Editor’s note: Carmen Gentile has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and been featured in the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, USA Today, Esquire, and many others. This is an excerpt from his first book, Blindsided by the Taliban, released March 6, that chronicles his time downrange as an embedded war reporter.
On Sept. 9, 2010, in Kunar province Afghanistan, a Taliban ambush nearly cost Gentile his right eye and shattered his face, when he was hit in the head by a rocket propelled grenade that miraculously didn’t explode. Numerous surgeries would ultimately repair some, but not all of the damage done in the attack. The emotional and psychological wounds lingered. Night terrors brought on by his post-traumatic stress disorder haunted him; his engagement to his fiancé fell apart; and his livelihood was threatened.
Leaning on gallows humor, Gentile is quick to quip that his “greatest career achievement is getting shot in the face,” but his self-deprecating jokes belie deeper truths about combat, loss, recovery and rediscovering one’s place after war has taken its toll. In Blindsided by the Taliban, Gentile candidly lays out how returning to war to continue his work was the only way to become whole again.
This excerpt takes place back in Afghanistan, a little more than a year after he was injured in the Taliban ambush.
EMBRACE THE SUCK
JULY 23, 2011
OUTPOST 22, UPPER GERESHK VALLEY, HELMAND PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN
Marine Sgt. David Sowell smokes a cigarette at a tiny compound in Taliban territory and ponders the possibility of losing a limb in an IED blast.
“I don’t want to lose my legs, but if I do, I can cope with it . . . as long as it’s not one or both of my arms, I’ll be fine,” says Sowell in his Texas drawl.
His apparent ease with possible amputation is unnerving considering how earlier today we walked the same footpaths where many of his fellow Marines lost arms and legs. One even went home a triple amputee.
I’ve been spending the last few days with Sowell and his fellow Marines in the Upper Gereshk Valley. It’s just down the way from Sangin, the epicenter of the Helmand Province shit storm that’s been raging all summer. Helmand’s where the Taliban sends some of its very best, its varsity squad. The fighting has been fierce. When Sowell and his unit arrived a few months ago, they had to claw their way into the valley one firefight at a time. About 50 guys were sent home wounded, many missing at least one limb. Four were killed.
They were dropped in here last spring as part of the US strategy to keep the Taliban on the outskirts while the cities and villages behind the Marines gradually accept the government’s help, and in return, pledge their allegiance. At least that’s the plan anyway.
Now in midsummer, they have a tenuous foothold in the region and a new home, a compound called “Patrol Base Shark’s Tooth.” It’s a large base by patrol base standards, but its amenities are almost nonexistent. Comprised of mud walls and windowless hovels partially burrowed in the ground, it bears an uncanny resemblance to Luke Skywalker’s home on Tatooine.
The Marines live four or more to the tiny, subterranean rooms, providing some relief from the scorching summer sun. But a shortage of housing at Shark’s Tooth means some of the younger guys sleep al fresco. Camo netting hung overhead provides a little shade during the day, while insect nets draped over their bunks keep some of the mosquitoes at bay.
There’s no running water, of course; the Marines at Shark’s Tooth go weeks, even months, without showers. No water also means no latrines or portable toilets, the use of which was made doubly impossible due to the fact that the last two Afghans they’d paid to carry away their feces via “shit trucks”—vehicles with rear-mounted tanks and vacuums for sucking feces out of latrines—were blown up by the Taliban.
In lieu of even rudimentary waste management, they use “wag bags,” plastic sacks into which they defecate. After completing their business, they throw their wag bags on the burn pile along with all the other refuse that’s incinerated on Shark Tooth’s detritus pyre burning around the clock. Noxious gases inside the bags expand in the heat, so when a flame licks one of these engorged receptacles, it emits a loud pop, triggering my PTSD until I’m able to differentiate regular shit explosions from live fire.
Despite these terrible conditions, I haven’t heard a single Marine gripe about the place. When I do ask one of them to tell me what he misses the most back home, he responds wistfully, “A clean place to take a dump,” the way one might mention a forthcoming trip to the Bahamas. The others deride his softness with a chorus of ball busting and assertions that their buddy is a real “pussy.”
It’s even rougher living at this small satellite compound, where platoons take turns manning the place to keep the Taliban just that much farther away from the main highway, and Shark’s Tooth. It’s comprised of a nine-foot exterior wall around a handful of rooms and a well with water they can’t drink lest they become violently ill, a hard lesson already learned. Once when they ran out of bottled water, the Marines drank from the well out of desperation.
Shortly thereafter the entire platoon came down with stomach ailments so severe they were forced to hang their bare asses over the sides of the walls so their rancid waste wouldn’t collect around their ankles. This nightmarish event is retold to me with great relish and laughter by several of those who endured the gut-twisting agony.
When we arrive here, a handful of young Marines pile into a windowless room covered with dirty carpets to relax. I enter and ask them what it’s like spending the night in a place where they’ve been attacked in the past and likely will be again. They chuckle, offer a few cracks about squalid conditions and the heat. Most skirt the issue about the dangers faced here. Petty Officer 3rd Class Kurtis Lett, a Navy corpsman attached to the Marines, offers his candid assessment.
“This place isn’t really that bad if you’re not scared of getting shot at or blown up,” he says. The others nod in agreement.
Outside some other Marines are playing cards. One of them produces his iPod and puts on the Rebecca Black song “Friday” in celebration of the week’s end, a song whose monotone Auto-Tuned chorus has burrowed into nearly every American’s subconscious, much to our collective chagrin.
Amid their banter about which pop star is more bangable, and ball busting over who’s the worst Spades player, the talk turns to whether it’s better to get your legs or arms blown off. “As long as my dick doesn’t get blown off, I can live without my legs,” says Sowell, adding to his previous preference of not losing his arms over here. They play cards well into the night before some bed down for a couple of hours of sleep. The rest keep watch for the Taliban lurking in the shadows.
Marines are among the military’s best practitioners of an essential wartime survival skill: a dark sense of humor. Having one is essential to the preservation of your sanity. Without it, the constant threat of death and dismemberment would break the even the toughest among them.
When I first started covering wars, I didn’t understand this attitude—how some soldiers and Marines could joke about death. I figured their bravado was an act for my benefit. They wanted me to portray them as hardened badasses in my stories. But after my first close call I learned that dark humor helps ease the strain during even the most dangerous situations.
Back in 2005, I was riding in the lead Humvee through the narrow streets of a pro-Saddam town in northern Iraq called Hawijah. In the distance we heard a loud pop followed by the whooshing sound I know all too well from when I was shot in the head last year. “RPG, RPG, twelve o’clock!” Spc. John Alden shouted from behind the wheel as the rocket headed toward the driver’s side, before veering off course, hitting the pavement a few feet away, ricocheting off the ground, and exploding. Alden gunned the truck toward some men about 100 yards away who jumped into a four-door sedan and sped off. A chorus of Rebel Yells and gleeful “Whoops!” filled the truck as the seven-and-a-half-ton vehicle sideswiped parked cars that tipped and landed in mangled heaps on cracked axles.
The assailants’ vehicle turned a corner and vanished from sight. When our truck arrived moments later, their car was abandoned. All four doors were open, its occupants nowhere to be found. Sniper fire rang out, peppering the vehicles, while Blackhawks circled overhead.
Disappointed they’d lost their attackers, the soldiers’ spirits were buoyed however by what they found inside the car. In addition to a sniper rifle, the RPG launcher and Iraqi ID cards, the attackers left behind a video camera. Back at their base, the soldiers replayed the tape, gasping and laughing at footage of the attack and the start of their pursuit. They replayed it a half dozen times for others who couldn’t believe our fortune and gave them hell for letting the perpetrators slip away.
“We’ve needed this day for so long,” a young lieutenant told me smiling, noting how hard his men had fought against an often-elusive enemy. Though still shaken by the incident, I then began to understand their exuberance. Skirting a close one calls for a good laugh, if only to keep you from cracking up.
I see that same attitude in the Marines here. They’ve been on the wrong end of too many Taliban attacks, seen good friends killed, others sent home severely injured, yet they joke around every chance they get. To them, humor is an essential survival skill honed by violence and loss. The more they hurt, the more they need to laugh.
I get that. My own dark sense of humor served me well after I got hurt. It kept me from going stir crazy during my recovery. For a while there I’d lost it, instead wallowing in self-pity over a woman’s scorn, taking my hurt out on everyone who cared for me.
But here, among the Marines and soldiers I’ve spent much of the summer with, I’ve finally got it back.
Oddly, only in Afghanistan am I able to really laugh again.