Thoughts of a Combat Veteran on Independence Day

When I was a child, the Fourth of July meant my parents were off work, we were going to the pool, and then we were going to watch fireworks on blankets with a bunch of other families on a small hill.  It meant we wouldn’t get home until 1AM because of the crazy traffic leaving the light show.

Hot dogs, hamburgers, even soda! It meant big booms, bright flashes, and that was exciting! I would watch, proud of my inability to be startled by the explosion that would send younger kids sky high.

Aurita Maldonado Female in CombatIn the innocent eyes of a child who hasn’t even dreamed of becoming a combat veteran, hit an IED, been mortared, rocketed,  in fire fights, nor pinned on a hill for nearly 36 hours, Independence Day was exciting and new. Those were the sentiments of a youth who never dove frantically into a bunker after being woken up by explosions moving across the tiny Combat Out Post (COP) in Nerkh.   The thoughts of a little Latin girl who had yet to be shot through her back pack three times, blown up in her vehicle, or hated 200 lb IED - RG-33simply because of her sex.

It was exciting, and remains the same.

In a way…

I’ve tried for several years to handle the firework explosions of the Fourth of July calmly, even lightheartedly after war. I completely left Haines in 2010 because they shoot off a cannon, but I ended up reluctantly attending a fireworks show with my family in Juneau, AK, that worked my mind and body in ways I had trouble explaining at the time.  I could physically see that they were fireworks. I was watching them light the wicks. I thought that cognitively it would be OK.  Yet my adrenaline was through the roof: quick, frantic breathing, raised heart rate, hyper vigilance to everything and everyone. I didn’t want to stay, although I did.

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In 2011, I was on the northern California coast when the fireworks began. I had to pull over, because my driving had become erratic and slightly frantic. I stopped on the side of a cliff, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and pondered war through tears.

In 2012, I stayed in Haines, AK for the celebration. This time I was in the protecting embrace of my soulmate.  John and I sank into the soft, rich earth, my back against his chest, his arms warm and comforting.  I watched, focusing on relaxing my body the entire time. I wasn’t successful. My heart raced, as did my breathing. I jumped at every movement and sound, and dreaded the memories that flood before the pretty colors have even begun to fade.

In 2013, my lover and I had just returned to PA after a week recovery session in North Carolina.  I was dealing with my father’s suicide and step mother’s subsequent complete rejection of me while she flamboyantly celebrated his death to anyone who’d listen.  She told me that if I was “healed” enough to take a “vacation” (which was spent curled up on a wooden swing healing by a creek), then I was healed enough to get the f*ck out and move on.  We moved in with our friend, Fern.

We spent the Fourth at a Puerto Rican bar-b-q.  Rice, beans, chicken, pork, deserts, ice cream, salsa, bachata, merengue, reggaeton…really, a great time…Then the noise and flashes began. I found myself wandering the street confused: aimlessly, yet frantically. “Celebrating Freedom.” Alone, spinning circles, I found myself hiding in her basement crying. Eventually,  I forced my way begrudgingly back to the party, through the explosions, flashes, and finished the night feeling quite detached.

Today is July 5th, 2014. I was inspired to write this piece when I caught myself halfway into diving under the booth at the internet cafe, when the teenager sitting behind me dropped his fork on his plate.

To say that last night frayed my nerves, is a severe understatement. All week I’ve been dealing with this celebration. Surprise bangs, surprise bright flashes, cracks, pops, fizzles, whistles…

You see, it is COMPLETELY LEGAL (and encouraged) in Utah for any layman to light fireworks from the 1st until the 7th of July from 11AM until 11PM.

THEN AGAIN from the 21st- 27th to celebrate Pioneer Day! Check it out HERE.

So last evening, John and I decided for a quiet night, sharing with friends. We had a great afternoon, relaxing in the sun and shade, jumping in and out of the creek, enjoying the vibrant green growth contrasting against the towering fire of the canyon walls. As the afternoon transitioned to evening, we loaded up in the van, and John, always aware of the potential consequences, decided to drive.

Heading towards town, the daylight was waning, casting shadows, cooling. I was busily working on a new t-shirt deconstruction project in the passenger seat. Bright red with a missing back, weaving a black string of t-shirt through the red. I felt focused, even deft with my fingers.

Suddenly there was an explosion to my right, most certainly close range AK fire. I threw the shirt down, screamed, and nearly caught myself in the sternum with the scissors as I ducked left. The only reason I remained in my seat was my seat belt. It jerked me to a stop as my face came within 4 inches of my lover’s thighs.

I snapped upright nearly as quickly. Emotions surging. Anger, fear, resentment, desperation, hate, love, hopelessness all raged in quick succession. Simultaneous, yet separate. Clearly completely confusing. I felt the sudden urge to sob. I slowed my breathing, and worked on the mountain of a task: unfurrowing my brow. I was searching, looking frantically for anything threatening in every direction.

Then I found John with my focus for a second, “Who the FUCK thinks THAT’S a good idea?!” I seethed loudly through uncontrolled twitching, not expecting a response. Knowing my desperation, he simply offered a soothing voice, a hand on my leg, and an apology for others’ ignorance.

We pulled into my friend’s driveway; my heart still pounding, breathing erratic…my lover’s eyes brimmed of compassion for the struggling combat veteran by his side.  I

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hurried inside, feeling a genuinely palpable dread in my gut for the explosions to come. We ducked quickly into the house, not bothering to knock, closing the door slightly too quickly behind us. I crumpled into the soft arm-chair that is normally reserved for me with a much more casual energy, and as I exhaled, realized I still hadn’t achieved a noticeable brow unfurrowing.

That’s when the next door neighbor was hit by a rocket. The explosion was so close, it shook my chair, made me audibly whimper as I forced myself to sit back up and come present.

Fireworks.

Fucking Fireworks.

Nothing but Fucking Fireworks.

Just fireworks! No rockets. Just fireworks.

Fireworks.

The night continued as such. John was encouraging me to leave after about an hour, so we could retreat back to the cabin before the big explosions, but somewhere deep down in the pit of my stomach, I had a genuine, although completely irrational fear of walking out of the front door. I expressed that fact, and moved not a muscle.  I sat still, jaw clenched, eyes darting, struggling to breath calmly. Continually focusing on making my hands relax.

I was so jumpy, the fountain in the living room became too distracting. The sounds that normally sooth and put me to sleep, had my eyes darting, my breath catching, my neck turning so quickly that it threatened a pinched nerve. My friend turned off the water, and turned up some music, loudly to drown out the sounds.

I laughed sans mirth.

A sad, hopeless laugh.

We were listening to soft jazz as loud as the radio would play. Yet the muffled explosions broke through the music with clarity… Doing nothing but reminding me of the countless hours I’d done the same thing to sleep through the night in the bunker or in my tent testing fate.  I remembered spending hours playing chess by headlamp, squatting on my haunches in the bunker with Americans and Afghans alike.

I remembered.

I was there and here. Here and there. Struggling just to exist here. Grasping at anything to remind myself that I am indeed HERE and not THERE.

I mused, confused. Why then, if explosions can have such a horrific effect on the people used for the agenda of “freedom” promotion, do we continue to celebrate “freedom” with them?

Rat Lungworm

Afghanistan

Can somebody answer this question for me? With the growing number of combat veterans wandering the states, why is it still so damn popular to reenact war to celebrate “freedom?” Share this, please. It feels slightly hypocritical to receive a thousand thank you’s on November 11th after being challenged so damn much by a celebration of “freedom” on July 4th.

If you truly want to thank a vet, put away the fireworks. We’d truly appreciate it more than a meme saying Support Our Troops, or whatever sentiment is popular at the time.

Tomorrow’s not guaranteed. Do your part to help. Spread the word. It’s not on the forefront of most folks’ minds that while they are having fun in their back yard, a combat veteran nearby may be pacing, sweating, or diving under their coffee table next door frantically trying to stay present.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Responses to Thoughts of a Combat Veteran on Independence Day

  1. Survivor July 5, 2014 at 11:56 PM #

    Thank you. I was in another situation, another time. It wasn’t called PTSD back then. It was just crazy my diving for the side of the road any time there was a loud noise. No one really understands if they haven’t been that scared. We need to do better for those we have sent out in the name of freedom. Thanks for writing.

    • Hurricane Rita July 9, 2014 at 1:27 PM #

      Thank you for understanding, and reading. You’re not crazy. They are just completely unaware.

      • Ryan Cook September 10, 2014 at 2:19 PM #

        My wife is on the same dosage of gabapentin as in your description since nerve damage during a c-section and looking to wean herself off it to a lesser dose. Would it be okay for her to contact you about your experience?

        • Hurricane Rita September 13, 2014 at 10:48 AM #

          Yes, of course! Please have her contact me.

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