The Think Piece Interview: Carmen Gentile

Carmen Gentile knows about war, and so knows about loss, and so knows about pain. He’s an international reporter who covers war for USA Today and other media outlets, and in 2010 he became likely the only person in the world to be hit in the face with a grenade and survive. He has written a book called Kissed by the Taliban, which he is shopping now to publishers. We spoke with him about his career, what he loves about it, what he doesn’t love about it, and why he wants to keep doing it, even though it might kill him.

TP: Where did you get your start in international reporting?

CG: I started my career when I was in Egypt in the late ’90s. I had gone there to study Arabic. I had actually studied Arabic in college, and I have a degree in philosophy. There were not a lot of people banging on my door to give me a job. I don’t know what that job would be anyway. [laughs] So I went to Egypt and I was supposed to be there for just a couple of months for the language course, and I ended up liking it and I wanted to stay, so I found a job at an English-language weekly newspaper in Cairo. 

TP: Did you take any journalism classes?

CG: No, I never took a journalism class in my life. Reporting is one of those skills I feel you learn better on the job. I think journalism is a lot like bartending—the best bartenders are the ones who learned from working behind the bar, not the ones who went to bartending school. 

TP: Where did you go to college?

CG: I went to Villanova in Philadelphia.

TP: What was life like right after you graduated?

CG: For a year or so I wasn’t doing much of anything other than working at the bar. I taught swim lessons at the YMCA … was just still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. At one point, sometime in ’97, me and my buddy rode our bicycles cross-country. I think that’s what really got me on the idea that I wanted to travel. One thing I really enjoyed about that was, when you’re riding in one direction, everything you see is brand-new. Every single day, every single moment, you’re seeing something new. I like that idea.

TP: What was your first big reporting break?

CG: It was back in 2004 during the coup in Haiti. Back then I was writing for the wire service UPI. I had never seen anything like that before—you know, bodies all over the ground, people killing one another right in front of me. At that time, I had been living in Brazil, in Sao Paolo. I spent about a month covering that story, and it really opened my eyes to a different kind of reporting that I could do.

TP: You must have seen some crazy stuff.

CG: To this day, it’s one of the worst situations I’ve ever seen. It was awful. It was really, really bad. Murder was rampant, there were bodies … I had never seen people react so … I don’t want to say apathetically, but maybe nonchalantly … about death. I remember at one point, there was a body lying in the street in Port-au-Prince and nobody would touch it … they weren’t sure who killed the person, why they killed him, whose side they were on, all that was very unclear … and then people were just stepping over the body, like you’d step over an open manhole. One after the other, without even looking down. I went, Wow, this is a whole different world.

TP: How do you keep your emotions in check?

CG: The funny thing about these types of stories … anybody who has ever covered war or been in a dangerous situation will tell you—and I think it’s universal—you don’t think about it in the context of your own well-being or the ramifications of what you’re doing. You just do it. You’re just on. You just be. You just do. Either you can do it or you can’t. You learn very quickly if you can. I was fortunate enough at the time to have some older colleagues who were gracious enough to take me under their wing and help me figure out certain situations regarding safety and my own well-being and how the story was fleshing out. They were very good about advising me, “Hey, you’re the most important priority. You can’t write your stories if you get killed. So always err on the side of caution and make sure that you take care of yourself and those around you.”

TP: Good advice. But have you noticed any personality changes in yourself due to all this traumatic exposure?

CG: I had an uncle that fought in Vietnam. He used to say that people who go to war come back with problems, probably no worse problems than when they left, but they’re just exacerbated by extreme circumstances and the horrors of conflict. You don’t know until you go through it. I’m not immune. I’ve had some dark feelings about things that I’ve done and things that I’ve seen. I don’t know if maybe ten years from now I’m going to be a wreck. But for right now, I’m feeling pretty good.

TP: How old are you?

CG: I’m thirty-eight.

TP: How do you handle the fatigue and physical demands of war reporting?

CG: I have to be a lot more diligent about my physical well-being. I have to keep up with guys who often remind me that I’m old enough to be their dad. And that is the case with these young men often now. I have to make sure I’m in decent enough shape to hang out with them, and that’s not always easy, but I’ve been taking care of myself. It’s funny—I don’t have a gray hair on my head, and I’m almost forty. [laughs] To some people, that’s not anything. I certainly have a few in my beard now, but not too many—I’ve been very fortunate in that sense.

TP: Do you ever just run out of gas?

CG: You know, frankly, sometimes I feel after I’ve been in a country for a long time, I feel run down, but I get home and after a couple of weeks, I have to go do something else. Given the opportunity, I would love to be in Syria right now. I would love to be in Mali right now. I would love to be able to cover stories that aren’t even getting much attention right now. I have the energy for it.

TP: Take us back to your early days, how you got from UPI to USA Today?

CG: I freelanced for the New York Times, Time magazine, Newsweek. After I moved back from Brazil, I moved to Miami, and I stayed in Miami for a while, and the work I was doing for the Times and Time magazine and others was mostly out of there, out of South Florida. I did some work for Time in Afghanistan and some video work for them and a little bit for them in Haiti as well. But then I started going back to Afghanistan … I started covering Afghanistan for USA Today back in 2009, so that’s when I started linking up with them and I’ve been doing stuff on and off for them since then.

TP: When you think of a new story, how do you go about gathering sources and information?

CG: Well, for example, in Mali … it just so happens I met a guy the other day from a D.C. think tank who is an expert on Mali, so I had a chance to corner him and talk to him a little bit about some story ideas if I were to go, what I’d like to look into, and I asked him what are the stories that aren’t being reported right now. I work it there. I look to my colleagues who have been there. I have colleagues who are gracious enough to say, “Hey, I’d be very glad to help you figure out how to get into the country and find a fixer” and [tell me] where to stay and “Don’t go here because it’s dangerous” and things like that. You really have to rely on like-minded colleagues who are willing to share their knowledge and experience. Those are the people that I like in my profession, [those] who are gracious and generous with their time and their knowledge. And that’s how you start.

The first time I went to Haiti, I landed at the airport, I didn’t have a place to stay, I didn’t have a fixer, I didn’t know the first thing about what the hell was going on, other than what I’d read in the press. I somehow managed to find a place to stay, a really good fixer who ended up later saving my life while we were being shot at, and by the end of that first day I had found the story.

TP: What exactly is a fixer?

CG: They’re people who help you once you arrive in a foreign land, where somebody’s speaking a language you don’t understand and in a culture with which you’re not familiar. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of great people over the years, from Afghanistan to Argentina to Iraq. I’ve worked with tons of folks who have helped me out over the years. Even in Nigeria. They help me get the stories that I need to get, just translating or travel, logistics for setting up meetings with potential … you know, with interviews, things like that. These are people that are often unheralded in their help. I look back and see that the perfect example … you know who was a fixer in that sense is you look at Dith Pran in The Killing Fields. The guy was more than a fixer. [He and Sydney Schanberg] were co-workers in that sense, in the truest sense. I try to find people who see my work like that.

TP: From whom are you likely to get the best information?

CG: I find out a whole lot more about what’s going on in the U.S. war in Afghanistan from a sergeant than I do from a general. I once had an interview with [former CIA director General David] Petraeus. He gave me twenty minutes. It’s probably one of the most useless conversations I’ve ever had in the course of my reporting. He didn’t tell me anything, he didn’t provide any pertinent insight. He just told me what he told everyone else. He was very good at controlling the points that he was making. He spoke nonstop, so there was no room for follow-up, and then it was twenty minutes, and it was done, and that was it. When I can sit down and just shoot the breeze with a sergeant and I ask him what’s going on in his corner of Afghanistan, and he tells me what he thinks is really going on—that’s a good interview. That, to me, is a good interview, because then I can take that information and I can check in with another person and check in with another person, and if I’m getting the same story from three different folks about what’s going on or what’s happening during a specific event, then I’ve got a fact that I can tell readers back home. But, no, if someone tells me in sweeping, broad brushstrokes about how well the war is going when I’m hearing from those who are actually fighting it that it’s not … you know … I don’t really care to speak to those folks.

TP: What was a story of yours recently that you found particularly vivid?

CG: Well, this last time I was in Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to, in the course of my reporting, interview a source who was part of an uprising against the Taliban. I found that particularly rewarding in the sense that I got to sit down with someone who (former Taliban) was on both sides of the battle. He’s still very much a conservative Muslim, but he had a very … he was distraught by the Taliban. And this guy sat down and talked to me for an hour and we talked about the conflict and we talked about the history of Afghanistan. And I’m staring into the eyes of a guy who’s looking back at me, going, “Oh, I’ve killed a couple dozen people probably, at least.” … It was a satisfying interview and it helped me see a side of the conflict that I don’t get to see enough because often when I’m out on the front lines, I’m on the side of the U.S.

TP: How many times have you been injured in your reporting?

CG: Pretty much just the time in Afghanistan where I got hit by the RPG and got the traumatic brain injury, which led to some some mental health challenges. The one other time that I had a minor scrape on my arm was when I was in a firefight in the same province, Kunar, a few years before and we were getting shot at for a long period. And a piece … I remember, a bullet hit the top of the wall that I was crouching under and it made a piece of the mortar pop off and it scratched my arm. That was the height of what happened to me in 2009—that was my war wound, a little scratch on the arm. [laughs] Yeah, that was it. That and getting shot in the face were the only two.

TP: But you must be in dangerous situations all the time.

CG: Yeah, yeah. There was a time when I was in a firefight. One time in Kunar we were taking turns running in pairs across this wide-open plain, across a footbridge, heading back to the trucks, and we’d all run, and we’re getting shot at from three different positions. So when it came to be my turn, this young Marine (who was training Afghan soldiers) said, “OK, are you ready?” I said, “Yeah, OK, let’s go.” I had to haul ass with this guy, and there were bullets just raining down all over the place across this bridge. Once we got to cover, I collapsed. I was just breathing really, really hard. And I had my camera running at the same time, so I’m trying to keep the camera in focus while doing this whole thing. [laughs] Yeah, that … that was a scary day.

TP: How much gear were you carrying at the time?

CG: Well, let’s see. The vest weighs about twenty pounds, and I’ve got my helmet, another two pounds, and I’ve got my camera. So generally thirty or forty pounds. But that’s nothing compared to what the soldiers carry. I mean, they’ve got their bulletproof gear on. Plus they’ve got their weapons and their ammo. I mean, these guys carry a hundred pounds. So it’s all I can do to keep up with them, and I’m carrying half the gear.

TP: Have your medical bills been covered since the injury?

CG: All of my medical expenses, including my travel to and from New York, were covered until the last nine months or so. It was then that my workers’ compensation award became a real issue for the lawyers at CBS, who contend that my injuries warrant much less compensation than the guidelines laid out by the state of New York say I should receive. Once I retained a lawyer to argue my case for me, CBS would no longer pay for my travel to doctor appointments, and the bills for my care began arriving to my house. I’ve been trying to reach a settlement for a long time, even telling my attorney at one point to accept less than he asked for. But the lawyers for CBS won’t budge. I tried cursing them to high hell, but that doesn’t seem to work either.

TP: How is your vision since the incident?

CG: It’s not full-function. It’s blurry—I have a wrinkle in the retina, so things appear wavy. I have some loss of peripheral vision. When I’m just out and about in the world, I’m fine. But I can’t read out of this eye, so often I just close it when I’m reading or I wear an eye patch when I’m reading or working. I can’t parallel-park anymore; I just dented the shit out of my bumper. [laughs] I mean, I’ve never been a great driver, but I just rammed into a fire hydrant. I had no clue it was there. But I can drive a motorcycle fine, which is funny. Well, at least I think I can. You know, you just adapt to the new challenge.

TP: How much longer do you see yourself doing war reporting?

CG: As long as I can keep up, as long as I can run fast enough. I just like telling stories. I’ve never been the kind of person that gravitates toward the corridors of power to tell stories from a shadowy, deep background source. I like to talk to regular people, or soldiers, or locals, or just people who are embroiled in a bad situation—they’re the people I want to talk to. 

— This interview has been edited and condensed for publication


Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing