On a recent break from Iraq, I found myself sitting in Washington, D.C., at a bar on Connecticut Avenue within walking distance from the White House. I was there catching up with a longtime friend, who was eager to hear stories about life in the world's most prominent war zone. I explained that on average daily existence is a mix of thrills, horror and boredom. Whole afternoons pass in which nothing much happens as I sit in TIME's Baghdad bureau outside the Green Zone, essentially under house arrest since kidnapping threats make venturing out too dangerous even with a squad of bodyguards. Other days I spend on embed with the U.S. military, where soldierly doldrums are punctuated by episodes of high adventure. One moment you're eating a plate of tasteless food in a chow hall. Hours later you're right behind U.S. troops as they kick in a door where insurgents might he hiding.
And then there are the explosions, which go off around you in Iraq at varying distances from time to time wherever you go. After hearing all this, my friend asked: What does it feel like, physically, when a bomb goes off?
I struggled to explain it then, but I've been thinking about it ever since off and on, especially in the aftermath of a car bomb a few days ago that killed an estimated 10 people a few blocks from where I live.
The truth is, each one is a little different. I got my first feel for explosions in Afghanistan in December of 2001, when I was reporting on the siege of Tora Bora. A volley of mortars fell on a front-line position I visited one day. The fear stands out most in my mind when conjuring the memory. I remember thinking: "Run, don't die here. Run, don't die here" over and over again. But physically? Well, when the closest mortar fell atop a large rock under which I was cowering, the sensation was like being punched hard in the back of the head with a big fist while someone threw rocks in my face at the same time.
I've felt at least a dozen other explosions in Iraq to some degree. Most often a blast somewhere in Baghdad echoes in the city as I sit in my bedroom/office, and it feels like a single beat from a bass drum at a rock concert. Sometimes the bombs are nearer, though. The one near the bureau the other day was close enough to feel in my jaw. There was the sound of the blast, the shake of the windows and the instinctive clamping of my mouth, which for a moment felt as though it were twisted shut with the sharp turn of a screwdriver.
Not long ago, I was in Diyala province, sitting in the back seat of a Humvee as it rolled down a dirt road on the outskirts of Baqubah. The roadside bomb we triggered went off directly under me. Luckily, it was relatively small, and the armor protected everyone inside from serious injury. But everyone was left in pain. The moment of the blast felt like ice picks plunging in both ears at once. A second later, thick whitish smoke filled the cab, and inhaling it instantly formed a throbbing headache comparable to my most vicious hangovers.
The worst sensation comes, of course, when the blast is nearest. In December, I was in Ramadi. After a short foot patrol with Marines, I walked back into the tiny base nestled on a bad street in the city. Minutes after I entered, a huge mortar slammed into the doorway through which I just passed. The entire building shook as though some huge hand had shoved it. Inside, I felt like my bones for a second had turned to metal, and someone had rung me with a sledgehammer.
This afternoon, I was walking near the site of the new U.S. embassy under construction in the Green Zone. I thought of going a little out of my way to stroll down the street it's on and have a look at how things are coming. But then I thought better of it. Mortars have been falling around there lately, so I moved away instead.