Fireworks are an American tradition. We use them to commemorate our independence, New Years, and extravagant events. Most people love the beautiful array of colors - the oranges, purples and red, white, blues. Little kids lay back on checkered plaid blankets and watch the colors rain from the sky. They fill the atmosphere with oohs and ahhs and giggles that hand in the air as much as the mist and smoke from the firing agents. They are placed on forever postage stamps and backgrounds for all things American on Facebook.
To say I have an aversion to fireworks, is an understatement. To say I have a deep seated hatred for them would be closer to accurate. I have to start mentally prepare myself at the end of June for the barrage of nightly sounds that pierce and transport me to a place that I never want to experience again. I move an air mattress and all of the linens into the basement pantry. It is strategically placed under the stairs and has only one small entrance. I make my mental health bunker - when it is finished it will look like the sidestreet make shift IED foxholes that litter the desert of Iraq. Barren - I have my air bed, old fatigues and rations. I choose not eat the alfredo from my wife and instead look through Ready Made Meals (just add water) that I carried on maneuvers through Baghdad suburbs.
My wife leaves me alone. She can never understand but she works on her empathy by google research of vet sites, She knows to steer clear of the basement and to clear the house of any weaponry, She systematically takes the kitchen knives, razors, and the arsenal that typically sits in the gun safe of the spare room and transports them to an undisclosed location. I’m pretty sure she takes them to her sister Marilyn’s house and stashes them in the closet of the spare room. There they will stay until the heavens are clear of artificial thunder and lightening of pyrotechnics. She says things are different since I returned from this last tour of duty. She is careful to never say worse or other adjectives that would indicate that we are broken. She never says it, but that doesn’t make it true.
We rarely sleep in the same bed. Who am I kidding, I rarely sleep anywhere. We exchange niceties over the breakfast table but she is careful not to ask questions like “how did you sleep?”, “what did you dream about?” or even “how are you feeling this morning?”. She serves french toast or eggs or cold cereal and watches my reactions to see how the day will unfold. I know it must be hard to live with someone so unpredictable, but it is not intentional or preventable. We talk about weather, family, upcoming events, grocery lists anything that would amount to nothing until she can get a handle on my mood du jour.
I feel her stares. Believe me, on the inside I am leering at myself waiting for the same answers. You know how some people are naturally morning folks and some are not. I really don’t know what I am since I came back. I have decided not knowing my defect is better than facing it and not being able to overcome it. I have seen the therapists at the VA. By the way they are fairly useless. Their only solution was a medicine cabinet full of narcotics to make me forget, and not deal with the demons. They must never have been in combat and experienced the noises of constant overhead battle sounds, of homemade bombs, screaming comrades, and crunching metal. They must never have smelled the burning of fuel from an armored car that you barely walked away from or the spices of cardamom and sage mixed in with gasoline and sweat. They must never have seen blood soaked faces and dog tired bodies being dragged on gurneys heading to makeshift hospitals. The VA as an entity cannot see the frailty of our humanity. It is weakness.
So, I suck it up, man up, marine up and try to deal with it my way. Ignoring it. I cannot and will not go through life being a victim of mind numbers or my own memory. What did soldiers do after the great war, before the label of PTSD, how did that simpler generation cope and overcome before psychoanalysis and support groups.
I hear echos when I lay my head down at night. I see faces of folks who are gone and buried dance before me as I walk in a store or drive in the fast lane. I ache all over from worn cartilage and arthritis from guard duty or a million different untreated injuries. I react out of instinct when I feel corner, so far I have been able to stop myself from getting violent and I pray that I will always have the determination not to be that one who snaps and ends up on the local news with someone telling lies about how I seemed so normal.
You know this “disease” has cost me by civilian job. There is little protection from unions and lawyers and congressmen that say they support our troops when you ask them to stand behind you at home. The human resource department as labeled me as a hostile employee who can jeopardize their safety rating. Really? I did everything they asked...sensitivity training, extended probation, meeting with a “safety facilitator” who told me if i had a right to be upset over any given situation. You wonder why so many vets end up jobless, homeless, hopeless it is the desperate attempt to try to place them back into cookie cutter lives after living anything but a cookie cutter life for the past 12, 18, or 24 months. So, I am fighting for unemployment and so far losing.
Fighting, that’s all I do anymore. Fight against the red tape of bureaucratic regulations at VA hospitals and community building centers. Fight for my dignity and voice in a sea of doctors and shrinks who are trying to silence me. Fight against the statistics of failed marriages and separations after deployment. Fight against the memories that play like an old football game day tape where I can see every fumble, turnover and error I made on the field. Mostly, fight against stigmas of crazy vets like me.