Three things I believed on March 18, 2011: Time is rigid. Bodies are strong. All hurts heal.
Then in a thunderclap of noise, a spasm of dust, and a shockwave that tickled my insides and swiped away my breath—the effects of a 200-pound improvised explosive device exploding beneath the armored vehicle I was riding in with members of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division in eastern Afghanistan on March 19, 2011—I began to learn that none of these things are true.
It’s been five years that I’ve had the physical scar of the explosion, and I’m still learning. Every day I get farther from the blast but once a day, at least, I loop all the way back to March 19, 2011, to two seconds that felt like eternity.
It’s been five years and I can still close my eyes, and feel the sensation of flying through the air inside 15 tons of steel. The feeling I had then—my crystalline brush with oblivion—I still feel now. I have not healed.
And I’m not alone. Not by a large margin. I am one of tens of thousands of Americans who’ve survived an IED blast. Who are still surviving. Please don’t pity us. Please, just try to understand.
America changed on 9/11 and not for the better. But never mind all that. What I’m interested in is how Americans changed after 9/11. In our bodies. In our minds. I’m interested because I am a product of 9/11. And not just because I got blown the fuck up in Afghanistan.
I’m a semi-successful (and, at present, semi-retired) war correspondent and I have the 9/11 attacks to thank for that. In January 2005, I ditched a shitty job at a small newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, and traveled to Iraq for the first of dozens of embeds with U.S. and allied forces not only in Iraq, but also Afghanistan and other war zones.
I was good at it, I guess. Young at the time, white, straight, and a man, I felt—and acted—like I was invincible. Not all that different from many soldiers, I suppose. I worked hard, took risks, kicked down the doors of an exclusive profession. I felt lucky to have a war or three to advance my career.
And when people asked, I told them I’d do this forever. I’d been shot at and survived. I’d gotten dysentery twice—and healed. I’d waded through a sea of body parts in the aftermath of a suicide bombing and never had a single nightmare about it. I’d been scared for my life more than once—and had gotten over it.
I was smart. I was tough. I was lucky.
Until I wasn’t.
On March 19, 2011, in Pakhab-e-Shana, in Logar province just south of Kabul, my mine-resistant, ambushed-protected armored truck, or MRAP, rolled over a buried IED with a pressure-plate trigger. The weight of the truck compressed two metal plates—one connected to a power source, the other to the detonator.
There were seven of us in the truck. Five soldiers from the New York-based 10th Mountain Division. One Pashto-speaking interpreter. Me. We were in Pakhab-e-Shana as part of President Obama’s troop surge—an escalation of the war that he apparently believed would result in lasting security in Afghanistan.
It didn’t. And in the course of trying, many more Americans were added to the tally of American dead that, for our post-9/11 wars, today numbers 6,888 service members killed—most recently Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Thompson, killed in an explosion in southern Afghanistan on Aug. 23—and no fewer than 35,000 wounded. And that’s not counting contractors and other civilians. IEDs have accounted for thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries. Improvised bombs are hardly new, but our wars of occupation, combined with the relative poverty of the extremists fighting against us in those wars, have afforded the devices their historical moment.
You want to know what it feels like to get blown up? (I’m shouting these words in my head as I write them.) Fine, motherfuckers, fine. Here’s what it feels like. Here’s what it was like as my perfect 9/11 life shattered into a million pieces. Here, I imagine, is something like what tens of thousands of other American IED survivors experience when they close their eyes, let down their guards, and remember.
The sound was so loud that, when I recall the explosion, it’s always silent. No reasonably healthy mind would subject itself to that kind of trauma a second time. But there was a sound. A cosmic thunderclap. A force so powerful it dislodged me from normal time. One second I was strapped into the MRAP, eating nacho chips from a tiny bag I had saved from the previous day’s lunch.
The next second, the vehicle—with me and the six others in it—was flying through the air. It flew so slowly, dust jetting from every nook and cranny, light angling weirdly through the thickly armored windows, that I had time to realize what was happening and ponder what it all meant. I mean, I had time for a good long think. I realized I might die. I wasn’t upset about it. I admitted to myself that it was my own damn fault for voluntarily hanging around all these war zones all these years.
I was, however, disappointed. Thirty-two years of life. All that work. All that growth. All that potential. And it was all about to end in a huge gnarly mess. We’re just bodies, after all. Even the strongest of us breaks easily amid steel and fire and force. Why had I ever imagined I was the sole exception?
I didn’t die, of course. And aside from a nasty gash on my right bicep, still visible five years later as a 2-inch whitish scar, I wasn’t even obviously physically injured. I can’t say the same for the six other men in the truck. Among them, there were broken bones, deep lacerations, concussions, and at least one serious—and apparently career-ending—brain injury.
American, Afghan, and Jordanian soldiers pulled us out of the twisted wreckage of our truck. Helicopters lifted out the five most badly injured, leaving just me and one other soldier with the convoy. A medic assessed me for a brain injury. Later, at a nearby base, an Army doctor repeated the assessment. No one seemed particularly worried for me. I’m just a civilian, after all. And I’d only been blown up the one time.
So I bought new pants at the base store to replace my bomb-shredded jeans, super-glued my smashed glasses back together, and, well, got back to work. I was sore as hell, but everything seemed to function just fine.
But bombs injure us in subtle ways. A year after the explosion, I got into my first bar fight. I started yelling at my girlfriend way too much. I developed a bad habit of flipping out anytime anyone around me expressed an opinion about war that I didn’t agree with.
Maybe I’m just an asshole and always have been. Or maybe, just maybe, my brain is different from how it was on March 18, 2011. Dr. Timothy Bentley, a researcher at the Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Virginia, believes explosions could cause bubbles to form inside people’s brains. The subsequent popping of the bubbles, a process called “cavitation,” could damage brain cells and, over time, contribute to a host of conditions.
Long-term post-traumatic stress. Loss of hearing and eyesight. Even Alzheimer’s. “It’s such a powerful force,” Bentley told The Daily Beast of cavitation. I continue to suffer from PTSD stemming from the 2011 explosion. It doesn’t help that time, I now know, is rubber—and it keeps snapping me back to the moment of the blast, those two seconds that lasted forever. My hearing and eyesight seem to be fine, thank God. As for Alzheimer’s… well, we’ll see, won’t we?
Indeed, America’s going to spend the next 60 or 70 years discovering just what happens over the long term when you scramble the brains of tens of thousands of young men and women. In the year 2076, an epidemic of brain injuries might be one of the most lasting legacies of 9/11.
I believe that will be the case for me. The 9/11 attacks made me who I am. And now they’re unmaking me, one bad memory and angry outburst at a time. Five years after I—and my wartime fantasy—first exploded, I’m still exploding.