It began with a flash, chased with a boom.
Tech. Sgt. Dwight “Ike” Nelson watched from a balcony window as a shock wave pushing dust and debris rushed at him.
Time moved slowly enough for him to realize he was helpless against what was coming next.
A heartbeat later, he was bleeding, face-first on a floor carpeted with glass.
“It was like watching a slow-motion movie,” Nelson said. “You could see the shock wave, it looked like a rolling pin. It got bigger as it got closer and all you could do was shield your face.”
He was one of more than 300 Americans injured by a terrorist truck bomb in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 last month.
Nelson returned to Spokane late last week and was back on the job at Fairchild Air Force Base on Monday, handling travel arrangements for base personnel.
He was part of an 11-person Fairchild contingent living in Dhahran. None suffered serious injuries.
Nelson limps around on crutches. Half a dozen glass darts were removed from his arms and legs.
Since the blast, Nelson’s soul seems divided into two worlds: One of strength and one of fear.
For the public, he smiles.
He appears as if he’ll be fine soon, after the physical pain goes away.
He jokes about the bomb going off while he was watching “Braveheart” and switching his movie preference since then to Disney classics.
He jokes about picking a hell of a time to go to the sixth-floor balcony of the air base apartment building for a cigarette.
He even jokes about an Air Force commander who told him he’d have a blast once he got to Saudi Arabia.
But the truth is Nelson now jumps at the slam of a door. He will be scarred by much more than the 2-inch deep puncture on his left calf.
He remembers being carried out of the apartment complex, seeing familiar faces, thinking they were alive and later finding they were not.
“We saw things we never want to see happen to the human body,” Nelson said.
Haunted by nightmares and daydreams too painful to talk about, Nelson’s mind is like a pinball ricocheting between warring emotions.
Anger: “I’m angry that a fellow human being would do something like this to another human being and not stay to see the result.”
Happiness: “It’s good to be home where you know people. And I’m happy I’m not one of the 19.”
Sadness: “I feel sad for them, and the people still going through the turmoil I’m going through.”
At the hospital where the 39-year-old sergeant was treated, Nelson tried to keep his own spirits high by lending an ear and a smile to as many people in his ward as he could.
He became known on his floor as the “Morale Wagon.”
He rolled door to door in a wheelchair, or hobbled on crutches, spreading whatever good news he could find about friends of friends recovering from injuries.
After the bombing, the hospital was so overwhelmed with patients it ran out of anesthesia.
Nelson had to bear having broken glass removed from the inside of his leg - and then being stitched up - with no relief for the pain.
It was hours after the blast before he was able to call his girlfriend, Debbie Loomis, at the Willow Springs Motel they manage together in Cheney.
She and her three sons were watching President Clinton make vows of vengeance on television.
“The phone rang and I was scared to death it was going to be the Air Force telling me Dwight was dead,” Loomis said.
When she spoke with him, Nelson, of course, tried calming her with humor.
“He was trying to make a joke about it. I thought he was OK. Well, things aren’t OK,” Loomis said.
Watching him toss and turn every night, Loomis tries to support Nelson the best she can, always ready to offer a hug before he has to ask.
She seems to read his mind at times, walking in the door with a fresh pack of Salems just as Nelson takes a breath to complain about running out of cigarettes.
She hands him money for a beer before he motions for his crutches to get his wallet from across the room.
“He’s not the old ‘Ike,’ but he will be one day and I’ll be waiting for him,” she said.
Nelson watches different parts of the nightmare repeating itself in his head when he sleeps. When he’s awake he has to make a conscious effort not to dwell on those images.
He’s reluctant to talk about what he sees, but take one look into his eyeglasses, still chipped from the spraying glass, and it’s obvious what kind of memories Nelson is living with.
“People were seriously injured,” he said. “I know they weren’t conscious. I just hope to God they didn’t experience any pain. And as fast as it happened, I don’t think they did.”
He hadn’t been to church in awhile but after the bombing, he started going again. He cried when he saw his father in his home state of Connecticut on his way back to Spokane.
It was the first time he had seen his dad in two years.
Nelson picks up a cigarette quicker than before, as well.
“I was trying to quit when I got there but … not right now,” Nelson said, grabbing the last cigarette from a pack.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo