October 14, 2013

I Wasn't Ready for the Smell...

This describes violence and will trigger PTSD symptoms. In the Terrible Moments I purposefully omitted smell because it was too much to write in one installment. I will return to it in the following post.

As a platoon leader I was ready to lead my soldiers, even in the most trying of circumstances, but when I arrived to the aftermath of a suicide bomber detonated on a crowd of civilians I wasn’t prepared for the smell. In my experience blood doesn’t have a smell at first, although it is very visible, tends to flood your memory and when it stains clothing that smell imprints itself on the memory event as it were there in the moment. In honesty that street corner mostly smelled like dirt and dust, because the explosion had picked it up off of the ground. The smell of explosives was present, I was used to those smells, but the smell of burning flesh was much more apparent and different then anything I had ever experienced (still this was muted by the overwhelming smell of scattered dirt and dust). The smell of burned flesh was like smell of burnt hair, yet exponentially grown by the scale of that terrible day in northern Iraq. This mixed with the smell of burning meat, though completely unappetizing and unseasoned. The only way I can describe the smell of peoples skin is that it was as if leather was left out in the rain long enough to fester slightly, and then it was burned, or at least how I image that would smell. The addition of the burnt clothing created an earthy smell, which was a mixture of burning leaves and grass/marijuana.

Still, no matter how traumatic the stench of death and violence was I mostly inhaled the terrible smell common in the urban centers of Iraq created by the burnt trash, raw sewage flowing through the streets, and the awful smell that the dirt and dust made as it lodged itself into your nasal passages. A not so insignificant part of the awful smell of Iraq was my body odor, because I lived in an outpost and showered weekly at best. Only that day the smell of Iraq was amplified by an explosion that wafted it through the air. Despite the stench, I refused to throw away my flesh stained boots, because I would spend a lifetime, if necessary, walking that smell away. After nine years and thousands of miles it is still there in my boots, so are the bloodstains, and the barbwire scratches I got rushing to that intersection on another night. That smell has also stained my very being as an unmovable and unalterable weight on my memory. Even during exercise my sweat pours more profusely than it did before and rather than overpowering the stench of that day the sweat contributes to it as if my every pore was endeavoring to recreate the smells of that moment. Stress sweat is more pungent than normal thermal regulatory perspiration. My body remains attached to the muted ammonia smell of muscle deterioration that comes with the body's processing of the stress chemical cortisol. I have smelled fresh cow brands and had a terrible panic attack. Anytime I smell burning hair, unseasoned meat, grass, warm sewage in a portable toilet, marijuana or the dust of the desert I am back there again: only naked, unarmored, helpless, and alone. My heart races and I can't seem to breath.

The stench combined with the chaotic sights, sounds, my internal dialogue, and physical sensations, though the smell was by far the worst of all my sensations that day (well that and feeling the weight and limpness of a dead flesh). Smells today are forever different and can send me into PTSD symptoms, often simply sicken me, or worst give me terrible migraine headaches. A lifetime of therapy and doing the right things to manage PTSD will never make that memory less burdensome. Although, I am still proud that I have refused to get rid of those boots because they are like my tattoos, a symbol of my commitment to deal with the violence I witnessed: to face my PTSD. Preserving my boots, even if they still smelled like that day in the hopes of walking them clean, was the first gesture of my efforts to face my burdensome memories no matter how terrible, with as much honor and strength as possible. The smells are certainly less pungent now, and the memory is too, at least with every attempt to understand and accept them. As if taking the time to remember that awful stench, or any sensation for that matter as it was, or as they were, reduces their terrible grasp on my life.


  1. Dear Joe,
    thank you. for your service and for your comments and ability to share your experience. As a caregiver I have noticed a strong aversion to the smells of diesel and other peoples Bo, as well as the aversion to the dead dear lining the hi-ways here. I am constantly trying to avoid a full blown episode with my son. He served in Iraq, had three tbi's there, then A-stan where he had several more. He has spoken about the smells, and the inability to get it out of his clothing and his nose. He came home and we burned many bloody uniforms thankfully we did not use diesel. However, we are a farming community and it is an unavoidable smell. I have noticed that smells do trigger an episode.
    I wonder if you also have an aversion to dogs. My son used to love dogs, ours passed during his last deployment. He now hates dogs. I have to tell people we can not have a therapy dog.

  2. Hey! I have a quick question about your blog, could you email me at ewalsh @ mesothelioma.com when you have a chance? Thanks, Emily

  3. Thanks mil-mom,

    I love dogs and not all smells of Iraq are bad. I still love Middle Eastern food and usually things that set others off like hearing Arabic actually makes me miss the Iraqis I served with. I think that way you process it is different. For me its the smell of violence not the place of Iraq. I have had to walk out of a hospital room because of the smell of dried blood when a wound was being checked on. I struggle with vehicle exhaust from all the urban patrols, with Iraqi cars moving around but I spent way more safe days training in diesel burning US vehicles to develop and aversion. the thing about those broad triggers that you are discussing is that they sound a bit broad and not fully understood. This is why talking about smells in therapy or writing helps. I was so frightened of this post for about 6 months, but exploring it thoroughly really helps me process it. I hope this helps.


  4. I really want to chat with you… email is jonj409@msn.com please contact me!!!!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Rachel why would you like to talk. I like to get a human response. We get automated comments a lot more than you would think and spammers.

  7. How can I, a stranger to you, even begin to express the dear love, respect, misfortune and whatever the word may be of degree of willing offering, to let you know that what you, and many other american soldiers endured for "America" (all of its loving worth, and misfortunes) be gently received by you from us? I am forever locked there, in pure honor and tribute to all of you soldiers. The only worthy return for what you have given of yourself for we strangers, is divine healing and refinement. The thanks is yours, and every other riches existing here on earth.

  8. Have had the stink of blood + rubber gloves inside my face since 1970.
    It never really goes away.
    101ABN Div

  9. I have no words. I can only thank you for your selfless service and tell you that my thoughts and prayers are with you. Though I have not been touched by war, I am the daughter of a Korean veteran, a niece of WWII veterans, and a cousin to Vietnam veterans. I also have had 3 nephews who are Bosnia, Iraq and Iran combat veterans. PTSD has touched our family several times over. One nephew was lost to suicide, while anothers wife took her own life. What you are doing is a help to those of us who wish so desperately to better understand our loved ones pain. May God richly bless you and keep you in His loving care.

  10. Smells have always triggered memories for me. From a past girlfriends perfume to burning bodies. I also served. I could not eat hotdogs for years after I returned home. I still don't like their smell. To me burning human flesh smells like a hot dog bit just much more disgusting. Also diesel always reminds me of Iraq because of all the diesel generators. Of course the smell of blood will always have an effect on me as well.

  11. I suppose not very many would understand the effect of it..the smell of a burned body will forever haunt me. It is a smell like nothing else imaginable.


Please share your comments, stories and information. Thank you. ~ Scott Lee