The War's Invisible Wounded
Credit: Zuma

It had all the makings of a miserable night, and the convoy commander wasn't helping. On a barbarous stretch of road 10 clicks south of Baghdad, he ordered the mile-long procession to halt so his men could dismount and fix the chains. They were running top-heavy, carrying Abrams tanks on enormous flatbeds, and he feared that one of the tanks would pry loose. But stopping was always a bad idea, particularly on Military Supply Route Tampa, where insurgents lurked in culverts and concrete huts, holding remotes for roadside bombs. Hence, the first rule of resupply work: The convoy never stops.

From the turret of a Humvee, riding flank protection, Corporal Kevin Workman listened through headphones as his lieutenant pressed the commander to keep moving. They'd been strafed repeatedly on MSR Tampa, and with dusk coming on, pulling off was begging to be ambushed. But the commander insisted and the convoy braked.

The first shots came from Workman's left – a machine gun in the distance. To his right, he spotted a burst from a second gunner. Workman was returning fire with his balky .50-cal when he saw a white pickup barreling at him. Its lights were off and its truck bed heavy, the sure M.O. of a suicide driver hauling a VBIED, or vehicle-borne bomb. Workman let go with a thunderhead of bullets: The truck didn't explode so much as vaporize, blowing up a mist of phosphorus and blood and the stray, flaming parabola of a tire. Workman was getting kudos from his crew below when he saw a second pickup making for him. "VBIED!" he yelled and opened up with all he had. He quickly killed the driver but the truck kept coming, coasting on its own initiative, 60 meters out and closing. When it blew, says Workman, "it was like a black-and-white movie, this monster coming at me through the ground."

Hurled backward by the blast, he cracked his head against the turret before spiraling through the hatch, feet first. He landed on his side and awoke to find his lieutenant hollering in his face. "Couldn't hear a word he was saying," says Workman. "He was bleeding from both eardrums, just like me." Workman finally twigged that his lieutenant wanted him topside, and so, disoriented and in blue-light pain, he crawled back up as tracers sizzled a foot above him. Somehow, he got off a group of shots that knocked out one of the snipers, and as the convoy sped away, the second gunner melted into the dunes. "An amazing act of courage," says Workman's lieutenant, James Childers, now a captain. "Kevin saved our necks. We were sitting dead to rights."

Workman's crew guided the convoy north to a base 20 miles up the road. There, they topped off ammo and sat dazed through dinner. "I had a killer headache and was sore all over but figured I was good to go," says Workman. "In fact, I thought, I'm lucky: I just got exploded, and lookit – not a stitch of metal in me."

He had no way of knowing what had happened inside his skull. When he slammed against the turret, his brain, which, like all brains, has the texture of tepid Jell-O, was sent smashing off the superhard sheath of his skull, then caromed back again when he fell forward. That "coup contrecoup," as neurologists call it, bruised the front and rear of his brain. He awoke with a concussion, some permanent loss of hearing, and several herniated discs at the top of his spine that would make the ensuing headaches all the fiercer. But that blow was the least of it. In the fraction of a second after the VBIED exploded, the shock of pressurized air that had thrown him backward punched through his heavy Kevlar vest. This wave, which would likely have killed him in wars past by collapsing his lungs, did no harm to his major organs, thanks to his body armor, but pushed up into his brain, either through his blood vessels or his eyes and nose. Once inside the skull, it crimped, sheared, and pulled apart neural cells and set in motion a string of chemical woes, the effects of which were subtle at first but would constitute the real threat over time.

Alas, it was April 2005, and no one – not the medics or Workman's lieutenant, and certainly not the four-star generals who wrote policy – had a firm handle on a new kind of injury that would become the blood insignia of the war. Workman declined to be held for observation and was back out on the road an hour later. In the months and years ahead, he'd have cause to regret that, to look back on that night as the pivot point in a life flipped upside down.