The Trauma of War (Part Two): Surviving an Explosion

Sakshi Agarwal
Dec 7, 2018 · 5 min read

This article is part two of a series focusing on the physical impact of war and conflict on soldiers.

Photo by Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images —

What does it feel like to be in an explosion?

If a mortar hits a large rock you’re hiding under, it feels like “being punched hard in the back of the head with a big fist” while someone throws rocks in your face.

If you’re in an armored Humvee and a roadside bomb goes off right under where you’re sitting, it feels “like ice picks plunging in both ears at once” followed by a “throbbing headache comparable to [your] most vicious hangovers.”

If a huge mortar hits a doorway you just walked through, it feels like your “bones for a second had turned to metal, and someone had rung [you] with a sledgehammer” [1].

It feels “like a blow in the face, the stomach and all over; it was like being struck unexpectedly by a huge wave in the ocean…[the sound was like] the roar of an express train, coming nearer at tremendous speed with a loud singing, wailing noise” [2]

For Lance Corporal Kyle Carpenter, everything “went white” after he jumped on a grenade in Afghanistan in 2010 to save the life of a fellow Marine. “I could feel that my eyes were open, but I couldn’t see anything,” not knowing that he had suffered damage to his eyes that eventually cost him his right one. The explosion destroyed most of Carpenter’s teeth and mangled his jaw. He also “sustained a collapsed right lung, neck injuries, broken fingers and massive trauma to his right arm, which had severe tissue damage and more than 30 fractures” [3].

What happened to Carpenter was a result of something medical experts call barotrauma. Barotrauma occurs when there is a major difference in pressure between the internal organs and the surface of the body. The pressure in a blast wave can reach around 1,000 times atmospheric pressure. The intense pressure can rupture eardrums and slam the brain against the inside of the skull, resulting in concussion, blindness, deafness, and swelling of the brain [4]. Shock waves from explosions can have a devastating impact on air-filled organs, with lungs, ears, stomach, and joints being the most susceptible to such trauma. The US Armed Forces have likened the effects of an explosive blast on the human body to the act of “squeezing a tube of toothpaste — blood and bodily fluids are forced into your brain and skull” [4].

But casualties within the blast radius can also occur from many other causes. For example, the explosion can release shrapnel or create debris from secondary impacts such as flying glass from broken windows, resulting in lacerations, bleeding, broken bones and loss of limbs. The heat from the blast can cause fires; both fires and the heat can produce severe burns on a person’s body [5]. Burns are among the most dangerous and gruesome wounds a person can experience. According to the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center, a soldier can sustain severe third-degree burns over 70 percent of their body when their Humvee is hit with an improvised explosive device (IED). The complexity of burn care is not just restricted to a skin problem. Major burns impact all organs and systems of the body, from the psychological to the heart, lungs, kidneys and the patient’s ability to function [6].

For soldiers, this trauma is more than just bone-deep. The impact on the skull and the brain can cause symptoms of traumatic brain injury (TBI) such as disturbances in attention, memory, and language, mood changes, depression, anxiety, impulsiveness, inappropriate laughter, and emotional outbursts. Many of the symptoms of TBI are similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and many of the survivors have both conditions[7].

British and Iraqi soldiers prepare to destroy abandoned artillery shells so they cannot be turned into improvised explosive devices —

Such suffering is the reality of more than half to two-thirds of Americans who are killed and wounded in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan due to IEDs or other explosive devices planted in the ground, in vehicles or buildings, or strapped on to suicide vests, or carted into suicide vehicles. That means more than 3,100 fatalities and 33,000 wounded. Among the worst are the nearly 1,800 soldiers who have permanently lost their limbs in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, a vast majority from explosions [8].

It is time we end this suffering and violence. Support the work of Nonviolence International New York and our partner organizations such as the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) as we strive for a world without war and conflict. You can read more about the physical impact of war here. You can also learn more about the work of the United Nations in disarmament and peace here and follow @UNDisarmament on Twitter to get more involved.


[1] Kukis, Mark. “Bomb Blasts I Have Known.” Time. July 18, 2007. Accessed November 27, 2018.,8599,1644710,00.html.

[2] Alexander, Caroline. “The Shock of War.” September 2010. Accessed November 27, 2018.

[3] “Marine Hit by Grenade Rates MoH, Buddies Say.” Military Times. March 29, 2013. Accessed November 27, 2018.

[4] Tarantola, Andrew. “Could an Explosion Really Knock You Over Like in the Movies?” Gizmodo. June 17, 2013. Accessed November 27, 2018.

[5] Freudenrich, Craig, Ph.D. “How IEDs Work.” HowStuffWorks Science. December 10, 2008. Accessed November 27, 2018.

[6] Hames, Jacqueline M. “Burn Center Continues Excellence with Both Old and New Technologies.” U.S. Army. October 22, 2018. Accessed December 04, 2018.

[7] Okie, Susan, M.D. “Traumatic Brain Injury in the War Zone.” New England Journal of Medicine. May 19, 2005. Accessed December 04, 2018.

[8] Zoroya, Gregg. “How the IED Changed the U.S. Military.” USA Today. December 19, 2013. Accessed December 04, 2018.



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