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Howard Altman: New memoir offers raw look at covering modern wars

Carmen Gentile is one of those people you meet in far-flung war zones who risk their lives covering humanity’s worst moments.

It was in one of those places that I met Gentile. As we waited in Kabul, Afghanistan, for a flight to Bagram Air Field, he told me about getting hit in the face by a rocket propelled grenade on Sept. 9, 2010.

It was a true Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment and the story behind that incident, and his life as a freelance foreign correspondent, is now captured in Blindsided by the Taliban: A Journalist’s Story of War, Trauma, Love and Loss. It hit book stores March 6.

The book is a gripping read, alternately (and sometimes concurrently) gruesome and funny as he talks about looking around the dirt for his eyeball (which he didn’t lose), excruciating surgeries, a cure for constipation, struggles with drug and alcohol addiction and love found and lost. He captures the dangerous life of people who bring home stories of conflict and the bond that forms between reporters and troops in dangerous situations.

But I am no book reviewer. So instead, I decided to catch up with Pittsburgh native Gentile, 43, now living in Croatia with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, to talk about the book, reaction to it and what’s next.

Gentile, who’s written for the New York Times, Time, Newsweek and USA Today among other publications, told me he set out to write a book that was different from others in the genre.

"Reporters want to write stories of heroism and come across as being the gallant hero of their own story with a 1,000-yard stare," he said. "I never wanted to read those books and I never wanted to write those books. I wanted to write something that resonated with people who don’t do this for a living."

Gentile pulls off the rare feat of telling a story that rings true with with those who both cover and fight war.

One reason is that Gentile pulls no punches about his life or work. From a distance, that would seem like a great catharsis for someone still suffering the traumatic effects of war (he still often wears a patch over his right eye). But not so much, Gentile said.

"In some ways, it reopened wounds that obviously are not well healed," he said. "Let’s just say thank goodness I quit drinking years ago."

Tampa area readers in particular will be interested in a very brief passage where Gentile is outraged at the access then-Gen. David Petraeus grants a woman he assumed was just another reporter. Petraeus was head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan at the time.

A young major soon told him, "That’s Paula Broadwell. She has special access ..."

It was June 2011, long before the public learbned of Broadwell, who wound up having the affair with Petraeus that led to his downfall as CIA director — a spiral touched off by emails from Broadwell to Tampa oncologist Scott Kelley.

At the time, Gentile said, he had no indication of any romantic involvement. Petraeus and Broadwell, his biographer, have said it started a year later.

"I just remember she got to take notes and I didn’t," he said. "My ‘I am being slighted’ gene kicked in."

One of the things that struck me the most during our chat is something I have heard from others who do what Gentile does. There is a decreasing appetite (a favorite word of my editors) for the kinds of stories he’s covered for years.

America, and by extension, assignment editors, have "checked out," he said. He points to his experience in Iraq as an example.

"The last few times I was in Mosul, I had really good access and I had really unique stories lined up and getting editors to just listen to a story idea was difficult in ways I never experienced even a few years ago," said Gentile.

He chalks it up to three things.

"Domestic politics have sucked up all the oxygen," he said.

As a result, budgets once devoted to work like his are drying up. And, as coverage becomes increasingly dangerous, editors are wary of putting journalists in harm’s way. The beheadings of James Foley and Steve Sotloff remain vivid.

And one more reason, he quipped: "Maybe they read my book."

•••

The Pentagon released no new fatality numbers in ongoing operations last week.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 49 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan; 45 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; and four deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

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