The first indication that someone is trying to kill you is the bang. The sound of an ordnance detonation is difficult to describe. Imagine the rolling of thunder compressed into the space of a split second. It's sudden, piercing--and before you're even consciously aware that someone has just attempted to end your life, your body has already reacted.
You tense up, freeze. Your heart either skips a beat or gives a hard throb; it's difficult to tell which. Your eyes snap wide open on instinct. Thanks to repetitive drills, you find your gaze drawn to your weapon, then the nearest hardened shelter. Then you start moving. Because the next rocket might already be incoming.
The closest I've been to getting killed was a week into January. It was Monday--pasta night at the DFAC (the chow hall). I scanned my ID at the entrance, stepped inside, washed my hands, and grabbed my recycled cardboard tray. Standing behind the chow line was an Afghan cafeteria worker dressed all in white. We nodded at each other, and I reached out with my tray. Just as the words,
“Spaghetti please," were forming on my lips, there came a terrific bang somewhere outside.
If there was any question that we had just been hit by Indirect Fire (IDF), the explosion was immediately followed by this indefinable noise--I'd call it a combination of a whoosh and a snap. That's the signature of a 107mm rocket: the detonation, followed by the report of its transit.
The Afghan server's eyes went round. Without hesitation, he and his local coworkers began hurrying for the exit and the concrete shelter bunker outside. This, while us Americans were sitting or standing around looking at each other as if to say, “Seriously? This again?" I legitimately considered reaching over the counter and spooning the spaghetti onto the tray myself.
Then the sirens started going off. The urgency of the sound alarmed me--which of course is what it's designed for. Dropping the empty tray, securing my M16, I rushed out into the Afghan dusk. I crossed the street at a near-sprint and hurried into my unit's Tactical Operations Center (TOC), which is a hardened building all but immune to rocket strikes.
Just as I'd shut the door behind me, there was a tremendous explosion outside. It was so close that I felt the concussion through the steel door. The realization hit me then: the second rocket had struck right where I'd just been running. I was safe in the TOC, but I trembled knowing how close I'd come. If I'd left the DFAC five seconds later, I could have been injured or perhaps killed.
Sometimes the insurgents will attack during the night. Every time, without fail, I'll snap awake five minutes beforehand. An Afghan helicopter was recently destroyed by a lucky rocket strike not a hundred yards from the place where I work. On the tarmac just fifty yards from my office, another 107 hit during my shift but failed to explode. Instead, it bounced right off the asphalt and punched through a fence, then through both sides of a shipping container. There's a gouge in the blacktop as long as a forearm. In another part of the base, a round hit a fence right beside the road I run on every day. By strange coincidence, I'd randomly decided not to go for a run on that particular day.
I don't believe in God. But sometimes you can't help but feel that someone is watching out for you.