Local Veterans Open Up About Experiences in the Military
By Richard Kaufman
George Dutile’s heart was racing.
The year was 2004, and the second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq had been taking place.
Standing on one side of a village gate in a town right next to Fallujah, Dutile, a U.S. Marine at the time and a member of a Special Operations Unit, was tasked with breaching the gate and entering the unknown. His job was to search the town for inhabitants because the troops didn’t want to just level a town filled with innocent people.
“I remember right before we breached, my heart was beating and I had this pit in my stomach. I remember telling myself, and it served me well for the rest of my deployments, that the best thing about being scared is you know you’re alive,” Dutile said. “That was the first time I think I realized that it doesn’t matter how much training you go through — you can be the toughest person in the world — when it comes down to it, your heart is going to beat fast, your stomach is going to hurt, and you have to decide if you’re going to get in the fight or not.”
After the explosion from the breach, the butterflies went away and it was time to perform. “All of that disappears and you’re hyper-focused,” Dutile said. “It’s kind of the concept of tunnel vision they show in movies and everything is in slow motion.”
Dutile and a few of his fellow soldiers went up and down the streets. After being shot at here and there by insurgents, Dutile found a tunnel that stretched underground into Fallujah.
Armed with a flashlight and a pistol, Dutile crawled into the tunnel on his stomach, in what he called “Vietnam Style,” to investigate, once again moving forward not knowing what’s on the other side.
“I remember laughing to myself and thinking this doesn’t happen anymore. All I could think back to was all these Vietnam movies I watched when I was younger and kind of laughing and kind of a little bit nervous on what’s on the other side of that tunnel,” Dutile said. “You’re stuck, you can’t really go back. Luckily they didn’t blow [the tunnel up] and we were able to get in.”
Dutile found a huge bunker that was set up by the insurgents, which held equipment and supplies. He also found prisoners.
“We recovered a lot of materials, a lot of good things for the war effort and rescued more people,” he said.
The mission was a game-changer for Dutile, and one that resonated with him as he progressed through his military career.
“Being able to control your heart a bit and control your fear, that was a big turning point for me. That’s when I realized that maybe I am good at this and maybe I should keep doing this.”
Dutile, now a Greenwich resident, ended up serving out 10 deployments over his 16-year military career, which ended in 2015.
He was a Marine for just over eight years, and served in a special capacity on a SEAL team, a highly-sensitive role, for the remainder of his tenure.
Dutile, along with Casey Carpenter, who works in Greenwich and lives in Westport, recently opened up about their experiences in the military and Special Operations following the annual Veterans Day assembly at Greenwich High School on Nov. 9.
Dutile grew up in California, and enlisted into the service after high school in 1998. He said serving his country was always something he wanted to do, especially since his father and grandfather were in the military.
Carpenter grew up in Putnam, Conn., and was a Navy SEAL for six years, which included two deployments in Afghanistan. He was a freshman in high school when 9/11 happened, so by his senior year, he said he was ready to do his part to help the country.
However, Carpenter was discouraged after speaking with a recruiter, and went to college instead. But as the war shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan, Carpenter couldn’t sit on the sidelines any longer.
“This was something where I felt like it was a calling. I had to serve my country,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let anyone talk me out of it. I’m just going to take this leap of faith and go in head first. I went to the admissions office [at my college], I told them, ‘Thank you, but I’m going to be putting my schooling on hold.’ I went in and enlisted into the Navy.”
Carpenter’s first deployment in Afghanistan was eye-opening for him.
“We were there to help [the local residents] and educate them and show them that working with the Taliban wasn’t their only option, and there were ways they could help in maintaining their local lifestyle,” Carpenter said.
But before Carpenter could carry out this mission of “building hearts and minds,” he had to get to these villages, and that in itself proved to be a challenge.
Carpenter and other troops were set up at a base in Southeastern Afghanistan, but they were planning to build another base in a remote location outside of several local villages. The Taliban had time to react to the move, and as the troops made the estimated 12-hour trek to their destination, they hit roughly 10-15 Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) over a three-mile stretch.
Leadership decided to turn the convoy around and come up with a new route.
The move ended up taking 14 days. “You always plan for the worst. That was really the big takeaway from it,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter and the rest of the troops were forced to wear the same clothes almost every day for the duration of the trip, and they ate what little they had for food. Their vehicles were breaking down because of the rough terrain, but they finally made it to their destination and began to establish their base.
Once the base was set-up, troops began to have sit-down meetings with local elders.
“We showed them how to properly farm, how to build wells so they could have water and they wouldn’t have to drink from rivers that had bacteria and pollution. We taught them how to bathe properly, how to even brush their teeth. I saw elders that were brushing their teeth with just a whittled stick,” Carpenter recalled. “We provided them with toothbrushes. We were addressing their basic lifestyle needs. Seeing that as a 23-year-old was pretty eye-opening.”
Carpenter was involved with communications during his second deployment. He was in charge with making sure that the intersquad communications and communications back to headquarters were being run effectively and efficiently.
“I also was the person on the ground talking to the aircraft and coordinating our air assets, making sure the sensors were in the right locations, making sure if we needed fire support in any way shape or form, we had it, and so you’re kind of in charge of the largest gun on the battlefield essentially,” Carpenter said.
Dutile spent his tenure in the military directly confronting the enemy. He was a key player in Special Operations, which is mostly what the United States relied upon between 2003-2012 in the War on Terrorism.
President Barack Obama later relied on autonomous drones to carry out missions, rather than using boots on the ground. According to an article from militarytimes.com, Special Operations Forces are growing again. These operations are being deployed around the globe, and are primarily carried out by highly-trained, small units focused on specific pieces of intelligence.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan involved troops going house-to-house in search of specific targets.
“What I loved about house-to-house and Special Operations is because it’s surgical. My job specifically, as an intelligence operative guy, I would go in and we would laser-focus go after people. We would maintain the structures as much as possible,” Dutile said.
“We’d go house-to-house, and we’d have a lot of training and a lot of practice, so when there are innocent people, you’re not hurting them and you’re able to secure them and then find a really bad person.”
While Dutile said going house-to-house into dynamic situations puts more danger on individual soldiers, it comes with the territory.
“We’re trained for it, we’re signed up for it. We made a conscious decision to put ourselves in harm’s way,” he said.
Carpenter said the camaraderie of soldiers in small Special Operations units, and the military in general, is unique.
“You’re spending way more time with these guys than you do your own family. This is something where you get to know these people, your teammates, so well that you know exactly how they’re going to react in the house before you go in, you know when you see that person on night-vision, they could be 100 yards away and just by the way they’re walking and their posture, you know exactly who that is,” he said.
“It’s a level of familiarity that I’ve never experienced up until that point. It’s a great community, a band of brothers, and it’s something that I’ll always look for and I know I’ll never find anything like that again.”
Over their careers, both Dutile and Carpenter suffered wounds and injuries, but were able to remain functional thanks to top-notch medical care. They also admitted to downplaying their injuries in order to stay and support their fellow soldiers.
William Howell, who has decades of experience in U.S. Army Medical Operations, spoke at the Veterans Day assembly at GHS on Nov. 9, and afterwards about the nonprofit organization he’s with, Medical Technology Enterprise Consortium (MTEC).
MTEC, which has more outreach capability than the military thanks to its nonprofit designation, works to devise science-based solutions for the medical challenges troops face on the battlefield, as well as when they come home.
Howell said MTEC is currently working on testing drugs for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injuries. They’re also working on projects related to vision, and repairing the optic nerve if it’s damaged in a blast.
“We’re on the side of the angels. We’re supporting taking a guy who went out and put himself in harm’s risk, and if he does get harmed, we’re making sure he can come home,” Howell said.
Howell noted how medical technology has advanced since he entered the Army several decades ago.
“When I first came into the Army, a first aid kit that every soldier wore was just had band aids, some gauze, some antiseptic and maybe morphine. There was hardly anything in it. Now there are tourniquets and hemostatic bandages that can stop major arterial bleeds. You have airway tubing so that the soldier himself, or his buddy, can start to take care of him better than he could have been taken care of before,” Howell said.
He also said the use of vital signs monitors for soldiers has been revolutionary.
“By hooking up an attachment, you can do an ultrasound, too. An ultrasound as of 15 years ago wasn’t on the battlefield. Ultrasound is a great way to find internal bleeds,” Howell said.
In each of Dutile’s first two deployments, he got “blown up,” as he put it.
After hearing a loud explosion from an ambush attack on an ambulance near the city of Baghdad in 2003, Dutile jumped into action.
Driving in an armor-less Humvee, Dutile and his team chased after a suspect into an abandoned airfield. Dutile began to feel the vehicle shake just before he was knocked unconscious.
The Humvee had driven near a bunker which held 60,000 pounds of explosives. The blast killed everyone but Dutile, who woke up some time later and tried to continue with the task at hand.
Dutile reached for his rifle, but the barrel was twisted from the explosion. He grabbed for an AK-47, which was in good condition, and went to clear the area. He patched up a superficial wound on his neck before help could arrive.
Dutile had broken ribs, one actually piercing his stomach, and a traumatic brain injury from shrapnel. According to the blast radius, Dutile should have been killed along with the rest of his team. But the running theory, he says, is that his tightly-secured vest prevented his organs from liquifying during the shockwaves.
“If you look at a picture of the humvee I was in, there are holes all around it, and there’s a space where there aren’t holes, and it’s where my face was. There’s a silhouette of my body that wasn’t hit. It’s crazy. Someone was looking out for me. It wasn’t my time, I guess.”
Dutile courageously stayed in country for a couple weeks afterwards, not wanting to go home. He was ultimately forced to recuperate from his injuries after he was airlifted to Germany. He returned to action in the Middle East several months later.
Carpenter’s injury occurred during training.
Wearing night-vision goggles and sliding down a rope out the back of a Chinook Helicopter, Carpenter’s depth-perception was altered and he couldn’t get a firm grasp on the rope. He went anyway, and was able to slow his descent, but ultimately hit the ground and tore the labrum in his hip.
“I continued moving forward because I did not want to miss out on supporting my buddies and going overseas and doing the mission,” Carpenter said. He later had surgery to repair his hip a couple years later.
“You’ll do anything to be there. You’ll push through,” Dutile added. “There’s this passion you have to never let someone down. I think the military really draws that out of you, to constantly want you to do better and to make sure you’re not letting the person next to you down.”
Dutile suffered another severe injury after returning to action in his second deployment when an IED detonated, upsetting his previous wounds. Dutile felt he had let his country down.
“I felt I shortchanged the country a bit. I felt like I cheated a bit. I wanted to avenge my own record. I’m highly competitive inside. I wanted to go back at least an additional two to outweigh my first two deployments.”
While a lot of troops were fortunate to move on from injuries and wounds, countless others could not. For Carpenter, an instance where he lost a good friend and wasn’t able to get to him to help sticks out the most.
“Afghanistan is just a very mountainous environment. You might be standing up on top of a mountain side. For me, I needed a spot that was good for communications. I would be up on a mountain top and my buddies might be down in the village doing the direct-action stuff, going door-to-door. We ended up losing one of my good buddies during that time,” Carpenter said. “When you can’t get down to them, that kind of sticks out.”
Dutile said when he looks back, he remembers the good times with his friends.
“It’s all about those funny things and those great memories. Everything I look fondly on was just how close you are with your friends. You’re going through such a crazy experience together, with such an array of emotions.”
Both Dutile and Carpenter have made successful transitions from the military back home. Dutile is married with two children, and joined an MBA program that supports veterans at Wharton Business School. He now works at Goldman Sachs. Carpenter finished his education while in the service, and is also married with a young son. He works at JP Morgan in Greenwich.
Coming home between deployments and then coming home for good isn’t easy. Sadly, a lot of veterans are unable to make the transition.
Dutile said trying to fit-in at home between deployments was challenging.
“You get home and you want to do small things like pay the bills again, but you don’t realize your wife has been a single working mother for five months and she’s been doing everything and you’re just messing up her program. So you become a visitor in your own house,” he said.
“It feels like you’re playing husband and playing dad, but you’re neither. It will crush your soul after a while. You’ll see your kids grow up and they look at you as a visitor, and you might be their role model and you might not be, but you’re not there on that day-to-day. They trust my wife a lot more than they would trust me because she’s there. They know her, and that will crush you after a while. It’s this horrible cycle.”
Carpenter said he treats the transition from military to civilian life as a mission.
“I always go by the SEAL motto, and that was, ‘Earn Your Trident Everyday,'” Carpenter said. “Everyday I’m trying to go out and be the best person I possibly can, and constantly be pushing the needle forward. I’ve had multiple setbacks since getting out of the military, but not being afraid to fail and continuing to push the ball forward, that’s something I think makes veterans see success getting out.”
Carpenter said he tries to give back to veterans as much as possible, regardless of service or rank, because he’s seen what works and what doesn’t work during the transition.
“The statistics of the veteran suicide rate post 9/11 is unreal,” he added. “You want to set them up for success.”
Dutile said that when he decided to leave the military, it was the best decision for his family that he ever made. He said it was hard going from being the best at his profession to starting from the bottom again and having to relearn the skills needed to succeed in a society and workplace environment.
Now that he’s home, he has time to sit and process what he did over 16 years in the military. Dutile said that when he left the service, he received a “brain shot” which “reset” him and helps prevent symptoms of PTSD.
He credits Wharton for helping him begin a new career, and his family for being so supportive. Dutile added that what drives him is a “no-fail mentality” which has carried over from the military. He knows how many veterans are unable to transition, and he vows to never be a statistic.
“I need to set an example for my kids to teach them that yesterday means nothing. It’s all about what I can accomplish tomorrow. They need to see that you can’t be a one trick pony. You can have a very successful career in the military and that’s great, but what’s next? It always has to be what’s next. It’s not easy, but I think the drive to not fail and the drive to use it as a teaching point for my kids is enough,” Dutile said.
“But I’m not going to lie, it’s not the easiest of things.”