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One Veteran’s View of Independence Day

by Jason McDowell

When you think about the 4th of July, you’d expect it to have some significance for military service members. This holiday celebrates the founding of our country and the freedoms that we still fight for today. I was recently asked by a friend if veterans viewed this holiday any differently, and my immediate reaction was something like this: Yes! America! Freedom! Pass me a hot dog! QUIT HOGGING THE SPARKLERS!

Upon further analysis, I realized I wasn’t sure what this holiday means in relation to my service. Don’t get me wrong. I love my country. I think it would be pretty rare to find a veteran who doesn’t. People don’t often put their lives on the line for things they don’t love. While many in this country take their freedoms for granted, veterans have a greater tendency to remember the sacrifices of those who died—even all the way back to the Revolutionary War—to give us what we have here today. But this isn’t Memorial Day. It isn’t Veterans Day. So what kind of spin could I possibly put on an article about veterans and Independence Day?

For example, in Iraq in 2003, I honestly can’t remember what we did to celebrate. I asked around to a few guys I served with. One remembers cooking hot dogs on a makeshift grill, in full battle gear, in the middle of the desert at a checkpoint where his squad was on duty. Another remembers watching an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team blow up an extra-large pile of Iraqi ordinance in lieu of fireworks before spending the rest of the day on a supply convoy. The only thing I remember is that the temperature through most of July topped 120 degrees Fahrenheit and our tent had no air conditioning.

Our unit worked straight through most holidays in 2003-2004, so I have no idea what I was doing. I probably stood a security post in a village, or worked on a construction site, or drove a 5-ton dump truck converted to carry troops in a convoy to some random bombed out place or military post, or accompanied a Civilian Affairs team to convince some Ba’athist loyalist or Sheik to stop being an asshole.

I know what I’ll be doing this year. Lying awake, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the fireworks to stop so I can go to sleep. Fireworks are a PTSD trigger for a lot of veterans, but not me, at least not anymore. They’re just loud, they scare the bejeezus out of my dogs, and here in New York City they tend to go non-stop until 6 am. There’s a certain irony, actually. In Iraq, someone once woke me from a deep sleep to inform me that we were on the receiving end of a mortar attack. I slipped on my flip-flops, put on my flak vest without bothering to put on a shirt, grabbed my weapon, plopped my Kevlar on my head, and trudged out to lay on a berm where I tried not to fall back asleep until the mortars stopped. I used to sleep through mortar attacks, now I can’t sleep through a bottle rocket. How times have changed. At least my wardrobe has improved. Let me tell you, Army-issued running shorts, flip-flops, flak vest, and Kevlar helmet are not the most flattering look.

After some analysis, I think I have trouble taking a special sense of pride out of this holiday because the war I fought in wasn’t really about American freedoms. I wasn’t battling Redcoats against all odds for my freedom. I wasn’t stopping the Nazis from taking over the world. Iraq was about forced regime change, about bringing democracy to the Middle East, about oil, and trade, and strategic location, and about a thousand other things that were above my pay grade. But never did I feel like I was fighting for the safety of my homeland. I was fighting for the safety of theirs. And that’s okay.

I met a lot of solid, decent people in Iraq who deserved my help. I did things that I’m still proud of. I fed starving children. I helped rebuild a school. I was on a mission that helped restore clean water and irrigation to parts of southern Iraq that had been cut off by Saddam Hussein’s regime. I spent the back half of my deployment deeply involved with the training program that put hundreds of unemployed people back to work in the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, an Iraqi version of the National Guard.

Whatever positive effects those things had for the people of Iraq, in the end, none of it has much to do with American independence. I’ll probably go out and watch some fireworks. Maybe throw a steak or burger on a grill. Maybe I’ll light a sparkler and spell out my name in the air. Or maybe I’ll stay in and watch The Patriot and take a drink every time someone gets killed in an innovative way.

So, to the point, what does this day mean specifically for a veteran? Let me digress for one more moment. I once participated in a humanitarian mission in Nicaragua where we were building schools. Our chopper landed at a building site, and blew down a house next door that consisted of scrap siding and boards leaned precariously together to form shelter for half a dozen people (don’t worry, nobody was hurt and we fixed the hell out of that house). In Iraq, local women, sometimes as young as 12 or 13, would ask us to marry them and take them out of the country so they could come back to America and live without oppression. While building a rest stop for convoys near an Iraqi highway, we dug up a mass grave full of dozens of people who were murdered by their own government. Sometimes Iraqi children go out to play and accidentally step on landmines left from half a dozen previous conflicts and don’t come home.
So it’s clear to me now why a veteran might appreciate this day more than most. We have seen the worst humanity has to offer. Somewhere else in the world, people suffer in ways veterans understand and the rest of you will never have to, because you are free. I appreciate the freedom we celebrate on Independence Day because I know what a world without that freedom looks like. I celebrate our success as a nation, our prosperity, our sheer damn luck, that gives us the kind of life we’ve become accustomed to.

There are bad things out there. There’s always one wolf or another growling at the door, and active-duty military personnel and veterans are proud to have had some part in holding it at bay for another year each Independence Day. That’s what I discovered when I gave some deep thought to this issue. This day isn’t about what I did in Iraq, but what I came home to. My service overseas allowed me to appreciate the life I now lead in a very special way. Nothing in life is free, not even freedom.

So watch a fireworks display. Eat way too much. Drink too many beers. Kiss someone you love. Try not to blow off a finger with a firecracker. Don’t take any of it for granted. This is your Independence Day. Appreciate. Celebrate.

Jason McDowell is a fiction author, freelance writer and editor, OIF combat veteran, and MFA candidate in Creative Writing (Fiction) at The New School. He lives in NYC with his wife Larissa. His fiction has been seen in O-Dark-Thirty, The Nemadji Review, and in the Variant Frequencies podcast. He is also a regular non-fiction contributor for Inbound Logistics and Recruiter Today.

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