Carmen Gentile backed into conflict journalism. The New Kensington native and graduate of Shadyside Academy left Temple University with dreams of writing his way around the world. A job at an English-language newspaper in Cairo, Egypt, led to a stint covering the 2004 military coup in Haiti; the year after that, Gentile was reporting on the war in Afghanistan.
Often reporting while embedded with U.S. troops, he went on to work in Iraq as well, and to file print and broadcast stories for the likes of Time and USA Today. But perhaps the most notable episode of his career came in September 2010, on an embed in Kunar Province in Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. Gentile, then 36, was filming an interview with some villagers when out of nowhere he was approached by a man carrying a grenade-launcher on his shoulder. The man fired. At point-blank range, the shell hit Gentile – in the face.
The ordnance did not, however, detonate. (Gentile believes it didn’t have time to arm.) The hit did shatter his eye socket and almost cost him his right eye. Now the incident and its aftermath are the focus of Blindsided by the Taliban (Skyhorse Publishing). Gentile’s new book chronicles his recovery, from medical struggles to its impact on his personal relationships, with candor, humor and ample profanity.
As a journalist, Gentile was trained to tell other people’s stories. But while writing Blindsided, he realized that without the context of his personal life, the story of his injury and recovery “was lacking heart.” That personal history is largely not something he’s proud of, especially his relationships with women, but also other reckless behavior.
“Some of the episodes in the book may seem shocking, or they definitely read as being a little off-color,” he said, “but that’s life.”
Long a thrill-seeker, and with a history of drug abuse, Gentile wasn’t about to let up just because he’d nearly had his head blown off. Quite the opposite.
“There are a million ways in which to not only overcome a physical pain but an emotional one, and not all of them are productive, and some of them ways in which I was grappling with my physical and emotional injuries were not always the best ways,” he said.
In the book, Gentile acknowledges that his injury earned him a lot of good will with friends and romantic partners, but also that he squandered it fairly quickly. He also put his reconstructed eye and skull at risk: During his recovery, he went free-diving in the ocean and white-water rafting, and resumed surfing and off-road motorcycling.
“I was taking a lot of foolish risks and they didn’t have a reason other than to fulfill my own need, my own selfish need for a high that was trying to make up for the pain and suffering that I’d been enduring both physically and emotionally during that period,” he said.
Gentile grew up in New Kensington and despite his globe-trotting, was based in Pittsburgh (he had a house in Lawrenceville) as recently as four years ago. Today, and in the midst of a book tour that’s gotten him on national television (including Today with Megyn Kelly), his life is different in a lot of ways. He did get to keep his right eye, albeit after extensive reconstructive surgery. But he’s now living in Croatia, and married to a Croatian-born journalist with whom he has a 2-year-old daughter.
One thing hasn’t changed, though: Less than a year after the RPG strike on his face, Gentile was back in Afghanistan, and he’s since made several more reporting trips to overseas war zones.
“You know, I didn’t want what happened to me to define the rest of my life,” he said. “And to a great degree, I knew that if I didn’t go back that it was going to be the defining moment of my life.”
“I have to be able to pick myself up, dust myself off and get back in there, because I really didn’t think I could do anything else,” he said.