'Everything you do there matters'
Student veteran reflects on time in Afghanistan
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.
"People sit at home and watch this stuff on TV," he said. "But once you're actually there, you know it's real. People are fighting for what they believe in, or just to stay alive, and people are constantly dying."
Despite the amount of violence Gentilhomme faced daily, it never discouraged him. Even when a fellow soldier was killed in action, it didn't break his spirit.
"I got really choked up," he said. "It was the first person I had ever met who was killed in combat. It affected everybody, but you have to wake up the next day and keep doing whatever it is you're there to do."
Gentilhomme returned to the states in February of 2010. Even though he appreciates constant access to plumbing and not being covered in filth all day, he gained a new perspective that most people never will.
"It made me more aware of what goes on in the world," he said. "Just because you aren't hearing about it doesn't mean these horrible things aren't going on in other countries."
Gentilhomme plans to finish his undergraduate degree at UNH. Afterwards, he plans on attending Officer Candidate School and commissioning to be an officer. Although he looks forward to his future in the military, he said that being deployed in Afghanistan has been a life-changing experience.
"If I could pause time here at home to be deployed, I would stay there for a couple years," Gentilhomme said. "Everything seemed more real there. Everything you do over there matters, whether it was good or bad, whether you're saving someone's life or fighting someone else, successes and failures, everything matters."
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