Link to Kindle version:

 Blast Wave (Post and Courier Selects)

An exploding bomb unleashes a nearly invisible wave of pressure that hits as hard as a boxer’s blow. Tens of thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been exposed to these blasts, leaving some with lasting brain damage. This is a story about invisible injuries, what sports is teaching the military about concussions, and what military bomb hunters are teaching us in return.

By Tony Bartelme

April 2010, Helmand Province. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jonathan “Bax” Baxley is in an armored troop carrier, strapped in the gunner’s turret. His fingers warm the handle of an M240 machine gun; his eyes scan the Afghan plains for Taliban and IEDs. 

From his perch, Baxley can see that the late afternoon sun has lost its glare, casting everything around his convoy in a hundred shades of orange. Craggy mountains are to his right, a village to his left, and straight ahead is an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade he needs to get rid of.

Bad time to be out here; insurgents are fair-weather fighters; they typically strike in the cool of the morning, or when the worst of the day’s heat has passed, like now. Baxley talks through a headset to a medic below who’s on his first tour. Small talk. What do you think about Afghanistan? Having fun yet?

Baxley is with Charleston’s 628th Civil Engineering Squad, 24 years old this late afternoon, solidly built. When he was growing up on James Island, family friends called him “Tiny” because he grew faster than his peers. But now his open and wide face makes him look younger than his age, boyish. Except for his brown eyes. They’re steady, like a batter looking at a pitcher.

He’d played baseball in high school. He’d always been a team player. He was the middle child in the family, the peacemaker, calm and helpful, the one who asked his mom, “Can I stir?” when she made things in the kitchen. Coaches liked his steel and sent him in to pitch when things were falling apart.
Calm on the surface, sure. But, he was also that kid who waited extra at amusement parks for the roller coaster’s front seat, who threw everything he had into driveway basketball with his best friend, Ryan.

Yes, he needed adrenaline and competition in his life, so after high school, when someone said he would make a good bomb hunter, his ears perked up. He talked to Air Force recruiters about EOD, explosive ordnance disposal, watched videos about EOD “operators” at work, and the fuse was lit. You had to be smart to disable a bomb, unflinching under pressure, a team player. You had to think like a terrorist, then beat their booby traps or die trying. You had periods of waiting and tension, then bursts of activity. Just like baseball.

Except, you can’t drop the ball when you work around bombs. Baxley had seen the stakes on his first deployment in Iraq in 2009. He was assigned to an Army unit clearing roads of improvised explosive devices. On one mission, a troop carrier in front of him hit an IED, flipping the vehicle like a pancake, crushing and killing the soldier in the turret.

Now, a year, Baxley is in the turret. Around his face is a shemagh, an Afghan wrap that keeps him from choking on dust from the two trucks in front. His convoy veers off a dirt road and follows a cattle path to avoid mines. The live RPG is up ahead. Then, all at once, motion, noise, dust, smoke.

           BLAST FORCES

It’s easy to make a bomb. Just get some fertilizer, aluminum powder, gasoline and mix it in a jug – the Taliban often use yellow palm oil containers. Now, with a 9-volt battery and wires, hook it to a small explosive to make a detonator. Close the circuit and let the chemistry begin.

The detonator fires, pumping energy toward that mix you just made in the palm oil jug. In a fraction of a second, this injection of energy causes the molecules in the jug to go berserk and generate a blast wave of gas and heat. The blast wave expands at 900 mph or more, usually too fast to see with the naked eye.
In physics, actions trigger reactions, and as the wave speeds outward, it leaves a vacuum in its wake. Air molecules fill this void, creating a powerful backward-moving force called a blast wind – blast wave, blast wind; a punch to the front and one from behind.

Unless blocked, these blast forces easily rip apart tissues, especially something as thin and fragile as an eardrum. When they hit body organs filled with air or fluids, the effect is like someone stomping on balloons. Lungs collapse, spleens compress, bladders explode. Blast waves can even affect bone marrow. After a blast, your body may look perfectly fine on the outside, but your insides might have been blown to pieces. The same goes for your brain, pulsating with electricity, blood and thoughts.


Baxley feels the front of the troop carrier rise 45 degrees, then slam down, like an alligator snapping its snout. Sixteen tons of metal and flesh hit the sun-baked dirt. Dust blocks his vision. He checks himself. Everything intact. “Everyone OK? Everyone OK?” 

Then, from a hill about 500 yards away, a blast of bullets hits the convoy. Ambush. Physics also applies to war, and the Marines react by pumping waves of gunfire back at the hill. The air around Baxley is filled with noise from machine guns and the pings of bullets hitting the troop carrier, until an American helicopter gunship charges in and the insurgents slink away ...

For the rest of the story, please visit Amazon for a cheap Kindle version of the story, which details how TBI became an important part of military thinking because of some brilliant thinkers in sports and science. 

Blast Wave (Post and Courier Selects)


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