Over two years ago I wrote a column for NWCitizen entitled “Fireworks in Bellingham” in which I explained the reasons there should be a total ban on public purchase and use of fireworks in Bellingham. (Click here to reread that article.) In the interim, the Bellingham City Council has not acted on pleas from the public to enact such a ban. Today, well before the Fourth of July, I am calling on the city council again to particularly and specifically recognize and honor our veterans, who, with their service, ensure that we can continue to enjoy our freedom as celebrated on Independence Day. As a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, I am also calling on that organization here in Bellingham to write to the city council on behalf of their fellow soldiers in order to stop the sale and possession of fireworks in this city.
Combat is a terrible experience that leaves its survivors with physical and psychological wounds, some of which never heal. Few of us have ever been in a war. Efforts to describe war can never replicate the reality, so what one sees of war on TV and in the movies is, for the most part, outrageously and idiotically bogus. I am a Vietnam veteran, and although I did not see direct combat as an infantryman, I did experience an occasional mortar attack and was shot at once, even hearing the bullets pass by my head. Nevertheless, just these brief experiences created for me a fear of loud noises and flashes of light that lasted for years after my return to this country. I eventually adjusted, but many do not.
My best friend, who worked with me at the Pentagon, lost both of his legs and part of each hand from a booby trap in Vietnam. This son of a famous Marine general later received a Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography. But the notoriety and immense support from the public and his family did not chase away the memories of combat. In 1994, he put a bullet in his head, being unable to further tolerate the physical and psychological effects of his wartime experience. A close friend of mine from college drank himself to death, largely trying to deal with the demons from his combat experience. A fellow officer who served with me in Vietnam, and who also tried to chase the demons of war, died of acute alcohol poisoning from the icy tumblers of straight whiskey he drank throughout the day.
For those who have been in direct combat for days or months, the reaction to noise, stress and other such stimuli can last a lifetime. This is not a secret from which we can hide. Suicides among service members now exceed the number of those who die in combat. Our veterans live among us, mostly anonymously and quietly. They demand little but deserve much. We do not hear about their suffering, as many have learned to be stoics in order to survive each day, or not be perceived as weak.
We, Bellingham residents, choose to celebrate our independence each year with parades and ceremonies and the eventual display of fireworks. But long before, and for a substantial time after the 4th of July, because of poor enforcement of our municipal codes, the so-called celebration begins with explosions, flashes of light and the odor of gunpowder. Ironically, we have learned very well to recreate the sounds, sights and smells of combat, but to what end? Why are we intent on a celebration that reproduces for weeks those very aspects of war that bring continued suffering to our veterans in the form of anxiety, flashbacks and panic? Is this our gift to veterans on Independence Day? Is this how we support our troops?
Stop the fireworks now.