Two months sure felt like an awfully long time.
But compared to the year-and-even-longer combat tours being served by Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines back then, my first reporting trip to Iraq was nothing.
Still, those two months have stayed with me, in big and small ways, ever since. And every July, I get a little extra reminder in the form of fireworks and firecrackers.
For the first few years, the sudden staccato pops and unexpected booms would send my heart racing. I’d get agitated. I’d lose focus on what I was doing. I’d feel scared.
Worse still were the flying pyrotechnic mortars, which — at least to my untrained ears — sounded eerily like the real thing.
I felt guilty and embarrassed about this for a long time. Turns out, though, that I wasn’t alone.
Shortly after my last trip to Iraq in 2010, I met a Vietnam veteran named Tony, who told me that he had spent every July 4 since the early 1970s holed up in a one-man backpacking tent in the mountains. When he moved to Utah in the mid-1980s, he began making two summer trips to the high Uintas, since people in this very patriotic place also enjoy celebrating the state’s Pioneer Day, on July 24, with fireworks. Some time around the late-1990s, he said, folks here seemed to decide that the whole month of July was a good enough occasion to set’em off.
Much too old, now, to spend an entire month in a little tent, Tony cobbled together enough money to buy an old Airstream trailer and takes it out as far as he can into the wilderness for the full month.
“Do you enjoy those trips?” I asked him.
“Not particularly,” he said. “But it’s better than hiding under my bed.”
And Tony’s not alone, either.
Christopher Packley, a former Marine from Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune in 2011 that the even the smell of fireworks can trigger powerful memories of his time in Iraq during the siege of Fallujah, more than seven years earlier.
Cyrus Hackworth, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, told The Army Times in 2012 that he’s still troubled by the sound of fireworks, even when he hears them in the distance.
Iraq War veteran Matt Veil told The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette in 2012 that once, during a dinner out with his girlfriend, he instinctively hit the ground at the sound of the first blasts of a fireworks show at a minor league baseball stadium a half-mile away.
“It echoed down the buildings, and it just made an eerie sound,” Veil said. “The sound reminded me so much of mortar fire or heavy artillery fire.”
It’s ironic, I’ve long thought, that these noisy celebrations come in recognition of a nation founded on the blood of America’s very first war veterans. And it’s a little sad to me that so few people have taken note — we shouldn’t have to be told, or ordered, to do something decent for the men and women who have worn this nation’s military uniforms.
Now, I’m not so naïve as to think that we’ll ever ban these things, nor so dumb as to think we should. For some people — even some veterans — the pop-pop-ratatat-pop-pop-boom of pyrotechnics is the sound of freedom.
But I wonder if we can all agree, like gentleman and gentlewomen, that there’s a time and place for it all. Not a law, just a kindness — a measure of respect for those whose brains have been wired just a bit differently as a result of their service in one of our country’s wars. July 4 from dusk ‘til midnight? That seems fair, right?
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To be clear, I’m not asking for me. The whistling mortars sometimes still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, but only very occasionally when I’m not expecting them. These days, I’m largely unfazed and, in fact, I’ve really grown to like fireworks again. The soccer team I cheer for has a big fireworks show coming up after the game in a few days, and I’ll be there, sitting on the pitch, taking it all in with my wife and daughter.
But there are many veterans among us for whom these sounds might never be anything but unsettling. For Tony and Christopher, for Cyrus and Matt, and for thousands upon thousands of others — compared to the sacrifices they’ve all made, this one seems particularly paltry.
Matthew D. LaPlante is a veteran of the U.S. Navy and an assistant professor of journalism at Utah State University. He covered military and national security issues for The Salt Lake Tribune from 2005 to 2011.