Truman National Security Project

My Nightmare Comes Home

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I enlisted in the Army because of the 9/11 attacks. A proud New Yorker and a member of a family that’s fought in every American war since Independence, I followed a civic and familial obligation to service. I went on to earn an Army commission and fight in Afghanistan. In 2008 I was blown up by a Taliban rocket propelled grenade and two mortar rounds in the worst ambush of my life.

Seven months after that attack, I came home on leave and my girlfriend picked me up from Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C. On our drive back to her apartment down the Dulles Toll Road, she noticed I spent most of the ride anxiously looking out the passenger window, my head darting back and forth. Concerned, she asked, “Matt, what are you doing?”

“Scanning for IEDs,” I nonchalantly replied.

“Matt, we don’t have IEDs in America. You’re safe now. You’re home.”

It’s been five years since my war tour and that ride home and not a day goes by that I do not think about it — the war, the explosions, even that ride.

Months after I returned from the war, I found myself sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on interstate 66 (the highway that leads from the suburbs of northern Virginia to Washington, D.C.) moving at an intolerable 5 m.p.h. Without warning, the D.C. metro (it runs above ground in parts of suburban Virginia) went streaming by me and a large spark of electricity erupted next to my car. My body tensed up, I held my breath, and my heart raced as I braced for the inevitable explosion that never came. Shaking I practiced my counter-PTSD therapy by counting to ten, trying to calm my breathing, relax, and remind myself that I was in America — where we do not have roadside bombs.

Watching the television coverage of the Boston Marathon attacks (which ironically took place a block from one of my best friend’s and fellow Afghan war veteran’s home), I found myself thrown five years back to a battlefield in Afghanistan. I’ve spoken with numerous veterans today and all echoed the same fear — the tactics of our enemies abroad may finally have followed us home.

For years in very private conversations my fellow veterans and I have discussed our fear of how Americans would react to a lower level type of terrorism — one that is far more pervasive, seemingly random, and extraordinarily difficult to prevent — the roadside bomb, suicide bomber, or crowd bomb. We remember what two dedicated men with a modified trunk and a sniper rifle did to our nation’s capital in 2002 — it nearly shut it down for weeks — and fear what would happen once our enemies realized we had secured our ports, airplanes, ships, and trains to a level where successful attack is just too difficult.

We feared the day our enemies realized small scale attacks like those we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan could have a devastating effect on the American public, its psyche, and our freedom. Take the endless media coverage of the Boston attacks. Now imagine what would happen if the attacks became regular or even daily occurrences. What if it had been a car bomb on I-95 during rush hour? What if it had been simultaneous attacks in multiple American cities? Most Americans are not used to this type of daily existence. I’d argue that in the last decade, perhaps only the Israelis, Iraqis and Afghans have had to endure such a life — and all have paid a tremendous cost.

I pray that yesterday was a one off event. I pray it is not a harbinger of things to come. In a time of shrinking budgets, exasperated local governments (the true front line of homeland defense), and partisan gridlock incapable of putting country first, I must ask — are we truly ready?

Viewing the images and hearing the stories coming from Boston, I know the answer: Yes.

Yes — because of the first responders and veterans who ran toward the blasts.

Yes — because of the countless millions who took to social media to get news out to survivors and stranded Bostonians.

And yes because of medical professionals who are right now performing the work of angels as they save untold lives and mend too many wounds.

They all personify the very best of America. And that’s what our enemies do not understand. No matter how large the blast or how devastating the attack, our resolve is unshakable, our spirit persists, and our freedom endures.

Matt Zeller is a Truman Security Fellow. This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.