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Kerry to Speak on Syria; Obama Awards Medal of Honor; Story of Ty Carter

Aired August 26, 2013 - 14:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Over at the White House. President Obama getting ready to award an Army staff sergeant, just 33 years old, with the nation's highest military recognition, the Medal of Honor. Staff Sergeant Ty Carter will be the fifth living recipient to get the honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. You're about to hear his chilling story of courage and heroism during a fire fight with militants in Afghanistan. We'll take you there live.

But first, any minute now, the secretary of state, John Kerry, will be making a statement on Syria. It's all over this, the alleged use of chemical weapons, nerve gas, used on civilians, women and children. It's the latest in a string of alleged chemical weapons attacks across Syria.

Right now, U.N. weapons inspectors, they are inside Syria. They are testing soil. Earlier today, they were fired upon by snipers as they tried to collect samples. And for the first time, the U.S. now says it has little doubt the Assad regime has done the unthinkable. Fred Pleitgen is standing by in Damascus. Also, from the state department, Elise Labbott is standing by.

Elise, let me start with you. The Pentagon has moved, what, four warships into the eastern Mediterranean right now, not far from the coast of Syria. What do folks there at the State Department expect to hear from the secretary of state?

ELISE LABBOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I think very quickly he's going to really make a very tough criticism of the regime, saying even though these weapons inspectors are on the ground, the administration has pretty already dismissed any conclusions that they could make, saying that the regime has stalled, the inspectors not really let them get the samples that they need. So, really, even as the team is on the ground, saying it's useless.

But they're also going to say they are pretty sure that chemical weapons were used by the regime. And this is an issue of international law. And basically it has to be responded to. So I think he's going to talk about how the U.S. is putting together, talking with its allies, and trying to come up with a punitive response.

BLITZER: Yes, we expect the secretary of state to be walking into the press briefing room over there at the State Department any minute now. We'll get his statement. We'll see if he answers reporters' questions at the same time.

Let's go to Damascus. Fred Pleitgen is on the ground for us in Damascus right now.

Tell us, first of all, what's going on with those U.N. inspectors. We know that they were fired upon by snipers as they tried to leave Damascus.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, it was actually a really tough day for the U.N. weapons inspectors. First of all, before they even got going, the hotel that they're staying in here came under mortar fire. There was a mortar that landed only about four blocks away from that hotel.

Then they got going. And as you said, they were fired upon. And the way the U.N. tells about this incident, they say that their convoy, because it has to cross the front line between government controlled territory and rebel held territory, they say that they were in the buffer zone when all of a sudden a sniper opened fire on the lead car of that convoy, hitting it several times. The U.N. says it was all deliberate. The vehicle was disabled to a point where it couldn't continue. So they had to go back to the hotel that they're staying at, get a new car, and then go into that neighborhood, which is held by the opposition.

They did manage to get on the ground, however. The U.N. says, Wolf, that it was a very productive day for them. There is video of them going to a field hospital, speaking to potential victims of that alleged chemical weapons strike. They also said they took some samples, some soil samples and, of course, they're trying to determine, first of all, what agent might have been used in this chemical attack.

BLITZER: Now the regime of the president, Bashar al Assad, Fred, they acknowledge that there were chemical weapons used to kill hundreds of people outside of Damascus. But they blame the rebels. They blame the opposition. They blame people that they call terrorists. Is that right?

PLEITGEN: Well, their story keeps changing. There's some government officials who say they're not sure if chemical weapons were ever used, but there are a lot of government officials that I've spoken to who said, if anyone used chemical agents, then it would have been the rebels. They also accuse the rebels of using chemical weapons against Assad forces here on Saturday. They kept telling me, and I was in an interview with the deputy foreign minister of this country on Sunday, and he said that the Syrian military categorically denies ever using chemical weapons on the battlefield and if anyone did it, that it would have been the opposition. And they also said that they support the weapons inspectors going out there.

However, of course, we've noted the U.S. said that all of this took way too long, that there were delays and that they believe that a lot of the evidence might now have been tampered with, that it might have been compromised. Also because of the fact, Wolf, that there's been a lot of shelling going on, on those areas. We could see that really going on today where you could just see plumes of smoke and you could hear the artillery being fired on the Damascus suburbs. And a lot of places, while the inspectors were actually on the ground, but then especially after they got back to the hotel that they're staying at, the Syrian army really unleashed its cannons then, Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred, stand by. I want to get back to you. Elise, stand by as well.

But over at the White House, the president is getting ready to deliver the Medal of Honor to Ty Carter. Jim Acosta, our White House correspondent, is getting the latest information.

This is the East Room, I take it, Jim. Set the scene for us, what is about to happen?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Well, I just talked to one of our producers who was inside the room right now, Wolf, and he tells me that, from what they're seeing inside the East Room, there are four living Medal of Honor recipients in the room as we speak. What makes Ty Carter so special, beyond the fact that he's about to be awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry by the president, is that he will be another one of those living Medal of Honor recipients. Something that is obviously very rare.

Our Jake Tapper has done a lot of reporting on this, Wolf. We've all done some reporting on this. And this is going to be a very moving ceremony, obviously. Ty Carter, 33 years old, was involved in a fierce battle in Afghanistan on October 3, 2009, in which eight soldiers were killed. If you just read the story of why he is receiving this Medal of Honor, Wolf, it is quite extraordinary.

Some of his fellow soldiers who were involved in this fire fight with Taliban fighters, they were pinned down and in very dire straits. And he ran repeatedly in and out of a situation where he could have been killed and was basically rendering aid to somebody who was severely wounded and then bringing munitions to other soldiers to help them battle out of that situation. And so this is quite the story of bravery that is going to be recognized in just a few moments by the president, Wolf.

BLITZER: And the president will be speaking at this ceremony. But we know he's also, Jim, been very busy worrying about the crisis in Syria right now. The reported use of chemical weapons killing hundreds of Syrians over the past few days, reportedly by the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad. We're waiting for the secretary of state. He's about to make a statement over at the briefing room over at the State Department.

But we know the president, he's been meeting with his top national security officials, met with them over the weekend, has been speaking with the European allies, the NATO leadership.

ACOSTA: That's right.

BLITZER: What's the latest you're hearing from over there at the White House?

ACOSTA: Well, Wolf, one thing that popped out at a lot of us over here at the White House is that the press briefing with Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, was moved back to 3:00 this afternoon. It was originally scheduled for 12:30 this afternoon. Obviously the secretary of state, I suppose you might say, outranks Jay Carney a little bit and so he'll be speaking first and then Jay Carney.

But, Wolf, what I think we're going to be hearing from the secretary of state, and then later by Jay Carney, is that there has been a measured shift in tone on the part of this administration when it comes to Syria. You'll recall there was a lot of trepidation, a lot of caution being expressed by this White House, by this president about getting involved in Syria earlier this summer when it was believed that Bashar al Assad and Syrian forces initially crossed President Obama's red line that he had drawn to warn against the use of chemical weapons. You'll recall from that interview that President Obama did with Chris Cuomo, the president started to talk in ways that, I guess, gave a lot of people the sense that he was starting to gain this out in his mind as to how this would work.

And then you saw those security briefings happening over the weekend involving the president's national security team. You saw the president then calling some of the major allies, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, the president of France, President Hollande. And then the secretary of state, John Kerry, calling various people, not only among European allies, but also in the region. and it sort of gives this sense, Wolf, that the Obama administration is starting to set the stage, starting to make those moves toward military action.

One thing we should point out is that House Speaker John Boehner, I reached out to his office. His office says that the speaker has not yet been consulted on any kind of air strikes. But you heard members of Congress over the weekend expressing on the Sunday talk shows that they believe that those strikes are coming, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, the president's got a major decision to make. We'll get a clue, presumably, from the secretary of state, John Kerry, momentarily. He'll be speaking to the media over at the State Department. We'll have live coverage of that.

We're also awaiting the president of the United States to deliver the Medal of Honor to Ty Carter. There you see the East Room of the White House where the official guests are awaiting the president.

Our special coverage will resume just after this.


BLITZER: Welcome back.

We're watching two stories unfolding this hour. The secretary of state, John Kerry, he was scheduled at the top of the hour to make a statement about the crisis in Syria, the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al Assad regime. That has now been pushed back to the bottom of the hour. The State Department saying the secretary of state will make his statement at 2:30 p.m. Eastern. We'll have live coverage. You're looking at live pictures coming in from the State Department briefing room. We'll hear what the secretary of state has to say. Perhaps - perhaps we'll get a clue about what the president of the United States will decide in the coming days about potentially the use of U.S. military power to deal with this latest escalation of the crisis in Syria. Stand by for that.

Meantime, America's highest honor for battlefield valor is about to be awarded to an active duty soldier from California. The scene is over at the White House East Room. We'll go there live when President Obama confers the Medal of Honor on Staff Sergeant Ty Michael Carter. According to the U.S. Army, Carter proved his medal in Afghanistan back in 2009. During an hellish assault by the Taliban, he risked his own life to save a fallen comrade and also killed quite a number of the enemy. As we await the start of the ceremony, we'd like you to meet Sgt. Carter. His story is told by our own Jake Tapper.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): October 3, 2009, hundreds of Taliban fighters are attacking the U.S. troops below them in a valley. Combat Outpost Keating is in chaos. Specialist Ty Carter is pinned down in a disabled Humvee with three other troops. Brad Larson, Stephan Mace and Justin Gallegos.

STAFF SGT. TY MICHAEL CARTER, U.S. ARMY: We all knew that sooner or later the fire power is going to breach.

TAPPER: Then they realized the situation is worse than they thought.

CARTER: There was insurgents just 30 meters in front of me and behind me.

TAPPER (on camera): In the camp?

CARTER: In the camp, yes.

TAPPER: Had you already seen them in the camp or not?

CARTER: I hadn't seen them.

TAPPER (voice-over): Sergeant Justin Gallegos, who was trying to help a badly wounded Specialist Stephan Mace.

CARTER: And bullets were impacting all around him. And he turned to fire, and then he was taken down. The bullets hit him and it spun him around and he laid down on the ground.

TAPPER: But Mace is still out there. Still alive. Just out of reach.

CARTER: That's when I said, hey, Sergeant Larson, Mace is alive. I can get to him. He's right there. And I think he looked and he says, no, you can't get to him. I said, no, he's right there, I can get to him. He says, you're no good to him dead. And I knew - I knew he was right, but it ate me up so bad.

I need a break. Hold on.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: What a story. There you see live pictures coming in from the White House. The president getting ready to confer the Medal of Honor on Ty Carter. We'll have live coverage of that right after this.


BLITZER: The president of the United States about to confer the Medal of Honor to Staff Sergeant Ty Carter in a ceremony at the White House. They've just announced the president will be walking into the East Room momentarily to -- for this ceremony. This is only the fifth time that a living recipient will get the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here's the president and Ty Carter. Let's listen to this ceremony.


Almighty God, whom our words may cradle but never contain. From our founding days we've acknowledged your providence and prayed your favor upon a military force dedicated to defending liberty and justice for all. In every generation, a continuous line of shed blood and shared sacrifice have born witness to our nation's first principles of virtue, honor and patriotism.

Today, oh God, our hearts are touched of the privilege of bestowing distinguished honor upon an American soldier whose actions sustained his comrades in battle. As we honor Staff Sergeant Ty Carter for his actions during the battle of Kamdesh, remind us that this simple yet elegant award, when animated by the courage that is born of loyalty to all its noble and worthy, reveals the depth of the patriot's love and devotion.

Today, oh God, our nation pauses to honor an American soldier, give thanks for the memory of the men who fought with him that day. Even as we grieve their loss, to give thanks for the strength of his family.

Be present among us, oh God. Increase our faith. Renew our hope that our lives may be marked by virtue, honor and patriotism. This we ask and pray in your holy name, amen.

CROWD: Amen.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good afternoon, everybody. Please be seated. Welcome to the White House. Actually, I should say, welcome back. Many of you joined us earlier this year when we presented the Medal of Honor to Clint Romesha for his actions in the very same battle that we remember today. Clint could not be here. He's engaged in -- this week in a cause that is very close to all of our hearts, that's ending homelessness among our veterans. But we are honored to welcome back some of the men who fought that day at Combat Outpost Keating. Members of Black Knight Troop and the gold star families of those who gave their lives that day.

As these soldiers and families will tell you, they're a family forged in battle and loss and love. So today is something of a reunion. And we come together again with gratitude and pride to bestow the Medal of Honor on a second member of this family, Staff Sergeant Ty Carter. As always, we're joined by many distinguished guests. And we welcome you all. Today I want to focus on our most distinguished guests, more than 40 members of Ty's family. Your parents, Mark, Paula and step mom Barbara, your wife, Shannon, who you call the CEO of your family. You're a wise man. I've got the same arrangement. Your beautiful children, 14-year-old Jaden (ph), 8-year-old Madison, in her new dress, and she was telling me about her new room as we walked over here, and nine-month-old Sierra (ph), for whom we will try to make this brief because we don't know how long the Cheerios will last.

Before they came, Ty said he was hoping to take his children around Washington to show them the sites and the history. But Jaden, Madison, if you want to know what makes our country truly great, if you want to know what a true American hero looks like, then you don't have to look too far. You just have to look at your dad. Because today he's the sight we've come to see. Your dad inspires us just like all those big monuments and memorials do.

For this is a historic day. The first time in nearly half a century, since the Vietnam War, that we've been able to present the Medal of Honor to two survivors of the same battle. Indeed, when we paid tribute to Clint Romesha earlier this year, we recalled how he and his team provided the cover that allowed three wounded Americans, pinned down in a Humvee, to make their escape. The medal we present today, the soldier that we honor, Ty Carter, is the story of what happened in that Humvee. It's the story of what our troops do for each other.

As some of you may recall, Keating was not just one of the most remote outposts in Afghanistan, it was also one of the most vulnerable -- on low ground, deep in a valley, surrounded by towering mountains. When soldiers like Ty arrived, they couldn't believe it. They said it was like being in a fish bowl -- easy targets for enemies in the hills above. And as dawn broke that October morning with Ty and most of our troops still in their bunks, their worst fears became a reality.

Fifty-three American soldiers were suddenly surrounded by more than 300 Taliban fighters. The outpost was being slammed from every direction. Machine gunfire, rocket propelled grenades, mortar, sniper fire. It was chaos. The blizzard of bullets and steel into which Ty ran. Not once or twice or even a few times, but perhaps 10 times. And in doing so, he displayed the essence of true heroism. Not the urged to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.

Ty jumped out of bed, put on his boots and his helmet and his Kevlar vest, grabbed some ammo and he ran into bullets coming down like rain for 100 meters to resupply his comrades out in that Humvee. When they needed more, he ran back, blasted the locks off supply rooms and sprinted yet again, dodging explosions, darting between craters, back to the Humvee.

The ferocious fire forced them inside. And so it was that five American soldiers, including Ty and Specialist Stephan Mace, found themselves trapped in that Humvee. The tires flat. RPGs pouring in, peppering them with shrapnel, threatening to break through the armor of their vehicle. And worst of all, Taliban fighters were penetrating the camp. The choice, it seemed, was simple, stay and die or make a run for it.

So, once more, Ty stepped out into the barrage, and along with Sergeant Brad Larson, he laid down fire, providing cover for the other three, including Stephan, as they dashed for safety. But in those hellish moments, one man went down. And then another. And Stephan disappeared into the dust and smoke.

Back in that Humvee, Ty and Brad held out for hours, rolling down the window, just a crack, taking a shot, over and over, holding the line, preventing that outpost from being completely overrun. Ty would later say, we weren't going to surrender, we were going to fight to the last round. And then they saw him, their buddy. Stephan, on the ground, wounded about 30 yards away. And when the moment was right, Ty stepped out again and ran to Stephan and applying a tourniquet to one of his legs, bandaging the other, tending to his wounds, grabbing a tree branch to splint his ankle. And if you're left with just one image from that day, let it be this. Ty Carter bending over, picking up Stephan Mace, cradling him in his arms and carrying him through all those bullets and getting him back to that Humvee.

And then Ty stepped out again, recovering a radio, finally making contact with the rest of the troop, and they came up with a plan. As Clint Romesha and his team provided cover, these three soldiers made their escape. Ty, Brad carrying Stephan on a stretcher, through the chaos, delivering Stephan to the medics.

And the battle was still not over. So Ty returned to the fight. With much of the outpost on fire, the flames bearing down on the aid station with so many wounded inside, Ty stepped out one last time, exposing himself to enemy fire. Grabbed a chain saw, cut down a burning tree, saved the aid station and helped to rally his troops as they fought yard by yard. They pushed the enemy back. Our soldiers retook their camp.

Now, Ty says this award is not mine alone. The battle that day, he will say, was one team and one fight. And everyone did what we could do to keep each other alive. And some of these men are with us again. And I have to repeat this because they're among the most highly decorated units of this entire war, 37 Army commendation medals, 27 purple hearts, 18 bronze stars for their valor, nine silver stars for their gallantry. So soldiers of Camp Keating, please stand.

Today we also remember once more the eight extraordinary soldiers who gave their last full measure of devotion. Some of whom spent their final moments trying to rescue Ty and the others in that Humvee. And we stand with their families who remind us how far the heartbreak ripples. Five wives, widows, who honor their husbands, seven boys and girls who honor their dad, at least 17 parents, mothers and fathers, stepmoms and stepdads who honor their son, some 18 siblings who honor their brother. Long after this war is over, these families will still need our love and support for all the years to come and I would ask