I had a lip full of Copenhagen and was sitting, talking with Schoby when I heard a sound like a piece of paper ripping in half, like the bottle rockets I’d shoot off when I was a kid. Two more rips came in quick succession. In the span of a second, and without any conscious thought, primal instinct gripped me: My stomach dropped. Everything tensed. I struggled to draw in breath. My body knew before my mind—danger was imminent. Like wild animals caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck, Schoby and I froze and looked at each other. I broke the moment and stood up.
As I started to tell Schoby that we should put on our body armor, a massive blast knocked me down; the impact reverberated through my entire body. Parts of the wall shook loose, and all the equipment that wasn’t nailed down lifted a foot or so in the air and crashed back down to earth. The dust, dirt, and sand that had caked the room were thrown skyward and hung in the air, choking and blinding me.
Another blast shook the building seconds later and sent me hurtling into the hallway. Confusion swept over me, and I sat halfway up. Everywhere I looked, bodies were pressed as close to the floor as possible. I rolled over, pressing my entire being into the ground. People began passing body armor to each other to lay over themselves when there was another earth-shattering blast.
I drove my face into the floor, trying to merge with it, to become as small as possible. Terror radiated from my gut up through my throat, lodging itself in my chest and brain. Death seemed certain. There was another blast.
My thoughts raced as I looked for a way to get to safety, but thoughts couldn’t save me. I prayed for my death to be fast. I hoped it would be one of the rocket blasts. The only alternative was being buried alive under the collapsing building. I looked up and saw a soldier from Comanche Company lying next to me, nearly face to face. We made quick eye contact, and I saw the terror in his eyes. I knew mine were no better. We were hit with another blast.
I became oddly aware of the Copenhagen. My mouth had dried up, and the dip felt like a stone against my gums. I spat it out. The wad of dip landed next to my hands. I became conscious of how long my nails were. I had read somewhere that WWI soldiers who’d gotten buried in trenches during shelling would try quickly to dig their way out to avoid suffocation. I started grinding my nails against the tile floor in rapid side-to-side motions. Get my nails shorter, I thought, in case I have to dig. Another blast rocked us. I marveled that I was still alive and wondered if the next would be my final one. Terror and helplessness consumed me. In my mind all that existed was survival. My thoughts were animal. I cowered like a mouse in danger, hiding from bright lights, as if the rockets were blasting away all layers of humanity. There was no higher-order thought, no purpose or meaning, no soul. Nothing existed except wanting to not die. Another blast. In the span of 30 seconds, six rockets had slammed into our combat outpost—30 seconds from man to mouse.
Then it stopped. Was it over? I stood up. My legs ached like I had just run 10 miles. My body was a jumble of sensations: My arms, legs, and all my joints felt loose all over, like a giant hand had picked me up, shaken me vigorously, and put me back down. The adrenaline made me high, but my head throbbed with pain. My taste buds, made prominent by dryness, scraped against the roof of my mouth. Oscillating between confusion and clarity, I walked into the Commander’s room; my Sergeant Major muttered to himself while he put on his body armor. “They can’t get me—think they can get me—they can’t get me.”
On the floor outside the Commander’s room lay the Captain who was supposed to replace me on duty. His face was beet-red and scrunched up like he was about to kick someone’s ass—fury instead of terror. I started to walk toward the command post, but I didn’t make it. The world exploded again—number seven—and I was knocked off my feet. I waited a full minute. Is it really over this time?
The seventh rocket turned out to be the last; the building was still standing. I walked back into the command post and noticed parts of the wall and equipment all over the floor. Schoby had somehow gotten on his body armor and was trying to work the radio. Our Battalion Operations Officer materialized from the smoke and dust, bellowing, “GET ON THE RADIO.” But it had been blown apart. I told him, and he shouted back, “GET TO A RADIO ON A STRYKER OUTSIDE.”
My head started to clear. Schoby and I made our way out of the building. No soldiers appeared to be hurt, but they looked as though they were waking up from a particularly deep nap. Their glazed eyes stared at me as I ran down the hall to the stairs. The first floor, where the Iraqi Army and police lived, was covered in rubble and looked like several walls had been blown out. I saw blood sprayed across one of the remaining walls as I ran out of the building, but I didn’t stop. We found a Stryker; I got on the radio and started reporting to higher command.
Slowly the world came back into focus, and I was flooded by relief, as though I were taking a huge breath of air after having been underwater too long. We took very few injuries, the worst of which was a broken leg, sustained by a man who had been taking a shower when the rockets hit. Had the Captain replacing me on duty arrived on time, I’d have been in the shower instead. Physically I’d escaped the attack unscathed, though I had probably been concussed. Those were a dime a dozen to an Infantryman. While on the radio, trying to bring some semblance of order back to our operations, a disturbing memory came unbidden:
When I was 13, I shot a frog with a blowgun. He moved slowly, gently hopping about 10 feet away from me. I aimed and, with a short breath, launched the dart toward him. It hit his lumpy skin with a thump. He kept jumping, so I shot him a few more times. I remember his fearful jumps and my sleek steel darts crashing into him one after another. It must have lasted about a minute. I went and pulled my darts out of the frog, and he hopped away. I think he lived, but whatever rudimentary consciousness the frog had must have felt utterly helpless and fearful; I understood that now. I thought that maybe the frog had finally gotten his revenge.