‘Everything you do there matters'
Student veteran reflects on time in Afghanistan
Published: Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 16:02
Americans across the nation celebrated Veterans Day on Sunday, honoring the men and women who have served in the United States Armed Services.
A handful of UNH students fall among these heroes, including Carter Gentilhomme, who spent eight months as a sergeant in Afghanistan.
Currently a junior, Gentilhomme is a non-traditional full-time student from Concord. Upon graduating high school in 2002, he enlisted in the military.
After going through two years of training and being on active duty for seven, he was deployed to a small village in southern Afghanistan in July of 2009.
“I was excited,” he said. “I thought, ‘Finally I get to be deployed before it’s all over.’ Now it’s real.”
Gentilhomme served in support of Army Special Forces, a unit whose tasks can include unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, hostage rescue and counter-terrorism. Much of their operational techniques are classified.
In Afghanistan, Gentilhomme would go out on convoys with a small number of U.S. soldiers. Vehicles were loaded to sustain them for up to a week, and each soldier carried his own supplies.
“Everybody had their own weapons, ammunition and gear for whatever their specific job was,” Gentilhomme said. “And enough to carry them through a firefight or two.”
Gentilhomme worked surveillance at overwatch positions. He would be stationed on high grounds or lookout points, watching for enemy activity using scopes or binoculars.
“There was no way for us to know who we were fighting against,” he said. “We were in areas we knew were full of Taliban or insurgent fighters, but it’s not like people walked around in name tags. We had to wait, and if they attacked us, that’s how we knew.”
Gentilhomme said the danger was in not knowing whom to trust. Without any way to differentiate between the Afghani civilians and anti-coalition fighters, his guard was constantly up. There were, however, locals who were trusted and Afghani soldiers trained by the U.S. military.
“There were certain Afghanis that we went out on missions with that we would’ve taken a bullet for,” he said.
Gentilhomme remembers a young Afghani local who had been fighting against the Taliban for a long time.
“I liked him because he had a level of confidence that was much higher than some of the soldiers twice his age,” he said.
The locals who fought with the U.S. soldiers would go home at the end of the day, putting themselves in dangerous and vulnerable positions.
“If we were ever to completely pull out, they’d be left to defend for themselves,” Gentilhomme said. “We slept soundly when they manned our guard towers, but when they went home, they had to be constantly on the alert for anyone trying to hurt them.”
On a regular basis, Gentilhomme experienced violence and thus grew accustomed to IEDs, rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire. On rare occasions, he encountered suicide bombs.
Gentilhomme said that toward the end of his deployment, there were at least four suicide bombers that terrorized the local “shura,” a twice-weekly town meeting where children played as the men and women convened. U.S. soldiers would attend one of the two meetings each week, but it was the meetings that they didn’t attend that were unsafe.
When the meetings were attacked, injured locals were brought to Gentilhomme’s small outpost, as it was the only medical facility nearby. Gentilhomme wasn’t a medic, but helped out whenever he could. He vividly remembers trying to save the life of an eight-year-old boy who was severely injured by a suicide bomb.
“He had a gash in his skull, shrapnel went through him in a number of places, and his left arm was broken,” Gentilhomme said. “We didn’t have any sort of fancy respirators, so I had to manually pump oxygen into his lungs. He didn’t make it.”
Knowing he would witness things that were hard to stomach, Gentilhomme was nervous upon his deployment. He was unsure of how he would handle such intense situations, but once he faced them he said he simply dealt with it because he had to.