I turn to see a rocket-propelled grenade screaming toward me. The ordnance strikes me in the side of the head, instantly blinding me in one eye and crushing the right side of my face.
On September 9, 2010, while embedded with an Army unit and talking with locals in a small village in eastern Afghanistan, journalist Carmen Gentile was struck in the face by a rocket-propelled grenade. Inexplicably, the grenade did not explode and Gentile survived, albeit with the right side of his face shattered and blinded in one eye. Making matters worse, his engagement was on the ropes and his fiancée absent from his bedside.
Blindsided by the Taliban chronicles the author’s numerous missteps and shortcomings while coming to terms with injury and a lost love. Inventive and unprecedented surgeries would ultimately save Gentile’s face and eyesight, but the depression and trauma that followed his physical and emotional injuries proved a much harder recovery. Ultimately, Gentile would find that returning to the front lines and continuing the work he loved was the only way to become whole again.
Gentile recounts the physical and mental recovery which included a month of staring only at the ground on doctors’ orders, a battle with opiate-induced constipation and a history of drug addiction, night terrors born of post-traumatic stress, the Jedi-like powers of General David Petraeus, and finding normalcy under falling mortars in an Afghan valley. The result is an unapologetic, self-deprecating, occasionally cringeworthy, and always candid account of loss and redemption.
Tell me a little bit about your book Blindsided by the Taliban
“Blindsided by the Taliban” is not your typical doom-and-glopm war book. Rather, it’s a dark-humored, self-deprecating look at what it’s like to get shot in the face with a rocket-propelled grenade, and against all odds, not only survive, but catch the incident on video so that my freak survival
What were you thinking when you first realized what had happened?
Two distinct and competing thoughts running through my ringing head after the rocket obliterated the side of my face.
1. That did not just happen! There is no way that rocket hit me and I’m not dead!
2. Holy f*$%, this hurts!
You have been through a lot of difficult things in your life, how has going through all of that made you a better person?
I’m not sure “better” is the best way to categorize my life’s developments following the attack.
Then was a time after getting shot in which I was a real selfish prick. I didn’t care about or consider anyone else’s feelings. At the same time, I felt entitled to say and do whatever I wanted because I was “the guy who survived getting shot in the face with an RPG.” Subsequently, only a few months after getting hurt, everyone was sick of me.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
I don’t want to give away too much of the story lest your readers feel they need not get their hands on my book. But there’s a period during my recovery when I become obsessed with “Save by the Bell” that folks seem to really enjoy.
The book chronicles your “numerous missteps and shortcomings while coming to terms with injury and a lost love.” What were some of these?
Examples of my aforementioned dickishness – detailed a couple questions earlier – are aplenty in “Blindsided by the Taliban.” But I don’t want to give away any here. Get your copy and see for yourself
The book overview also mentions the “Jedi-like powers of General David Petraeus.” Can you give an example?
At one point in the story I cross paths with Petraeus when I wasn’t feeling well. I had 15 minutes to interview him, during which the general spewed the same well-rehearsed, self-serving rhetoric I’d heard him recite in countless, previous interviews. At that point, feverish and out of sorts, I was powerless to counter his used-car salesman slickness. It was one the low points of my career.
Is there anything that you had to Edit OUT of you book that you wished was kept in?
Yes, the title. A month before publication my publisher told me that certain stores wouldn’t carry my book with the original title “Kissed by the Taliban,” which is an infinitely better than the one it currently has. The fine print on my contract said they could do it. I still haven’t forgiven them for that.
Hopefully it will once day sell enough that I can change it back. I always ask folks to refer to it as “Kissed by the Taliban.”
What are you reading now?
I’ve been grinding my way though the dense, albeit enlightening “The Death of Yugoslavia.” It’s about the breakup of the former communist confederation of states that led to the war embroiling Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia. I have a Croatian daughter and split my time between Croatia and the states. I’m always looking for early warning signs that things might slip sideways again in that part of the world.
What can readers learn or take away from your experience?
1. I’m clearly never going to be asked to join Mensa.
2. My hard headedness knows no bounds.
3 Doing the exact opposite of whatever I consider a “good idea” will serve you well when life presents you with a difficult choice.
How did you determine that returning to the front lines and continuing your work was the only way to become whole again?
A complete misunderstanding of the human condition predicated on reading and watching too many examples of faulty logic in books and movies informed my decision to go back, then do it a half dozen more times.
Can you provide a specific example or story where reading has helped you learn from others experience?
Pete Hamill’s book “A Drinking Life” helped me realize many years ago that I had no talent for binge boozing and should quit before I really hurt myself and others.
What is next for you?
I’m working on a collection of closely related short stories spanning 20 years and includes chapters cut from “Blindsided by the Taliban.” I call it a “wrap-around companion piece to my first book. I also am the co-founder of a One Down Media (www.onedownmedia.com) where we combine great storytelling with motorcycling adventures around the world. Check out the piece I wrote from Iraq a couple of years ago in which myself and a photographer find a Russian motorcycle in Mosul and ride it around Kurdistan.
Purchase Blindsided by the Taliban at your local Book Store
Carmen Gentile has written for some of the world’s leading publications including the New York Times, TIME, Newsweek, USA Today and many others. He has also produced online video reporting for The Times and TIME. He also regularly produces radio reports and has published numerous photos with his work.
He has covered both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, embedding with soldiers on the frontline. His work has also taken him to Nigeria, where he reported on the continuing unrest in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
For four years he was based in Brazil, traveling throughout the region and covering bouts of unrest in Venezuela, Bolivia and Haiti.
He began his international reporting career in the late 1990s when he was based in Cairo, Egypt.
In September 2010, Carmen was shot by a rocket-propelled grenade while reporting on U.S. and Afghan forces in eastern Afghanistan.
Following a lengthy recovery, he returned to Afghanistan and resumed embed reporting for USA Today and others
Carmen can be reached via Instagram