- Associated Press - Saturday, May 9, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - It’s been almost a year since President Obama bestowed the Medal of Honor on Kyle Carpenter for saving the life of a fellow Marine by throwing himself on a grenade in Afghanistan.

The 25-year-old says his 40 reconstructive surgeries are behind him and he’s been able to wrap up his sophomore year of college. But he has one more task before taking the summer off.

The now-retired Marine says he’s accompanying a group of elderly World War II veterans to Washington on Wednesday to show his appreciation for their service.

“I just want to hear their experiences and tell them how much they mean to our country,” the University of South Carolina student told The Associated Press. “I want to tell them we are free because of them.”

Carpenter said he’s in awe of those who served then, whether they fought in Europe against Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, or participated in the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific against Japan.

“Any branch, any story, any job, any place in the world they were at during World War II,” Carpenter said. “Obviously, I’m very interested to hear a Marine story, but I am very excited to hear it all.”

Carpenter said he’s seen many of the memorials the group is slated to visit, since he spent three years recuperating at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, after being injured in 2010. That leaves him time to focus on the men and women making the journey, including the Korean War veterans on the trip.

“I just want to go back with them and hear their stories. They are getting old and they are not going to be around forever. I just want to say ‘Thank you,’” said Carpenter.

The tour from South Carolina is sponsored by the Honor Flight organization and takes in the memorials dedicated to those who served in World War II as well as the Korean, Vietnam and Iwo Jima memorials. It also stops at Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Tour organizer Bill Dukes said he’s been trying to get Carpenter on one of the flights for some time, but his schedule has been a whirlwind of activity since the award of the nation’s highest military honor during a somber White House ceremony in June.

“We are so excited to have him, he is our honorary guardian,” said Dukes. “The veterans are very excited to hear Kyle’s story, too.”

Barely 21, Carpenter and his unit were guarding a patrol base in Helmand Province when they were attacked by enemy grenades. One hit the rooftop where Carpenter and buddy Lance Cpl. Nicholas Eufrazio were providing security.

Carpenter was credited with hurling himself atop the grenade to shield his friend, who sustained a head injury from the shrapnel.

Carpenter’s wounds were massive. Doctors said his heart stopped three times while they worked on him. The young Marine lost his right eye, injured his left eye, broke both eardrums, lost most of his teeth and lower jaw. His right arm was shattered and his left arm, hand and wrist suffered multiple breaks. His right lung collapsed and he suffered shrapnel wounds to his legs.

He woke up six weeks later in the Bethesda military hospital.

Carpenter said a doctor told him he’d never be able to do a pushup or chin-up again, exercises he deems at the heart of being a fit Marine.

“That just ignited the drive that I wanted at least to get one small pullup after my injury. I worked a lot in the gym. And I got up to 17, and I couldn’t get past that. I wanted a perfect 20,” he said with a laugh.

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Follow Susanne M. Schafer on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/susannemarieap

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