The synthesizer music started playing. Oh, snap, I thought, picturing myself in a German club, dressed like one of the guys from Saturday Night Live’s Sprocket’s skit. Here come zee party, boyz. The banger kicked off with two bubble-gum pop voices speaking in slightly accented English:
Do you wanna go for a ride?
A guttural voice came out of nowhere, “Come on, Barbie, let’s go party.” The beat dropped. Standing in the air hatch of a Stryker on patrol in Mosul, Iraq, I couldn’t help it, I had to start dancing. I kept my rifle at the ready, my head on a swivel and my eyes looking for foreign objects, but my body was rocking.
We weren’t allowed to listen to music on patrol because it could distract us from focusing our full attention on the work. The problem was that tunes were about the only thing that kept you from going insane.
Our vehicle commander would rig up an iPod to the Stryker’s internal radio system so we could put on our helmets and listen to music. Most of his playlist was red-blooded infantry music like Marilyn Manson, DMX, and Iron Maiden. But every now and then we had a dance party, as we were now with Aqua’s 1997 hit, “Barbie Girl.”
The music took hold, and I couldn’t help but shake my hips to the sick beat. A second later my torso caught the virus and I began swaying left and right; the movement was made a bit more difficult by the confines of the air hatch and the M4 in my hand. Finally, my brain caught fire and I nodded up and down to the music. Halfway through the next gravelly “Come on Barbie, let’s go party,” the improvised explosive device hit us.
We were enveloped with smoke and flames. Air whooshed around us. The heat was intense on my face and hands, the parts of me not covered by my uniform. My eyes burned and watered, stinging from the heat. I couldn’t breathe. Then all the air came back and I sucked in a lungful of air mixed with smoke. I started coughing and gasping, tears streaming from my eyes. The heat and smoke dissipated, and I breathed in and out for a moment. I was alive. I focused on calming myself when every nerve wanted to stand up and start firing my weapon in the dark.
Smoldering ashes and bits of shrapnel covered my uniform. They looked like little red-hot embers from a fire. Most were burning themselves out on top of my uniform, leaving small brown circles. But some of the shrapnel was solid bits of metal. As though I were covered in fire ants, I wiped my arms down from shoulder to wrist to get off the burning debris.
I checked for casualties and vehicle damage—none—and then stood up out of the vehicle. There was a crater 20 meters away from my Stryker. No one saw the spotter or the triggerman, and we determined there was no secondary device.
It was my first IED attack, and it was over. But a powerful high coursing through my body and mind was just getting started. It was like I had just done an intense workout. Exhilaration and adrenaline flowed, as if I had just stepped off a steep and violent roller coaster. I was no longer tired; in fact, I was more alert and ready to rock than I had ever been—I wanted to do a few wind sprints and then run 10 miles. I was focused like a razor.
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In a few minutes, we realized there was no more danger. The high stayed a bit more but my focus was destroyed by a mental and emotional jumble. My first thought was that I would get a Combat Infantryman’s Badge by satisfactorily performing infantry duties (not running away) in the face of an armed enemy (the IED). I felt happy and even laughed to myself a bit; I just got blown up, I had been a target and I felt so happy.
My next thought was why did someone just try to kill me? What had I ever done to them? This was accompanied by rage at the unknown terrorist that I had not had the chance to kill.
The mental chatter and the emotions subsided after a few minutes.
The blast hadn’t been close or powerful enough to do any damage. All the vehicles and people were fine, so we continued our mission. We went door to door around the area, questioning people. Had they seen anything? Why was there an IED on their street? Where was Ali Baba? It was slang most used to mean terrorist. The windows of all the nearby houses had been shattered; we figured that had they known about the attack, they would have opened their windows beforehand to avoid them breaking in the concussive force. But who really knows?
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We searched and patrolled for a few more hours and then drove up to high ground in our area of operations. We faced the Strykers outward and set up a watch, while those not on watch dozed a bit in the vehicles. I figured music on patrol was probably a bad idea going forward, but I couldn’t let “Barbie Girl” be the last song I listened to. I smoked a cigarette, an Iraqi brand called Miami, and listened to Johnny Cash’s “Burning Ring of Fire.”