Those are the eyes of a demon. The unbidden thought flitted through my mind as my eyes swept over two streetlights about 300 meters ahead. We slowed to a smooth five to 10 miles per hour, our heads swiveling, looking for signs of enemy activity during curfew hours or anything out of place, like boxes, wires, irregular shapes—anything indicating an IED.
As we drove on toward the streetlights, my Platoon Sergeant radioed that he’d spotted a car on a street about 50 meters to our right. I radioed back, telling him to dismount and check the vehicle. My Stryker and the one behind mine parked under the streetlights while he stopped the car violating curfew. I continued to scan the neighborhood, enjoying the coolness of evening. Ten minutes later he radioed back. The driver was an old lady needing medication; he was going to let her go. Roger, I said. Then my body collapsed. I folded backward like some kind of war yogi, knees buckling and back arching like a bow.
I didn’t hear a blast. My memory of what happened next feels vivid, but memory’s a tricky thing, and I don’t know now how much is true. But I know what I remember: Flames whooshed up and around me and then vanished, and I was surrounded by thick black and gray smoke. The oxygen in the truck had been displaced or consumed by the explosion, and I gulped for air, opening and closing my mouth like a fish out of water. My head swam and my vision blurred. A grueling moment later, sweet oxygen rushed in and filled my lungs. I pulled myself into a more upright position and yelled to see if anyone was hurt.
I struggle now to distinguish between what is nightmare and what was reality. Blood washed the walls of the vehicle, coming down like a waterfall and crashing together like red rapids on the floor. The sheer volume of blood shocked me—as if it were a hot summer day on the streets of New York City and someone had opened up a fire hydrant for kids to play, except the fire hydrant gushed blood. A lieutenant who had been riding along with me moved rapidly to place a bandage on one of my Squad Leader’s legs. I called for our medic on the radio and moved to the injured man.
He was conscious. The blood streaked in little rivers down his fish-white and hairy leg from the wound on his thigh. The other Lieutenant placed a pressure dressing on him, but it wasn’t enough; we needed to get him back to the combat support hospital right away or he would bleed out.
My Platoon Sergeant’s Stryker caught up to us, and our medic hopped over, coming in through one of the top hatches; the ramp on the back of the truck was too badly damaged to open. He double-checked my Squad Leader’s pressure dressing and scanned the rest of the team—miraculously, no one else was hurt. Could all the blood I saw have come from him, or has my imagination amplified reality?
We sped to the combat support hospital, pushing our Strykers to the max. As we approached the gate, we popped some red chemlights, signalling an emergency and to clear traffic and let us in ASAP. We rushed into the hospital, and my radio operator and I entered the makeshift operating room. My Squad Leader lay on a steel table, clothed on top but naked from the waist down. The back of his upper thigh looked like someone had used an ice cream scoop to take a scoop three inches deep out of his flesh. We watched the combat surgeons begin work. Later he told me he hadn’t felt much pain, only embarrassment that he hadn’t shaved his balls in a while and there were pretty nurses around.
While we watched the docs, my radio operator lurched toward a big plastic trash can and started violently vomiting. Like most of the guys in the vehicle, he’d been seriously concussed, but had held it together long enough to make sure I was physically and mentally OK; as Platoon Leader and radio operator, we were attached at the hip. Some nurses came over to help.
I sat down as the nurses cared for him, and replayed the event. Did I do everything right? What had I missed? I was on my eighth or so replay when I remembered my stray thought, the eyes of the demon. I had seen the lights, I had thought of demon eyes, we had parked under the lights, and then we were hit with an IED. And then it came to me: In about two months in Iraq, with at least a dozen or so night patrols under my belt, those lights had never been on during previous patrols. Whoever had placed the IED must have turned on or fixed those lights and used them as aiming posts to know when to trigger the device.
I had parked our vehicle right on top of an IED.