September 2010: KUNAR Province, Afghanistan
The company commander at Combat Outpost Pirtle-King in eastern Afghanistan only halfheartedly offers to let me tag along on a mission in the mountains that kicks off at 3 in the morning, probably assuming I'm not up to it. He warns me it's an all-day, butt-busting hump up steep mountains littered with ankle-twisting rocks and Taliban bogeymen.
I tell him I'm game, convincing myself it will give me the perfect opportunity to document the difficulty of the fight in their corner of Kunar Province, a relatively safe haven for militants crossing the porous border from Pakistan.
Perhaps more important, I don't want the commander to think I'm a coward.
The mission turns into a 15-hour slog through Taliban territory to the top of a nearby peak and back, leaving one soldier with a broken toe and two others so dehydrated a helicopter is called in to evacuate them off the side of the mountain. My endurance earns me a measure of respect with the soldiers.
We return to the outpost with the sun rapidly fading behind towering peaks. My knees are buckling from exhaustion. I find the nearest object approximating a seat and plop down. A young medic sidles up to me.
"Hey, how old are you?" he asks. I tell him I'm 36, a young, vivacious man by my own estimation.
"Huh, you're just two years younger than my dad."
A moment's pride in my accomplishment is dashed due to my apparent decrepitude.
■ ■ ■ ■
A couple of days later, I head out with the guys on a foot patrol in a notoriously unfriendly village called Gewi. It's the last day of Ramadan and villagers are preparing for the multi-day feast. We arrive in the late afternoon, just when Afghans are wrapping up a long Ramadan season of fasting and excruciating thirst. It's supposed to be a time of joyous relief after a long, arduous religious observance, and to them, we're intruding.
Men, young and old, are "mean-mugging" us (an expression by soldiers to denote the dirty looks some Afghans give you when you enter their village) as we try to make small talk.
Afghan boys in rural villages are usually a decent barometer for the attitudes of Afghan men and their tolerance for American troops in their midst. If the kids are friendly, slapping high-fives and shouting what few English phrases they know, there is a good chance the elders are at least receptive to a chat. But today, the children scurry when we approach. The men are aloof, the village still. I'm starting to get a really hinky vibe about this place.
Video camera in hand, I walk over to a group of young men sitting on the side of the road and ask them whether the Taliban has come to their village. Nervously, I ask them questions while trying to keep my head on a swivel. Shooting video forces you to stare into a viewfinder, robbing you of your peripheral vision. The interpreters translate their response, something about IEDs (improvised explosive devices). I'm so unnerved I don't even understand what he means by "IED" and ask him to clarify.
Then I hear a loud WHOOSH coming from behind me. I turn from my interview and see a man shouldering a rocket launcher about 50 yards away. There's the man. And there's some smoke. And there's the conical green tip of the rocket, screaming toward me.
Before I can react, the rocket hits me square in the face with a dull thud that drops me to a knee. My camera falls from my hand and lands in the dirt. My ears are ringing, and my head hangs heavy against my chest as I reach up with my right hand, tentatively, to assess the damage. I'm afraid to figure out just how bad it is and stop short, with my fingers on my throbbing cheek.
During the few seconds the rocket beelines for my head, I envision a quick death. Lights out. That's it. But I'm somehow still alive. There's no way that just happened, I think, amid a rapidly intensifying typhoon of hysteria raging in my brain. The soldiers around me stare in stunned silence. Finally, one chirps up.
"Are you OK?"
"Um, no?" I reply. A rocket just bounced off my face. I don't think that's good. I'm not a doctor, but getting hit with the equivalent of a steel girder at 200 miles per hour isn't good for your health, I reckon. Plus, my right eye has gone black. That's also not good, in my amateur opinion, and I have the sickening feeling that the rocket must have knocked out my eyeball.
The soldiers then snap into action and begin treating me and Lt. Derek Zotto, who is hit in the arm by the rocket after it skips off my face.
Our assailant and the rest of the village scatter. Normally, an attack like this is followed by a barrage of gunfire, a popular tactic among the Taliban. But not today. The platoon takes up defensive positions for an assault that never follows. Could be that his failure to obliterate us on the spot didn't signal the others to shoot. Or perhaps he'd grabbed the launcher on a whim, figuring this is as good a day as any to blow some people up, and when he failed, knowing he'd be the laughingstock of all his Mujahideen buddies, he fled in embarrassment. I know I would. Failing to kill a guy at 50 yards with a grenade launcher is pretty pathetic, I must say.
■ ■ ■ ■
"Do I still have my eye? Be serious with me," I ask a sergeant, who's calm amid my panic. While wrapping my head like a B-movie mummy, he assures me in somber tones that my right eye still resides firmly in its socket. I don't believe him so I ask him half a dozen times more, each trembling query revealing my growing terror as a magnificent pain surges through the side of my face. I try to muster the will to feel with my fingers if my eyeball is still in place, but can't bring myself to dig beneath the increasingly bloody gauze and bandages.
The sergeant calmly escorts me by the elbow and leads me to the nearby truck for evacuation, offering me a final, if slightly agitated, reassurance that my peeper is still in place.
"I can see your baby blue," he says, hoping I'll finally shut up about it. For a moment I'm calmed by his admiration of the color of my eyes. His, I've noted, are even bluer.
We drive a short distance out of the hot zone to meet the helicopter that will take us away for treatment. The aircraft hovers over a farmer's field soaked in standing pools of water that shimmer and splash in the rotor wash.
Zotto and I are loaded into the helicopter. I slump next to him on the deck of the bird and lean against the rear of the passenger bay, sending relaxing vibrations up my spine. The roar of the engine prevents us from talking. No matter. I'm in no mood for gabbing. The medics are looking at me quizzically, pondering my injuries as if the rocket is still stuck in my head. They shout questions about my injuries that I can't quite make out. I don't care to answer their questions anyway.
Instead, I look outside at the shrinking Afghan countryside and wonder whether this will be the last time I see it: jagged mountain peaks washed in dusky sunlight. A river valley dotted with mud-brick homes and small tracts of corn. This is a gorgeous place. I hope I can come back. I ponder a future filled with hard-swallowed doctors' assessments about lost eyeballs and facial disfigurement. I look at my cameras covered in bloody mud and figure I'm out several thousand dollars. Should have insured this stuff. Stupid.
My thoughts turn to my family and fiancée. I'm really not looking forward to telling them what happened. I'm terrible at this kind of thing. As a teenager, I broke my hand and hid it from my parents for three days because I didn't want them to yell at me. I only caved and confessed when my palm turned purple and my hand swelled to the size of a catcher's mitt. Maybe I can buy myself a few weeks if I tell my editors to keep it quiet. I wonder if I'll ever report again.
If not, what do I do? Get a real job? No, thanks. I'd rather they push me out of this helicopter right now than work in an office.
A New Kengsington native and Lawrenceville resident, Carmen Gentile (email@example.com) is a reporter for USA Today, covering Afghanistan and other conflicts. Following his injury, he spent eight months recovering and undergoing numerous surgeries, then returned to reporting in Afghanistan and elsewhere.