I used to love fireworks. Now, after honorably and proudly serving our country, I have learned to loath them. I’m sure there are a lot of veterans out there who understand what I’m talking about. Shortly after I moved here last year, I was caught completely unaware of the sheer magnitude of fireworks used in the week leading up to the Fourth. The small fireworks aren’t so bad; it’s the big concussive mortars that really push my anxiety through the roof.
During my time in Iraq we were hit with volleys of real mortar shells at least once (if not twice or more) a day. In fact, it was so regular you could almost set your watch to it. If you were lucky enough to not be around one of the many large generators on the camps, you would sometimes hear the distinctive initial thud of the projectile being launched. You would then sit there for the next few seconds anticipating what was coming, in sheer terror, praying that it wasn’t about to land on you.
Luckily enough for me (others weren’t so lucky) they never did, but they came damn close. Really. Damn. Close. For those few seconds of anticipation, your heart pounded as the adrenaline coursed through your veins. The concussive force when it landed felt like a punch in the chest. It would blow out windows and the shrapnel would pock mark the sides of nearby buildings and shred nearby truck tires; putting holes through anything and anyone that stood in its way. There would be an immediate and split-second feeling of relief when you discovered you were OK, followed by the feeling of terror that there were at least two more shells coming in behind it, and then guilt knowing your soldiers might be hurt or worse.
Now, when one of these big firework mortars goes off, I relive those same feelings. I’m not talking about having a flashback and low-crawling around the house, yelling at everyone to take cover either. I’m talking about the anxiety and the terror. When I hear the sound of the mortar being fired my heart immediately begins racing in anticipation. And when the firework explodes, I flinch. So much so, it’s embarrassing. My younger kids have even laughed at me. They don’t understand, but that’s OK. I don’t fault them. I do, however, explain to them why I behave the way I do when I hear them, and the older ones are starting to come around. My wife is very understanding and does everything she can to try calm my nerves and I’m extremely thankful for that. I’m just sorry that she or the kids has to see me like this. I can see it affects them by the look in their eyes.
Anyway, the whole week leading up to the Fourth I find myself easily agitated, short-tempered (even when there aren’t fireworks going off), and sleep begins to elude me. So, I decided that for the time being, or until I can get some property way out in the sticks, I’ll be shipping my kids off to other family for the week of the Fourth so they won’t have to deal with my short fuse (so to speak) and they can enjoy the holiday.
I’m not looking for sympathy as we are the product of our experiences and I volunteered to serve. What I’m hoping for is that the community can understand how this holiday affects some of our veterans, and take that into consideration when lighting off professional-grade fireworks (not on the Fourth). I hope you all can enjoy your Independence Day, on Independence Day. Meanwhile, I’m going to take time off of work, head for the hills and work my way through this again.
Joe Stone, of Sultan, is a 15-year Army veteran with combat deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and currently serves as the J.V. Commander and Adjutant for Sultan VFW Post No. 2554.