SOLDIER STORIES: I wasn’t ready for the smell.
(Combat narrative blogpost by Joseph Miller, 14 OCT 2013 via PTSD: A Soldier’s Perspective.)
Author’s Note: [Massive Trigger Warning.] This describes violence and will trigger PTSD symptoms. In my initial blogpost describing this incident, Terrible Moments, I purposefully omitted smell because it was too much to write in one installment.
As a platoon leader I was ready to lead my soldiers, even in the most trying of circumstances, but when I arrived to the aftermath of a suicide bomber detonated on a crowd of civilians I wasn’t prepared for the smell. In my experience blood doesn’t have a smell at first, although it is very visible, tends to flood your memory and when it stains clothing that smell imprints itself on the memory event as it were there in the moment. In honesty that street corner mostly smelled like dirt and dust, because the explosion had picked it up off of the ground. The smell of explosives was present, I was used to those smells, but the smell of burning flesh was much more apparent and different then anything I had ever experienced (still this was muted by the overwhelming smell of scattered dirt and dust). The smell of burned flesh was like smell of burnt hair, yet exponentially grown by the scale of that terrible day in northern Iraq. This mixed with the smell of burning meat, though completely unappetizing and unseasoned. The only way I can describe the smell of peoples skin is that it was as if leather was left out in the rain long enough to fester slightly, and then it was burned, or at least how I image that would smell. The addition of the burnt clothing created an earthy smell, which was a mixture of burning leaves and grass/marijuana.
Still, no matter how traumatic the stench of death and violence was I mostly inhaled the terrible smell common in the urban centers of Iraq created by the burnt trash, raw sewage flowing through the streets, and the awful smell that the dirt and dust made as it lodged itself into your nasal passages. A not so insignificant part of the awful smell of Iraq was my body odor, because I lived in an outpost and showered weekly at best. Only that day the smell of Iraq was amplified by an explosion that wafted it through the air. Despite the stench, I refused to throw away my flesh stained boots, because I would spend a lifetime, if necessary, walking that smell away. After nine years and thousands of miles it is still there in my boots, so are the bloodstains, and the barbwire scratches I got rushing to that intersection on another night. That smell has also stained my very being as an unmovable and unalterable weight on my memory. Even during exercise my sweat pours more profusely than it did before and rather than overpowering the stench of that day the sweat contributes to it as if my every pore was endeavoring to recreate the smells of that moment. Stress sweat is more pungent than normal thermal regulatory perspiration. My body remains attached to the muted ammonia smell of muscle deterioration that comes with the body’s processing of the stress chemical cortisol. I have smelled fresh cow brands and had a terrible panic attack. Anytime I smell burning hair, unseasoned meat, grass, warm sewage in a portable toilet, marijuana or the dust of the desert I am back there again: only naked, unarmored, helpless, and alone. My heart races and I can’t seem to breath.
The stench combined with the chaotic sights, sounds, my internal dialogue, and physical sensations, though the smell was by far the worst of all my sensations that day (well that and feeling the weight and limpness of a dead flesh). Smells today are forever different and can send me into PTSD symptoms, often simply sicken me, or worst give me terrible migraine headaches. A lifetime of therapy and doing the right things to manage PTSD will never make that memory less burdensome. Although, I am still proud that I have refused to get rid of those boots because they are like my tattoos, a symbol of my commitment to deal with the violence I witnessed: to face my PTSD. Preserving my boots, even if they still smelled like that day in the hopes of walking them clean, was the first gesture of my efforts to face my burdensome memories no matter how terrible, with as much honor and strength as possible. The smells are certainly less pungent now, and the memory is too, at least with every attempt to understand and accept them. As if taking the time to remember that awful stench, or any sensation for that matter as it was, or as they were, reduces their terrible grasp on my life.