This article was originally published on VICE US
Fuck the Fourth of July. This was my attitude back in 2004, back when I was serving in the United States Army over in some country called Iraq, stationed in some city called Mosul. It was month eight of our year-long deployment and I was in no mood to celebrate. It was 110-plus degrees—in the shade—and all I wanted on the fourth was some goddamn air-conditioning. That's it. That's all I wanted.
Nothing more, nothing less.
The Army had other plans. Not only did we have a late afternoon movement-to-contact mission and a late evening counter mortar mission, but there was a "mandatory fun" lunchtime BBQ that we had to attend. Happy Fourth.
Our mandatory fun took place at a makeshift BBQ stand that a couple of Turks had opened up as a business on our forward operating base, just a couple of wooden picnic tables set up under no shade. No beer was served, though there was an advertisement for beer taped up on a cooler. It was a European beer that I'd never heard of before and the ad depicted an ice-cold beer, in an icy cold glass. I stood there, fixated on this holy image, sweating my fucking ass off as I nostalgically thought back to all the beers I had consumed and enjoyed on previous July Fourths.
From a combat zone I sat there and wondered what my friends back home were doing to celebrate this day. Probably the same ol' shit. They probably purchased an insane amount of alcohol to be consumed at some public park, with a nice little BBQ going so they could watch the fireworks show while totally annihilated. As I sat there on that wooden bench in Iraq, I wondered if any of my friends back home knew what I was up to that day, or if they even knew I was in Iraq, if they even cared.
After "mandatory fun" was over, we set off for our movement-to-contact mission, where we drove around town praying for an IED not to blow us all up. After that, we set up our counter mortar mission on Operation Post Abraham, a hellishly dull mission that we did nearly every other day. Our entire platoon would drive all our vehicles to this one location, park, dismount, sit around and wait for hours and hours for something, anything, to happen. They say "War is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror" and nine times out of ten nothing happened other than being bored to death while burning alive from the heat.
That July Fourth my squad was positioned on the rooftop of a two-story building overlooking the city of Mosul. At around 22:00 we got so bored that some of us decided to throw a fireworks show. We started launching illumination rounds up in the air. In hindsight, this was a great way to make the enemy aware of our location so they could drop mortars down on us.
Our squad leader then came around and handed everyone an illumination round. One by one, we each fired a round up in the air.
Illumination rounds are primarily used to locate the enemy at night, so that you can see and kill them. They come in a silver tube. To fire them, you twist the cap off and place it on the opposite end of the tube. That acts like the firing pin when you slam it on the ground. Once it ignites, it fires a "lum" round up in the air and the glowing round slowly floats back to earth on this little parachute.
Our squad leader then came around and handed everyone an illumination round. One by one, we each fired a round up in the air. Dozens of stray dogs barked at the lum rounds lighting up the Mosul night sky. Watching the lums float slowly and silently back down to earth, I was sure many perplexed Iraqis were wondering what in the fuck those crazy Americans were doing. It was the same way when we'd stand around wondering what in the fuck was going on when they'd fire their AK-47s up in the air whenever their soccer team scored a goal.
At first, it was kind of fun watching these lum rounds go off, but then I started feeling really homesick. The more they tried to make it feel like the Fourth of July, the more it all felt like masturbating to a photo of a naked person. You could play all you want, but it'll never feel like the real thing.
I wanted to return back to the life I had before, where I got to enjoy many of the freedoms that Americans back home experienced that day. The freedom to drink, to picnic, to set off fireworks. The freedom to not go out on multiple missions a day. The freedom to not worry, each time you left the wire and locked and loaded your weapon, if today was the day you wouldn't come back.
That night was the last time I set fireworks off on Independence Day, and perhaps the last time I ever will. Back home now and no longer in the military, I hear stories from time to time about veterans suffering with PTSD getting flashbacks whenever a bottle rocket or roman candle goes off. Some even post signs outside their residences, letting everyone know that a "Combat Veteran Lives Here Please Be Courteous with Fireworks."
There must be something wrong with me because I'm not really like that at all. When I hear fireworks go off I don't see or hear an insurgent pointing an AK barrel at me or think that I'm back in the shit. All I hear is the sound of people throwing their money away.
I understand that July Fourth is an epic family fun holiday for many Americans to enjoy and celebrate. It's an excuse to drink and go out. People watch fireworks and hang out with friends, eat some barbecue. It seems like it should be a good day. But ever since Iraq, I now view July Fourth and every other holiday as being "mandatory fun." Meaning: I'd rather not.
It's hot. Everything is outdoors. There are too many people and there's too much small talk. Everyone's obnoxiously drunk, traffic's a nightmare, parking is a pain in the ass, and the music is too loud. "Stars and Stripes Forever" is always blasting on some shitty speakers. The lines for the port-a-potties are insane. Afterwards, people discard their mini American flags , not in the trash cans, but on the ground like they're burnt-out cigarette butts. The fireworks are never as good as last year's. It's a holiday of manufactured uber-patriotism. In sum, I have no interest whatsoever in observing the Fourth of July or even in purchasing fireworks, just like I have no interest in purchasing a firearm. I'd much rather sit in my room by myself and enjoy the air conditioning.
Each time a loud firework would go off, my son would shout, "Awesome!" or "Whoa!" It was the same response I saw soldiers give whenever a TOW missile impacted an enemy position.
But last year, I did force myself to go out and participate in some mandatory Fourth of July fun by taking my five-year-old son out to a block party that had a midwest county fair vibe. It was the very last place you'd want go to if you were on a diet; they had fried everything. Snickers bars, Oreos—everything unhealthy made worse. Luckily, there were games to play. For a buck or two, some meth addict-looking carnie would let you throw a ball at a bunch of coke bottles and hand you a prize if you knocked them all down.
That night, while my son was still on a sugar high from all the cotton candy he ate earlier, we held hands and walked over to the nearby park to observe the firework show. He was proudly wearing the Styrofoam Goofy hat that I had bought for him earlier, since he insisted that this was a must-have item. He stood next to me holding a large teddy bear I'd helped him win and watched in awe as all the colorful fireworks went off. Each time a loud one would go off he'd shout, "Awesome!" or "Whoa!"
It was the same response I saw soldiers give whenever a TOW missile impacted an enemy position.
In my opinion, if you've seen one fireworks show, you've seen them all. I wasn't all that interested in the explosions. Instead, I remained fixated on my son's expression every time a firework illuminated his face. My son doesn't view the fourth of July with his back toward it like his father does, nor does he view all the other holidays as mandatory fun. He sees the world with a smile on his face, and I watch him seeing the world.
A lot of people never made it back to experience this. At times, I didn't think I would.
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