B.T. Carmical

Nov. 28, 2009

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Nobody thought B.T. Carmical would come back. There was no way.

An undercover vice detective in the North Little Rock Police Department and primary sniper on its SWAT team, Carmical lost several fingers on his right hand when a flash-bang grenade exploded prematurely during a demonstration for a group of Boy Scouts in 2002. Doctors eventually amputated the rest of his hand.

“He was devastated,” Capt. Donnie Bridges, Carmical’s supervisor at the time, said. “He thought he had lost the best thing that ever happened to him outside his family, and that was being a cop.”

That was seven years ago this month. As it turned out, the faulty flash-bang only marked what is now the midpoint of his police career. Carmical, 38, taught himself to shoot left-handed. He returned to the department where he had workedfor seven years and rejoined the SWAT team – again as a sniper, this time using a different eye, and a different shoulder for his rifle. He worked undercover until last year, when Chief Danny Bradley disbanded the vice unit, citing budget cuts.

Today Carmical works in the department’s training division, an assignment he requested where he focuses on tactics and specializes in teaching patrol officers on use of the AR-15 rifle. Next year, he’ll take over as the department’s lead Taser instructor.

But his is no desk job. He backs up other officers on calls and stays busy enoughwith the Special Weapons and Tactics team that of his three prosthetic right hands, one is usually back at the manufacturer for repairs.

The one he wears most often makes his right arm a bit longer than his left. It fits over a silicone sleeve that rolls up to Carmical’s elbow and attaches to a metal locking pin where his hand used to be. The muscles in his forearm hit sensors that open and close the battery-powered hand.

Carmical calls it his “war hand.”

“If it’s a barbed-wire fence, he grabs it, and if it’s a car window, he breaks it,” said Frank Snell, owner and president of the Little Rock-based Snell Prosthetic & Orthotic Laboratory, which provides Carmical with his right hands. “He does whatever it takes. I just fix it up afterward.”


Snell first met Carmical not long after the explosion when he went to the lab to learn about prosthetics and perhaps choose one.

“We were in there and he shows me what he’s got and I said, ‘What can it do?’” Carmical said. “Frank said it opened and closed. I asked him if the fingers could move and he said no. I couldn’t hear that. I walked out.”

It was a hard time.

While still in the hospital, he learned the explosion ended his 13-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. His wife, Mandee, was nine months pregnant with the first of their two children at the time, and the stress forced an emergency cesarean section delivery. He also learned that he had hepatitis-C, which he contracted when he grabbed barehanded the gushing femoral artery of a gunshot victim several months earlier.

Not to mention that because Carmical worked undercover, he looked sort of grungy and disheveled and had an unkempt goatee.

“The nurses thought he was a suspect that got arrested because of how he looked and all the police that came around,” Mandee Carmical said. “None of the nurses would talk to him directly, just to whatever officer was in the room.”

He wanted to shave.

“I was going to do it – well, I offered, anyway,” Mandee Carmical said. “He looked at me and said, ‘How many times have you shaved my face or any face?’ Which was never. He insisted on doing it himself.”

Mandee Carmical also tried to help her husband – only she and his mother call him by his given name, Brandt – write thank-you cards to his well-wishers.

“He did every one himself,” she said. “He needed to learn to write left-handed. That was his practice.”

Then he would tell people – colleagues, friends – he wanted to try to go back to the department.

“They all gave me the same look,” Carmical said. “I will never forget that look. Like ‘Yeah, buddy. Sure. Whatever you say.’ It was killing me.”

Other SWAT team members met up at a firing range to take pictures with a fan of theirs, a boy with cerebral palsy, maybe a week or two after the explosion. Carmical went, too, still wearing an antibiotic pump so his stump wouldn’t get infected. He tried shooting with his left hand for the first time.

“It was terrible,” he said. “That was the first time I thought maybe it wouldn’t work out that I could come back.”

Carmical grew up in Sherwood and became a volunteer firefighter at 16. He worked at the Wrightsville prison boot camp as a mounted guard until North Little Rock hired him. A life without service and duty, he thought, was not much of a life.

“It’s cheesy, I know,” hesaid. “But I wanted to help people. This is the way I know how.”


Bradley did not expect to see Carmical in uniform again.

“There’s a lot to this job,” Bradley said. “Could he complete reports? Hold on to people? Run people down? Fire a weapon? We had a lot of questions. I’m not in a position where I could make exceptions that could put a life in danger.”

The department also made its annual physical-training requirements much more strenuous around the same time.

“I thought, OK, I get the message,” Carmical said.

He tried anyway. He passed. He was back on full-duty within five months. He was suing the manufacturer of the Omniblast 100 flash-bang that took his hand and realized it could be expensive to go back to work. A claim that he was fully disabled could have been lucrative.

“It cost me a lot of money – a lot of money – to go back on the job,” he said. “I found out I was the sixth officer who had something like this happen with this product, and I was the only one who went back to work.”

Carmical settled the case out of court in 2006.

Back at work, Carmical tried out for the SWAT team again. To even be considered, an officer needs to shoot with90 percent accuracy within 1-square-inch targets. To stay on the team, an officer has to shoot 95 percent. He did that, too – if a little unconventionally.

“His stance when he shoots now is a little unusual,” North Little Rock police SWAT sniper Rick Beaston said. “It’s different. We’re taught to use our off-hand to grip the weapon a certain way and he uses his sort of more like a platform. Anyway, the instructor sees him out of the corner of his eye and starts yelling at him and walking over to him: ‘What the hell kind of stance is that, you don’t even know what you’re … oh. Sorry, man.My bad.’”

At an advanced sniper school in Pennsylvania, students had to climb a tall ladder into a bucket, an exercise to fire at a down angle on an unstable platform with an elevated heart rate. One student said he’d shoot, but there was no way he was climbing up that ladder.

“The instructor comes over and whispers to B.T. – I’m standing right next to him – that when the bucket comes down for the other guy, he can go ahead and get in, too,” Beaston said. “B.T. looks him in the eye and says, ‘Why, because I only have one arm?’The instructor starts stammering and, man, I just busted out laughing. Nobody is going to give B.T. anything he doesn’t earn.”


Coming back meant suffering some dark and sometimes immature police humor. They called him Robocop, asked him to give them a hand, all the usual stuff. At a hotel on a training trip, Carmical forgot his hand when he went down to the pool.

“I told him he better go back and get it so he wasn’t swimming in circles,” Beaston said.

Looking deeper than that, though, many people in Carmical’s life call him inspirational.

“I know that’s the right word,” Beaston said, “but it doesn’t quite do enough to tell the story.”

Carmical’s former supervisor in vice, Lt. John Breckon, a 21-year veteran of the department, said he could imagine no greater example of commitment and professionalism.

“He was given and he asked for no special consideration,” Breckon said. “If anything, he’s harder on himself than anyone else could ever be.”

Carmical acknowledges that his one weakness remains flash-bangs. He can work around them as long as he doesn’t have to throw them.

At a hostage-rescue and high-risk-warrant school in West Memphis in 2006, he tried just once.

“I did a real poor job of deploying it,” Carmical said. “I was so concerned about getting rid of it.”

It shook him. He went out and sat in his truck behind its tinted windows.

“I was sweating, and it was 30 degrees,” he said. “I’ll tell you, I had to get control of myself.”

His wife said that if such feelings ever put another life in danger, her husband would quit.

“He wouldn’t even think twice about it,” she said. “He wouldn’t do this job if it wasn’t something he could handle or if he jeopardized anyone else’s safety. He’d just walk out right there.”

Bridges said that since the explosion, he thinks Carmical has matured. He is older and more experienced, Bridges said, but the loss of his hand made Carmical realize acutely that things he valued could disappear.

“Let’s face it,” Bridges said. “This was a group of Boy Scouts on his day off. This wasn’t going in on a suspect or an individual barricaded in a bank. Could have been anybody. But not everybody could have handled it.”


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