A friend from Afghanistan was busting my balls when he said my “greatest career achievement is getting shot in the face.”
I might be irked by his besmirching of the entirety of my journalistic accomplishments if he wasn’t sort of right.
Sure, I’ve reported from dozens of countries spanning the globe, but not to great acclaim. I’ve never won any of the myriad awards, grants, and residencies regularly doled out to my deserving peers. In fact, I’m willing to bet few of my colleagues have ever even heard of me.
For nearly two decades I’ve flown under the radar, embarking on ill-conceived adventures, writing about them, and wriggling my way out of frequent personal mishaps.
It’s been, for the most part, a hell of a way to make a living.
But when I got hurt something changed, both in my outward persona and inside me. Rather than being completely unknown, I became “that guy who got shot in the face in Afghanistan . . . you know, the one with the girl’s name . . . what is it again?”
I made jokes about my injury when anyone would ask me to recall what happened. I’ve always had a penchant for dark humor, particularly as it pertains to my own predicaments. “There should’ve been nothing left of me,” I’d say, wrapping up my umpteenth retelling of that day in Afghanistan with a wicked grin that let mouth-agape listeners know it was OK to laugh about it, too.
But I wasn’t OK. I was angry, jittery all the time, and prone to sleeplessness. When I could rest, I had nightmares about being killed in every way imaginable. Upon reading the circumstances of how I became injured, it’s no surprise why:
SEPTEMBER 9, 2010
KUNAR PROVINCE, EASTERN AFGHANISTAN
Marijuana can take root just about anywhere in Afghanistan where there’s a fistful of dirt. It is a weed, after all. Cracks in walkways and rocky patches contain just enough soil for it to flourish. I’ve seen it sprout out of earthen walls on US bases and next to the barracks of Afghan soldiers who, when asked if they smoke dope, deny it with a rousing and well-rehearsed (tongue-firmly-in-cheek) chorus of: “Hashish . . . no good!”
There’s a helluva lot of weed growing here in Gewi, a small village just a few miles down the road from PK. While walking through one clump of reefer, I make sure to capture it on film for my video piece. I want to include a few prolonged shots of the guys among the marijuana without making any reference to it—see if anybody notices. But the soldiers are laughing as we march single file through the doobie thicket.
“Are you looking at what you’re walking through right now?” Wyckoff asks me snickering.
Meanwhile, shots ring in the distance, followed by the hollow boom of mortar rounds. There’s fighting on the other side of the mountain. No one seems too concerned about the artillery except for me. Creeping terror makes my legs jangle again. I can’t let the guys see I’m rattled, so I affect an air of nonchalance.
“The marijuana? Oh . . . Yeah,” I reply. As if I wouldn’t recognize weed—I probably smoked twice Wyckoff’s body weight in dope by the time I was his age, which based on his baby-faced features I’m guessing is somewhere around 19.
While I grab close-up shots of the aromatic buds, Zotto and Wyckoff peel off for a confab by the side of the road near a handful of stone and mud homes. There’s another explosion in the distance, this one louder. “There go the rockets,” says Zotto. I decide to stick near him out of some misguided logic that the platoon leader is less likely to get killed if the shit pops off.
The other soldiers return to the narrow dirt road running through Gewi, where Zotto and I approach a group of locals for a chat. Judging by the scowls on their weather-hardened faces and contemptuous glances, they aren’t all that jazzed to see us, let along gab. There’s probably a good reason for that. It’s the last day of Ramadan and villagers are preparing for the multiday feast that marks the end of a month of fasting. This year Ramadan occurred during the hottest part of the summer, making abstention from food and especially water a torturous show of faith. Now that it’s over, this day is supposed to be one of joyous relief and celebration after a long, arduous religious observance. With us walking through their village on such a holy day, I’m guessing feels to the locals like we’re shitting all over it.
A few of the older men in the village are giving us a good “mean mugging,” the dirty look some Afghans give soldiers when they wander into their midst uninvited—like we’re doing right now. I try to lighten the mood with a group of younger men sitting on the side of the road. Video camera in hand, I ask them how they’re doing, then clumsily segue into whether the Taliban has visited their village lately. It’s a dumb question—these guys would never tell me if the Taliban were there. In fact, some of them probably are Taliban, or at the very least Taliban supporters.
A handful of Afghan boys scatter when I try to say hello. Youngsters are usually a pretty good indicator of the vibe in a village. If the kids are friendly, slapping high fives and shouting what few English phrases they know, there’s a good chance some men might be receptive to talking. No chance of that here. Their fleeing just now is a bad sign. The older men meanwhile continue to keep their distance. Others retreat into their homes. I’m getting a really hinky vibe about this place.
Something doesn’t feel right.
I keep talking with the young men, training my camera on them while trying to keep my head on a swivel. Shooting video forces you to concentrate on keeping the shot steady and the subject in frame, robbing you of your peripheral vision. Out here, that’s not good. I try to keep my questions brief, looking up at the road when they answer. The interpreter translates their responses, something about IEDs.
“IEDs . . . what do you mean?” I ask.
I’m so jittery I don’t comprehend what he means by “IED” despite having filmed yesterday’s controlled detonation of a homemade explosive.
Something is very wrong.
In the camera’s display I watch their eyes grow big.
What is it?
I look up and turn toward the direction of their gazes. Just down the road a dozen or so yards there is a man standing alone. He’s facing us and carrying something on his shoulder.
What the . . . ?
A moment’s confusion, followed by dread-induced clarity. He’s shouldering a rocket launcher that’s pointed right at us.
A rapidly approaching beeline of smoke races from his shoulder, followed by the rushing sound of blasting air. At the head of the smoke trail, a conical green rocket is screaming right for me. A few seconds of mayhem shatters into a million distinct moments of dread as I watch my approaching death.
The rocket seems to be trained just on me. Time slows down, confirming the cliché at life’s final moments. I go from anguish over my demise to acceptance of my fate in a single breath.
I can’t move.
No point trying.
Just wait here.
It’ll be over soon.
The rocket hits me square in the face, a skull-rattling percussion that drops me to a knee. My camera falls from my hands and tumbles into the dirt road. My ears are ringing, my head hangs heavy against my chest.
Did that . . . ?
I tentatively reach toward my face with my right hand to assess the damage. I’m afraid to find out just how bad it is as I barely touch my throbbing cheek.
Did that just . . . ?
A gargantuan pain fills my spinning head as I try to comprehend what just happened.
There’s no way that just . . .
The bells ringing in my ears would indicate that I am, however, somehow, still alive.
Wait . . .
That’s not right . . .
I can’t be alive after getting shot in the head with a fucking rocket . . .
It’s just not . . . possible . . .
My attempt at rationalizing my continued existence is quickly displaced by an intensifying typhoon of hysteria massing in my brain. Deep panicked breaths while feeling a wetness trickle down my fingers and into the palm of my right hand. When I pull it away, the blood pours from my face in a steady, thin stream that splashes in the dirt at my knees, creating dusty globules. All I can do is stare at it in disbelief.
The outside world is silent. No one says anything for what feels like a decade. Finally someone chirps up.
“Are you OK?” The inquiry sounds like it’s coming from the far corner of a cave. It echoes inside my head.
I strain to formulate a response as the first wave of pain crashes into the side of my head like I’ve been clocked with a steel girder at 200 miles per hour.
“No, I’m not!”
It’s all I can manage to say. My brain’s been wiped clean of everything in me that’s ever preceded this moment. All that’s left is pain and fear.
An excruciating ache in my face pulls me from the surreality of my impending death into the aftermath of my survival as I begin to mentally assess my condition. First, the obvious.
What happened to the vision in my right eye?
It’s not blackness I see, like when one eye is shut tight. Rather, there’s an unfamiliar absence of vision, as if my right eye had never been there. I come to an immediate conclusion.
The rocket knocked out my eyeball!
Contemplation of the expulsion of my eye from its socket is interrupted when arms grab me and pull me to the side of the road. I see others grab Zotto with what’s left of my vision. He’s lying against a wall next to me and asking about his arm. The rocket apparently skipped off my face and hit him in the elbow.
“Where were you hit, sir?” one of the soldiers asks me. I can’t see who.
“In the face,” I tell him.
A hand holding folded gauze is pressed against my cheek trying to stop the blood. Others in the platoon scramble to take up defensive positions. Some get down on one knee and train their weapons on the nearby cornfield. The Taliban love using crops for cover when staging an assault. They could be coming for us right now. The others point their weapons toward a nearby hillside, scanning the slope for would-be snipers. Normally an attack like this is followed by a barrage of gunfire. It’s a popular Taliban tactic: wound a couple, then hit the rest while they tend to the injured.
Several minutes pass without a follow-up attack. No sign of our assailant or any of the locals either.
“Do I still have my eye? Be serious with me,” I ask Sgt. Grant Thomson, who instructs me to hold a piece of gauze against my face while he prepares to bandage my head. Thomson assures me in an eerily soothing voice that I still have my eye. I don’t believe him, so I ask him half a dozen more times, each trembling query conveying my growing terror while wave after wave of pain surges through the side of my face. Again, I try to muster the will to feel with my fingers if my eyeball is still there, but can’t bring myself to dig beneath Thomson’s swaddling of bloody bandages. With my good eye, I scan the dirt road for any signs of an unclaimed eyeball or a blood splatter that would indicate the direction in which my eye may have been ejected after the rocket smacked my head. No luck.
If it has been knocked out, I’m not going to find it. We need to get out of here. There could be more Taliban on the way. Thomson escorts me by the elbow to a nearby truck for evacuation, offering me a final, if slightly agitated, reassurance that my eye is still in place after I ask about it again.
“Do I still have my eyelid?”
“You’re not going to lose it . . . I can see your baby blue,” he says, hoping perhaps I’ll finally shut up about it. His inadvertent compliment about the hue of my eyes caught me off guard and for a moment I’m flattered.
Aww, aren’t you sweet.
But it doesn’t last long. Sitting in the truck I can’t catch my breath. My diaphragm spasms and I cough up mucus-laced blood into the helmet resting in my lap. I feel like I might vomit, or choke on what’s obstructing my airway. Gasping, I keep the vehicle’s door open hoping some fresh air will help pass whatever’s blocking my throat. “Shut that!” someone yells out. “They still might be in the corn!” I don’t care. The truck is stifling.
I need to breathe!
Someone shuts the door for me and the trucks starts to roll. We drive a short distance out of the village. I learn from one of the guys we’re going to meet up with the rescue helicopter called in to take us out of here. The brief journey is excruciatingly painful. Every bump in the road feels like I’m being shot all over again. The shattered fragments of my face feel like they’re grinding against each other as my head swells with blood.
“I think my face might be broken,” I tell Zotto, then ask how he’s doing. It’s the first time we’ve had a chance to talk. He says he’s OK, then inquires about me.
“I’ve been better.”
“I saw the trail of smoke,” he says.
“So did I,” I tell him, my first chance to recall the attack.
“Did it explode or was it a dud?”
I don’t know why it didn’t explode. It should have incinerated both of us on the spot. There’s no way we should even be having this conversation.
The truck stops. Arms grab me again, guide me by the elbows across the road as the sound of whirling blades grows louder. A helicopter arrives and hovers over a farmer’s field soaked in standing pools of water that shimmer and splash in the rotor wash. It strikes me that we’re creating a very Vietnam War–esque tableau. Soldier and civilian banged up. I’ve got my body armor undone, dangling off my torso and covered in blood, my head wrapped in gauze that’s already soaked through. All we need is Creedence Clearwater Revival, maybe a little “Fortunate Son” playing in the background, to complete the image of a war gone wrong.
Zotto and I are helped into the aircraft. I slump on the deck of the helicopter, weak from losing so much blood, and lean against the rear of the passenger bay, sending soothing vibrations up my spine as we take off. The roar of the engine prevents us from talking about what happened. No matter. I’m in no mood to relive it just now.
The medics are looking at me quizzically, as if the rocket is stuck in my head. They shout questions that I can’t quite make out.
“Shadda, fladda madda, dadda,” one of them yells at me, looking into my good eye, then pats me around the shoulders and arms, checking me for bullet holes or fragment wounds. He does the same to Zotto.
While he does, I look out at the shrinking Afghan countryside. I admire its beauty.
I wonder whether this will be the last time I see any of this.
Jagged mountain peaks washed in dusky sunlight. A river valley dotted by mud-brick homes and lined with small tracts of corn.
This really is a gorgeous country.
I vaguely ponder a future filled with lost eyeballs and facial disfigurement. Being half-blind and disfigured would certainly be a bummer. I don’t have nearly enough insurance to cover a decent prosthetic or surgery to reconstruct my eyelid. I’ll be a monster who prompts adults to avert their gaze and children to stare before they ask in loud, uncouth tones: “Mommy, what’s wrong with that guy’s face?”
I look at my cameras covered in bloody mud and figure I’m out several thousand dollars’ worth of gear that I cannot afford to replace.
Should have insured this stuff years ago. Stupid.
There goes a big portion of my livelihood. I haven’t been able to get by on just writing for years.
I wonder how I’m going to break this to my family and fiancée. I’m really not looking forward to explaining to them what happened. I’m terrible at conveying bad news, especially when I know I’ll be thoroughly admonished for putting myself in a position to let this happen. When I was a teenager, I broke my hand and hid it from my parents for three days because I didn’t want them to get mad at me. I had been drunk and doing front flips at a party to impress a girl when I landed flush on my left hand and snapped the third metatarsal. I reluctantly caved into the pain and confessed to my injury after 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. Yeah, that’ll work.
As for my fiancée, there is no telling what she’ll say.
Who knows? I’m not even sure she cares about me anymore.
I could be getting worked up over nothing. Maybe I’m fine.
It’s probably just a scratch.
That delusion wears off as the helicopter ascends higher, parallel with the mountain peaks.
I’m not all right. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m thoroughly fucked.
I wonder if this is the end of my reporting career.
If not, what do I do? Get a real job?
If that’s my only option, just push me out of this helicopter right now.
Excerpted with permission from "Blindsided by the Taliban: A Journalist’s Story of War, Trauma, and Loss" by Carmen Gentile. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.