Lance Cpl. Kyle Carpenter, a 22 year-old Marine and wounded warrior from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, was honored at the Iron Bowl, a yearly rivalry football game between Auburn University and the University of Alabama on Nov. 26, 2011. Photo by USMC Staff Sgt. Tracie Kessler
Lance Cpl. Kyle Carpenter, a 22 year-old Marine and wounded warrior from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, peers out of the window of a deer blind during a hunting trip on Nov. 27, 2011. Photo by USMC Staff Sgt. Tracie Kessler
| ||AUBURN, AL (12/19/2011) - In the cold chill of a wet November afternoon two hunters walk to a deer blind in a patch of woods just outside of Montgomery.|
With the sun dipping down over the horizon and any good light quickly fading, muffled whispers focus on the day's hunt, the ones that got away and how the deer must have stayed home because of the weather.
Once the two make their way up into the deer blind they peer out onto recently seeded fields planted to attract deer and wait for that special opportunity when the one thing that will make this ordinary fall day in Alabama extraordinary, instantly transforming it into one of those larger than life stories that people tell around camp fires while sipping cold ones with their buddies.
But as this day remains ordinary, it's more about one of the young hunters and the extraordinary circumstances that brought him here.
Two years ago on a rooftop in Marjah, Afghanistan, a day like any other, two Marines were standing watch when they began to receive contact from insurgents operating in the area. A grenade lands nearby, and in an instant, life changes abruptly for Lance Cpl. Kyle Carpenter, a charming young man with an easy smile barely out of high school, and hardly five months into his first deployment. A day like any other made extraordinary by certain circumstances.
Two years later after sustaining severe life-threatening injuries and countless days of recovery, Carpenter finds himself walking down the soggy red clay road that will take him to the spot where he might get lucky before the day's end.
Capt. Lee Stuckey has the stereotypical southern drawl of a native Alabamian, an easy going way and the kind of hospitality typically found in the far reaches of the deep south. He also has an overwhelming sense of community.
His sense of community seamlessly carries over to the Marine Corps community to which he also belongs.
‘Marines taking care of Marines,' is something all Marines learn from their first day in recruit training and carry with them to their last day in the Corps and beyond. Stuckey is no different. For him it's almost a mantra.
Two Marines from different paths are now walking down the same one in that patch of woods in Alabama. That patch actually belongs to Stuckey; and Carpenter, a wounded warrior, is there as his guest receiving some time away from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. How these two Marines met is far more interesting than the day itself.
It all started with a football game.
There was already an effort to get Carpenter recognized at the Iron Bowl, the annual in-state rivalry football game between Auburn University and the University of Alabama, before Stuckey became involved.
When the efforts of those involved were met with some resistance, Stuckey, an Auburn alumnus himself, stepped in to help get the ball rolling that brought Carpenter to Alabama. What started off as just a way to get a quick announcement during the game quickly snowballed into an all-out effort to show support for one of the Nation's wounded warriors.
“I sent Facebook messages saying this Marine and his family are trying to go the Iron Bowl. I was just trying to get tickets,” explained Stuckey. “I got tons of responses back immediately.”
It wasn't until he spoke with the president of Auburn University that the whole plan began to take shape. “They got him tickets for everybody in his family and president's suite passes [at the stadium]. The pilot of the university's private plane saw the email traffic and said he wanted to donate his personal time to personally fly him in Auburn's [University's] private jet to take him back to Walter Reed,” said Stuckey
“It was really just me talking to one person and that person doing everything.”
Once word got out that Carpenter was going to be honored at the game, it went viral. Standing under a tent just outside the stadium with barely enough room to breathe, mere seconds would pass between handshakes as people virtually lined up just for their chance to meet the lance corporal.
“When we walked into the president's suite, there were senators, presidents of colleges, very wealthy people everywhere and they were pushed aside for him,” explained Stuckey.
“Everyone waited in line – senators, everyone, waited in line for him so they could shake his hand and thank him. His exact words as he stood on the field in front of the stadium were ‘you gotta be kidding me'.”
Previous to the game, Stuckey and Carpenter had never met, and on only a few occasions actually spoke to each other, but through Stuckey's efforts and those of a dedicated community, Carpenter received the heartfelt appreciation of a grateful community.
It should come as little surprise then that some of those members opened up more than just their community but their hearts and homes as well.
One of those people who are looking to help make a difference in the everyday lives of those who need it most is Joe Whatley. Kicked back in a rocking chair on his back porch, he's looking out over his 800 plus acres that his cabin sits on. A 40 acre lake greets any newcomers as the dominant landmark directly behind his home.
Whatley speaks in the friendly methodical nature that is indicative of someone raised in the South. Now retired, he made a hard-working career in the trucking business that provided him and his family a comfortable lifestyle.
A local landowner, he often opens his home and his property so wounded vets like Carpenter can get some time away from the hospital to enjoy a few days of hunting or fishing.
Like Stuckey, Whatley believes in giving back, and being able to reach out to a Marine like Carpenter is simply one of the ways he enjoys doing it.
“I think this is a special place that God shares with me and my family and I think the more I share it with deserving people the better God is to me,” said Whatley, of Montgomery, Ala.
Whatley is no stranger to having veterans, or their families for that matter, hunt on his land. Some have been wounded warriors or fresh from deployment while others have been families of deployed service members.
But when it comes to wounded warriors, there's a special feeling that goes along with having them there. Less a feeling of self-gratification than the simple joy he gets from seeing someone happy.
“I like to see the smile on their face when they come to the country. Most of them don't get to appreciate things like this. Nature and the environment – the natural beauty of things,” Whatley said.
“They can wake up and have a cup of coffee, watch the sun come up, the fish jumping and the deer running. It does a lot to restore your soul – restoring theirs and restoring mine,” explained Whatley.
When Stuckey was looking for help with Carpenter, he didn't have to look far to get it. Before Auburn University opened its doors for Carpenter, Whatley was one of the first people Stuckey called when he was trying to find a way to get Carpenter into the game.
In the end, Whatley provided accommodations at his house for Carpenter and his family and of course his pristine hunting grounds. Whatley embraces the idea of helping veterans because for years he'd been doing something similar for other local groups who needed help.
There is more to healing than what a person can get from sitting in a hospital room or recovery center, believes Whatley. Being in nature has a way of healing that nothing else can he explained.
“Every once in a while, you just gotta stop the world and catch your breath – and you can do that from this rocking chair right here,” Whatley added.
Carpenter looks far older than his physical appearance would have someone believe. His scarred and battered body makes him look far beyond his years. Under the scars though is a young Marine with the same interests of any 22 year-old. An avid football fan, it was his love of the Auburn Tigers that got him there in the first place.
“One hunting trip and tickets to the game definitely would have been enough. The Auburn staff and faculty stretched out an extra hand when they didn't have to,” said Carpenter, from Columbia, S.C.
“A lot of extra things happened. I guess the bare minimum wasn't enough. When it comes to wounded guys, seeing that people really want to go the extra mile instead of just the bare minimum is pretty motivating.”
Looking past the game and all that came with it, even the deer hunt the next day, the one thing that made the weekend complete was simply the support of the community for one Marine, Carpenter explained.
He understands that people don't have to go out of their way to help a complete stranger, much less open up their homes, but it didn't go unnoticed.
“The good kind hearted people that opened up their arms and their land, you know, they could keep it to themselves because they own it and they can hunt on it whenever they want to, but they really want to show their support and help the wounded guys,” said Carpenter.
The perfect end to the weekend didn't come in the form of a trophy buck unfortunately. However, it wasn't without some surprise. Getting flown home in Auburn University's private plane was far and away the most surprising part of the whole trip.
“When I heard that, I thought I was on Candid Camera or something. It was crazy to have someone call offering their private jet for a night,” he said.
As the last bit of light clung to the sky on a chilly fall day in Alabama, and the two hunters walked out of the woods, talk has turned from hunting to the trip home. The weekend was more than a football game, a deer hunt or ride on a private plane.
A community stood behind a Marine who needed it, showing their support and gratitude for a wounded warrior.
By USMC Staff Sgt. Tracie Kessler
6th Marine Corps District
Provided through DVIDS
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