at all costs."
He remembers almost nothing about the moments immediately following the explosion. But he does recall the overwhelming feeling that he was dying. By all accounts, he wasn't far from it. His injuries were brutal.
He felt his skin grow warm all over, as if someone had placed a thick blanket over him. It was his blood oozing from dozens of holes created by shrapnel.
He lost his right eye and most of his teeth. His right jaw had been blown off. His right arm was broken in more places than doctors bothered to count. And much of the shrapnel lodged inside him.
Fellow soldiers pleaded for him to "fight" and "hang on." He recalled their voices sounded far away.
"I thought about my family," he said, "and how sad and disappointed they would be that I didn't make it out of Afghanistan alive."
He said a final prayer. That's the last thing he remembers before waking up in a room at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., with Christmas stockings hanging on the walls.
At the wedding of a relative in Laurel in May, Natalie Brand hugged Carpenter, her second cousin. "It's great to see you," he told her.
Brand shook her head. "No. It's great to see you."
Deep Mississippi roots
Carpenter has deep Mississippi roots. He lived in Forest and Brandon with his parents, Jim and Robin, until he was about 5 years old. Jim worked for McCarty Foods. The family settled in Gilbert, S.C., where Kyle attended high school.
"But even though they moved up there, I still consider Kyle a Mississippian," says his 78-year-old maternal grandmother, Kate Pitts of Laurel, who will attend Thursday's ceremony. "He was born in this state. Other than one aunt in Charlotte, the rest of his family is in Mississippi. His daddy was born in Iuka and still has family there."
Although Carpenter is retired from the Marines, all of his interviews have been coordinated through them. As the Medal of Honor ceremony drew closer, they stacked them one right after another.
Carpenter sounded perhaps a bit weary of the interview routine. His voice gained some pep when talk turned to college football.
"Me and my dad were Mississippi State and Auburn fans," he said. "He went to both schools and graduated from Mississippi State. But now, I'd call us South Carolina Gamecock fans, having grown up just 30 minutes or so from campus."
He talked about how his size — 5-foot-5 and never more than 160 pounds — helped motivate him. He won a high school state championship in power lifting in his weight classification. "I could squat 425 pounds, bench 205," he said.
He became interested in becoming a Marine "because of the Marines I met during middle school and high school," he said. "I saw how they carried themselves ... it was something special about them. I didn't want to wake up one day without having earned the title of 'Marine' and having worn that uniform."
After graduating high school, he attended Clemson University for one semester. Just before Christmas 2008, Carpenter broke the news to his parents that he was joining the Marines.
"They were concerned — in a good way," he said. "They worried that I was joining at a time when we were fighting two wars."
"It was a major shock," Brand says. "The whole family kinda freaked out. We kept hoping he would change his mind."
Much of the family attended Carpenter's graduation from basic training in 2009 at Parris Island, S.C.
"They had been training out in a swamp a couple of days before we got there," Pitts recalls. "Kyle had blisters all over his feet. They had to bring him out of there on a stretcher. But when he got to the camp's entrance, he said he didn't want to be carried in. So he walked.
"Before graduation, they cut the blisters. He stood up the whole time during the ceremony with those hard dress shoes on. I'll never know how he did that."
A prayer chain
Shortly after her son was deployed to Afghanistan in July 2010 as an automatic weapons gunner, Robin sent prayer cards to family and friends. She asked that they put them on their refrigerators, and to say a prayer for him each time they walked past it.
The card included a picture of Carpenter and a Bible verse, Psalms 144:1-2. It reads, "Blessed by the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle; my loving kindness and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer; my shield and He in whom I take refuge." Below that were the words: Kyle Carpenter, USMC. In our prayers.
"Kyle had a prayer chain," Dilley says, "and I don't think there is any question it's what helped him survive that grenade. And everybody who worried about Kyle and wondered why he would join the Marines at such a dangerous time, I think it's pretty clear now. God had a plan for him all along. Kyle is here to touch lives."
In recent months Carpenter has completed a marathon and parachuted from an airplane. As he says at the end of a video produced by the Marines, "I'm just getting started."
During the holidays last December, Pitts treated her family to a trip to Perdido Key, Fla. Carpenter and his parents were among those who went.
"Kyle was Kyle," his grandmother says. "He may be a little more quiet than he used to be, but he still loves picking at me and keeping me in line ... And that's the thing about when he came home and didn't look like the Kyle we had always known. Sure, we hurt for him. But it didn't matter to me how he looked. I was able to see him, hug him. He was here. With us. That's all that mattered."
Late one afternoon while in Perdido Key, Pitts was informed to wear a white shirt for a gathering on the beach. A photographer met them and took a photo of Pitts, her four daughters, four son-in-laws, 10 grandchildren and two great grandchildren. She later received a copy.
"The first place my eyes went were to Kyle," Pitts says, "and I thought what a blessing it was that there wasn't a blank spot where he would've been standing. I thank the Lord he didn't take him. Kyle obviously still has a lot of living left to do."