When fighting for your country, your life comes full circle
April 7, 2010
AKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- Spc. Joseph Carter's military life began when another life tragically ended.
Carter, an infantryman and scout with the 4/189th Infantry, who is currently deployed to Afghanistan with the 1/178th Field Artillery of the South Carolina National Guard, had no real thoughts of joining the military until his best friend, Anthony Owens, enlisted and encouraged him to join the Army.
"Anthony came home right after basic training and talked about how great the Army was," said Carter. "I was so impressed that before he left town, he took me down to the recruiting station and encouraged me to enlist. Besides my dad, who told me to do what I felt was right; no one else in my family wanted me to join the Army. But I knew it was the right thing to do."
The Newport News, Va., native, enlisted as an infantryman just like his best friend and was jetted off to basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., within weeks.
While Carter was in basic training, Owens received deployment orders to Iraq.
Upon graduation from basic training, Carter was sent back home to await advanced individual training with high hopes of joining his best friend on the battlefield, serving the country they loved.
Sadly, Carter's hopes would be dashed, as Owens' first deployment to Iraq would also be his last.
On Feb. 1, 2006, south of Baghdad, Iraq, Owens' convoy was attacked with small arms fire and he was killed.
"I was at work when his family called me and told me that Anthony had died," said Carter. "It surprises you because you never expect that to happen. You think about all the Soldiers who deploy and come home without a problem, you just don't think that one won't. His death had a major effect on me and my family."
To honor his friend's life Carter wanted to dedicate his young military career to his fallen friend, a gesture that he felt would be the highest honor he could personally bestow.
But just as Carter's renewed focus for military service was on track, it went up in smoke-literally.
One day, Carter was burning trash in his backyard and a hairspray can in the trash exploded in his face.
In a flash, Carter went from soon to be fighting for his country to fighting for his own life. Carter suffered burns to 85 percent of his face and hands, and received endless treatments of cadaver and pig skin replacements.
But Carter continued fighting for his recovery.
Upon his first medical checkup after about a month of recovery, he had exceeded doctors' expectations and was 90 percent healed, he said.
"The medical folks were completely surprised by how much I had healed in such a short time," Carter said. "They had already reserved me a bed there in anticipation of further in-patient treatment. They thought for sure they were going to check me back in. However, they said at the first appointment that I had healed well enough to not have to go back for any checkups."
With his speedy recovery, Carter had one thing on his mind and was intent on continuing with his decision to enlist in the Army.
"I thought my chances of serving in the Army after my accident were slim-to-none" Carter said. "But I had to give it a shot, and not just because of what happened to Anthony. You know, just like you have your family at home that you love and are close to, you also have a family in the military that you're just as close to. It's unreal. You meet someone on a deployment and you feel like you've known them your whole life. You build a camaraderie that you can't get anywhere else. I really wanted to keep both relationships for as long as I could."
Carter healed enough to pass the Army physical, and the Army took him back.
Because so much time had elapsed between Carter's military schools, the Army asked Carter to go through basic training again and serve in the National Guard to ensure he had the mental, physical and emotional stamina to still be a Soldier.
True to his nature, Carter accepted his new assignment with determination.
"Basic training the second time was a little easier because I knew what to expect," said Carter.
Because Carter's commitment with his unit in the South Carolina National Guard was almost up, he volunteered to augment another South Carolina National Guard unit on their deployment to Afghanistan.
Today, Carter is a gunner inside his Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle, much the same person as he was a few years ago, except for some subtle changes.
"The hair on the top of my head won't grow back, unless I want to pay for surgery, so that kind of sucks," Carter said.
"I figure, you only live once, so you might as well set yourself on fire," Carter joked. "I have no regrets whatsoever in my life. I mean, I'm still here to talk about it. That's all I can ask for."
Through all the turmoil Carter has experienced, his promise to honor his friend's legacy has not been forgotten. To remind himself why he is doing what he doing, a picture of Owens is kept in his wallet and it accompanies him wherever he goes.
"If I could talk to him right now, I hope he'd tell me that he's proud of me and my service, because I'd definitely tell the same to him," Carter said.
Carter is a member of the Paktika Provincial Reconstruction Team. The mission of the PRT is to assist in the stabilization and security of Paktika province through development, governance and agriculture initiatives.