Retired Marine Cpl. William Carpenter receives the Medal of Honor from President Obama during a Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on June 19. Carpenter received the medal for taking the blast from a grenade to protect a fellow Marines and sustained major wounds. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
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Retired Marine Cpl. William Kyle Carpenter was sitting at home in South Carolina on March 5 when Marine Corps Times broke the news that he was slated to receive the Medal of Honor.
His cell phone immediately started ringing, and it didn’t stop until, hours later, someone finally grew tired of the noise and shut it off. For Carpenter, it was a first taste of another world — one in which the quiet veteran and college student would become an icon of heroism, and, in some circles, even a celebrity.
It’s a strange conundrum for recipients of the military’s highest honor, who earn the recognition through selfless acts and are often reticent or even conflicted about acknowledging their own heroism. Faced with fame and adulation, some embrace the opportunity, even at the cost of their privacy; others withdraw and shun the attention.
Carpenter said he is determined to keep the fame separate from his identity and the life he knows, but acknowledged learning how to deal with the attention has been a growing challenge.
“I was taking it day by day,” Carpenter said. “But when [my Medal of Honor award] became official, it was more like hour by hour.”
In recent years, 2013 Army medal recipient Will Swenson has withdrawn from public view, while 2009 Marine recipient Dakota Meyer, who fought by Swenson’s side in Afghanistan, has built a public brand, even floating a run for Congress.
In an interview with Marine Corps Times on June 19, Carpenter, 24, said the days leading up to his award were the most overwhelming, in terms of public attention. In addition to a flurry of TV and newspaper interviews and public outreach events, he began to encounter strangers who recognized him on sight, he said.
“That recognition has definitely picked up in the past few days, and it is a lot sometimes,” he said. But, “people just want to say ‘thank you’ and just want to meet me, and I’m honored and humbled by that. There’s never a time when I just wish it wouldn’t happen.”
Helping to keep Carpenter from sinking under the weight of his newfound fame has been the task of Marine Capt. Kendra Motz, a public affairs officer who began preparing for this job last November. She started, she said, by reading the case file of Meyer, the first living Marine to receive the medal since the Vietnam war. Then she gave him a call.
“There were definitely lessons learned that we took into consideration,” Motz said. “Back in the Vietnam era, you didn’t have social media; you didn’t have instant access. All that attention, and how that can touch a person — with Dakota Meyer, that wasn’t built into the plan.”
Motz said she first set out to communicate to Carpenter that life would be changing.
“It was a lot of sit-down, cup of coffee, face-to-face,” Motz said. “Giving him an idea. If you tell somebody that they’re going to be instantly famous tomorrow, they don’t know what that means.”
Next, she said, she and Carpenter discussed his priorities, and the message he wanted to communicate at public events. That part was easy, she said.
“He’s the type of person who’s basically all about giving back,” she said. “He really likes talking to middle-school age kids and younger kids, to show that there’s a bigger picture, a bigger purpose in life.”
With the attention came hard choices. Carpenter was completing a freshman year at the University of South Carolina in Columbia this spring when news broke about receiving the Medal of Honor. Planning and the growing responsibilities began to crowd his time, and ultimately, he decided to take a brief hiatus from earning his degree.
“I went through a lot of surgeries to get out of the hospital and begin school, and I wanted to give it the best of my ability,” he said. “I didn’t want to have to withdraw when it was too late or when my grades started to suffer.”
Meyer emphasized to Motz the importance of having a public affairs officer available in the months after the award ceremony to help adjust to the new normal of everyday life. Because of this, Motz said, she plans to be on call for Carpenter until he finds a private agent who can assist him with public engagements and press interest in the long term. Like it or not, he’s a celebrity now.
After this summer, Carpenter will return to his hometown and his previous plans. He’s already registered for courses at South Carolina this fall.