On his first combat mission in Afghanistan's bloody Wardak Province, Thom Kenney was blown up by an improvised explosive device. The vehicle in which he was riding was destroyed, and when he came home a year ago he was still dealing with the effects of mild traumatic brain injury.
On Monday, Kenney narrowly avoided being blown up again by a bomb similar to the IED that nearly took his life in Afghanistan -- this time in once-peaceful downtown Boston.
Like other combat veterans at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, he immediately crouched down, exchanging a knowing glance with a woman next to him who said she was an Iraq combat veteran. "We immediately recognized that noise," he said. "Then we kind of dismissed that thought -- no, no way this was an IED."
But the blasts were from explosives, and with them came the awful realization that the perils Kenney and others volunteered to fight on distant battlefields have come directly home.
Authorities are not saying whether the twin bombs detonated in Boston Monday were IEDs set by terrorists, domestic or foreign, but the devices precisely mirrored the weapons used with deadly effect against U.S. troops and local civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade of war. Relatively small and unsophisticated, the bombs are designed to maim more than to kill.
More than 2,600 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan alone by IEDs since 2002. But 10 times that number have been physically wounded, most of them by IEDs. Tens of thousands of others have come home to struggle with the effects of combat trauma and the exposure to the IED blasts that have become common in war.
Now, the threat of IEDs has grown far beyond traditional battlefields. Since January 2011, IEDs have been set off more than 10,000 times across 112 countries, Lt. Gen. Michael D. Barbero, the Pentagon's top counter-IED officer, said last fall. The design and use of IEDs, he said, is "increasing in sophistication and proliferating globally."
Two months ago the White House released a new counter-IED strategy that said the administration is "expanding and broadening its counter-IED focus" in response to the evolving threat. An internal U.S. threat assessment provided to The Huffington Post recently warned that Americans should "expect IED attacks by homegrown violent extremists (HVE) and individuals." The assessment said "high profile events will present additional targets."
Few know better than combat veterans the awful and enduring effects of these IEDs -- and the gnawing fears and deep sorrow set off by Monday's explosions. For many of them, the blasts and screams validated the anxiety they feel after returning home -- a constant worry that bombs will go off in their shopping center, their kids' school, along a peaceful highway.
For Kenney, a 43-year-old Army Reserve captain from Sudbury, Mass., Monday's bombings let loose a flood of memories and emotions. "All the work I have done not to jump at loud explosions and sounds -- the majority of that work is pretty much gone now," he told The Huffington Post.
"What is most difficult for me is to hear my daughter asking me, 'So Daddy, that's what an IED sounds like?'" he said.
"I went to Afghanistan to try to bring some peace to the world so my children and nieces and nephews didn't have to face this in the future," he continued. "Now they know what it's like to be around a blast, to be in a situation where somebody is trying to kill you for God knows what reason.
"That innocence lost is profound -- the thing I always wanted to avoid."
Matt Zeller had a similar reaction, though he lives hundreds of miles away in northern Virginia. Zeller, 31, was an embedded combat trainer as an Army lieutenant in Afghanistan's Ghazni province in 2008. There, he was blown up in IED blasts "numerous times," once during his second week in Afghanistan. An IED explosion destroyed and set on fire the lead vehicle in a convoy and the Taliban attacked with machine guns, mortars and RPGs.
The memories of the fighting, the terror, the dead and wounded, the heroism, followed him home to safety.
"I remember thinking when I got back -- 'Hey! I just drove to the grocery store and nobody tried to blow me up,'" he said. "'Isn't America a great place?'" But he would still have to push away the fear that he'd be stuck in traffic somewhere and bombs would start going off and there'd be nowhere to go. Couldn't happen here, he kept telling himself.
"I panicked. I got afraid, tensed up, started reliving the events I'd been through," Zeller said Tuesday. He called Army buddies to make sure they were okay. "Then I started war-gaming, what would I do if this happened in my neighborhood, how would I respond, what would I do?"
Military therapists and psychologists have found that relaxation techniques, including deep breathing, yoga and centering exercises can help veterans and others suffering traumatic stress. The techniques help veterans to feel safe and secure and put their past experiences behind them by focusing on the present.
Beyond the immediate trauma of the Boston bombings lie greater concerns for many veterans. Zeller said he worries that Americans' assumption of safety, their innocence about the real world, is gone.
"This was the day we crossed into another world that only a couple of societies on our planet experience," he said. "I joined the Army so my 10-month-old daughter could remain blissfully ignorant. I wanted her to grow up never having to witness something like this and never having to be truly afraid."
Like others entranced by news coverage of the Boston blasts, Zeller noted that among the first rescuers were two soldiers in combat uniforms rushing in to help the wounded. "The best of us was on display," Zeller said. "We live in a wonderful open society and that's what makes us so resilient."
"We can bounce back from this -- but the day Americans get afraid going about their daily business, if we give up some of our rights," he said, then whoever set off the Boston bombs, "they kind of win."