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LaPlante: Fireworks no fun for some vets

Published July 4, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Compared to the year-and-sometimes-longer combat tours being served by many soldiers at the time, the two months I spent on my first reporting trip to Iraq were 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 pops and unexpected booms would send my heart racing. I'd get agitated. I'd feel scared. Worse still were the flying pyrotechnic mortars, which — at least to me — sounded eerily like the real thing.

I felt embarrassed about this for a long time. Then 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 tent in the mountains. He'd recently cobbled together enough money to buy an old Airstream trailer that he could take out for the entire month of July.

"Do you enjoy those trips?" I asked him.

"Not particularly," he said. "But it's better than hiding under my bed."

Turns out, there are many people like this.

Former Marine Christopher Packley told the Chicago Tribune in 2011 that even the smell of fireworks can trigger powerful memories of his time in Iraq during the siege of Fallujah.

Vietnam veteran Cyrus Hackworth told The Army Times in 2012 that he's still troubled by the sound of fireworks, even from a 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 an unexpected fireworks show.

"It echoed down the buildings," Veil said. "The sound reminded me so much of mortar fire or heavy artillery fire."

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 gentlemen 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.

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. These days, I'm largely unfazed. I spent Wednesday night, after the Real Salt Lake game, on the pitch at Rio Tinto Stadium watching the rockets' red glare, and I loved every minute of it.

But there are many veterans among us for whom these sounds might never be anything but unsettling. In consideration and gratitude, we would all do well to limit our explosive celebrations.

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.