Washington, D.C. – Master Sgt. Seth Carter, with the Kentucky Army National Guard, was 11 years old the first time he was arrested for firearm and drug-related charges and sent to a juvenile detention center.
In his matter-of-fact way, he could explain to you the breakdown of his family and the circumstances that landed such a young child in trouble for such serious crimes.
He could describe to you what it felt like to be alone, and the cruelty he endured while spending his teenage years as a ward of the state, shuffled between group homes and all-boy detention camps with other troubled youth.
His stories of the physical abuse he endured are, for some, what nightmares are made of – memories of days spent in silence digging deep holes in a field alongside other boys, only to fill the holes back in the following day.
He could tell you how, through it all, his mind returned to the same thought: wondering why his mother never called or came to see him.
But what Carter prefers to talk about is how the Kentucky Army National Guard saved his life.
“One hundred percent, it saved my life,” Carter said. “That’s why I love it. For so many years, I wandered without a family, and the Guard became my family. It has made me who I am today.”
Carter recently reflected on his life and military service from a makeshift office near the U.S. Capitol grounds, where he joined more than 140 Kentucky National Guard Soldiers who volunteered to support civilian law enforcement, a mission that began in the lead up to the 59th Presidential Inauguration in January.
For this mission, Carter is acting in a command sergeant major capacity for Task Force Frontier, which consists of National Guard Soldiers from Kentucky, Guam, California and Wyoming.
Outside the Washington mission, Carter serves as the combat engineer senior sergeant with the Kentucky Army Guard’s 1123rd Engineer Company (Sapper) in Leitchfield, Kentucky. He is also a firefighter in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and owns his own tree service and construction businesses.
Carter has climbed a long way from the troubled kid in handcuffs.
“It really has been a climb,” he said, admitting that missteps along the way and his criminal background presented obstacles when he finally began working to turn his life around. “But I knew I didn’t want to be broke, and I didn’t want to be alone or in jail or worse. I knew something had to change.”
The day before his 18th birthday, Carter was released from an all boy’s camp nestled deep in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. He walked out with just the clothes on his back and hitchhiked his way to Elizabethtown, where he heard his family had moved.
“The whole time I was away, I never had any communication with my family,” said Carter, the middle child of five. “Why? I don’t know why. You would have to ask them that question.”
In Elizabethtown, Carter moved in with his mother and quickly fell back into a life of drugs and crime. It didn’t take long before he was arrested. Because it was his first arrest as an adult, his criminal charges were diverted in exchange for the completion of the Hardin County Drug Court program.
In the program, Carter received random drug tests and counseling on a regular basis for approximately two years. During that time, he said he had no choice but to remain sober and free from additional arrests or risk being sent to jail.
The program’s structure was something Carter found he needed.
“While I was going through the program, I saw several of my good friends go to prison,” he said. “I saw friends overdose and die. It could have been me. I started to see that I needed some structure in my life because I didn’t have that structure from my parents to build that foundation early on.”
At age 21, after completing the drug court program, he walked into a U.S. Marine Corps recruiter’s office.
“The recruiter took one look at my criminal history and told me absolutely not,” Carter said. “He said there was no hope in getting me approved because of my background.”
From there, Carter went to all the military branches. The answer was the same.
“They all turned me away,” he said.
Carter said the recruiters explained that because of his criminal history, he would need several waivers, or exceptions to policy, to enlist. It can be a lengthy process, heavy on paperwork and time consuming. And, with all the work involved, there was no guarantee Carter would be approved.
Maybe it was the way Carter hung his head or the look of desperation in his eyes, whatever the reason, the Kentucky Army National Guard recruiter hesitated after saying no, Carter said.
“He stopped and looked at me and then he told me to prove to him that I wanted to be a part of the Guard,” Carter said. “He said if I could show him my determination and commitment, then he would do his best to get me approved. He was the first person to ever believe in me.”
Every weekday for more than a year, Carter said he showed up at the recruiter’s office, sitting in the parking lot in the early morning hours so he would be there when the doors opened. In the beginning, Carter assisted as much as he could with what was needed for his waiver process.
Once all of his paperwork was in, Carter said he still showed up daily, waiting for an answer on acceptance and “praying for a miracle, praying to be a Soldier.”
He doesn’t remember much about the day he learned he was accepted into the Kentucky Army National Guard as a cavalry scout — Soldiers who serve as the eyes and the ears on the battlefield. He said the day was a flurry of emotion and activity as he prepared to leave for basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, just three days later.
“All that Carter wanted was to serve his country,” said retired Master Sgt. Flaco Tua, Carter’s recruiter who retired in 2014. “He did everything I asked him to do. It took a while, but we got him enlisted.”
Tua said he loved serving in the Kentucky Guard and is proudest of his time as a recruiter and his contribution to assisting those like Carter in reaching their dreams.
Carter said he considers his basic military training the start of becoming the man he is today — a man he said he hopes his wife, along with their four sons, can be proud of.
“Looking back, it’s almost like two different lives,” Carter said. “That life before the military defined who I didn’t want to be. The Guard defined who I am.”
Throughout nearly 15 years in the Army Guard, Carter has shined, according to those who know him best. On multiple occasions he was selected by his leadership to compete for Soldier of the Year honors and, as he promoted, to compete for Noncommissioned Officer of the Year. His dress uniform boasts a number of awards and commendations.
“I am very proud of the type of Soldier and NCO Carter became,” Tua said. “He doesn’t know it, but I used to check on him to see how he was doing.”
Most recently, Carter was recognized for his actions while deployed to Iraq.
“After the first missile hit, a civilian contractor ran to our bunker screaming,” Carter said. “He had severe lacerations to his feet – appearing deep as the bone in some places. When the attack began, I grabbed a medical bag. I’m not a medic but with my firefighter training, I knew I could treat about anything that came our way.”
Carter bandaged the contractor’s feet to stop the bleeding and to prevent dirt and debris from getting into the lacerations. Carter also calmed the man and helped prevent him from going into shock by wrapping him with jackets and blankets.
The written narrative that accompanies Carter’s award says that once the first wave of the attack stopped, Carter, without hesitation, left the safe confines of the bunker and went to check on Soldiers in other bunkers and offer medical assistance.
When asked about his decision to leave the safety of his bunker with the threat of additional missile strikes looming, Carter grins and shrugs: “It’s my job to take care of Soldiers,” he said.
Carter said he hopes to continue to serve for many more years.
“When I put this uniform on, I feel pride,” he said. “I know I’m securing the freedom and rights of the American people and protecting this country and those I love. I’m part of something much bigger than myself.”
Lt. Col. Michael Lawson, former commander of the 206th Engineer Battalion, the unit Carter served with in Iraq and the higher headquarters of his current unit, said he handpicked Carter for the deployment. Lawson described Carter as a driven Soldier and said there was no task Carter couldn’t accomplish.
“It didn’t matter how hard the task was, or what the time constraint was,” Lawson said. “When I gave him a mission, he always said, ‘we will do it — we will get it done,’ and then he did.”
Lawson said Carter also positively affected the Soldiers around him. Carter coached and mentored several young Soldiers, helping some pass their physical fitness tests after failing, and assisting others in enrolling in college, said Lawson.
“He is an inspiration to people,” Lawson said. “He may not have come from much, but he has that internal drive and that desire to do something better than what he was dealt.”
When he returns from the Capitol security mission in Washington, Carter — the once troubled kid — will take on a new role as first sergeant of the 1123rd Engineer Company (Sapper), arguably one of the most influential roles in the Army and the rank every young Soldier looks up to.
Although he has officially been promoted on paper, Carter said he is waiting to wear the first sergeant rank until he can be promoted in front of his company in what he called an important time-honored tradition, hoping it may also motivate others.
“The job of the first sergeant is to motivate and inspire the enlisted Soldiers in the unit,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Chadwick Larkin, sergeant major of the 206th Eng. Bn. “Carter is the kind of Soldier who will do just that. He is also the kind of leader who wants challenge and wants responsibility.”
Carter, who credits the Kentucky Guard for his success, hopes his story can inspire others, particularly troubled youth who feel like they have no one to turn to. For years after graduating from his initial military training, Carter said he would attend narcotics anonymous and alcoholics anonymous meetings, sometimes as many as six days a week and multiple times a day, reaching out to troubled youth and expressing his story.
“I just want people to know that if I can turn my life around, anyone can,” Carter said. “It’s hard to talk about, but I wouldn’t change any of it because it made me who I am today.”