My neighborhood was echoing with explosions. On the way home that night, the sky was a gorgeous purple-blue. A huge fireworks show lit up the Illinois cornfields. I veered off to a country road for a minute, and watched them in silence, feeling my heart skip with every boom.
I tried not to think about things too much the summer they were deployed, two years ago now. Sometimes the fear would take my breath away. My husband and my brother were overseas. I wondered how they would spend the holiday and what it meant to them that year. I couldn’t recall if there was ever a 4th of July that I hadn’t spent with my brother.
I had spoken with another Soldier who had just arrived home after spending three years in Iraq. He told me he went to a fireworks display, standing in the bleachers with his girlfriend and her friend. While everyone stopped for the National Anthem, the friend texted, laughed, and snapped her gum…and he wanted to snap her neck, he told me. After everything he’d done-all the orders he followed, even if he didn’t agree-it was infuriating for him to watch. He pulled her aside afterward and asked her to have more respect.
Sometimes it’s hard to respect, because it’s hard to comprehend. All of us are grateful to have the freedoms we do, but it’s such a vague concept for civilians sometimes, like the rows of flags I passed one night, stuck in the neighborhood yards and taped with names of Soldiers. We’re taught to admire them for what they do, but we see little to none of it, and it flutters away like many good intentions. The difference now is that I know some of these men very well. Hearing things like ‘troop surge’ or ‘Soldiers killed’ will never again be a news story that fades into the background of a conversation. It’s something that makes my stomach sick. When I think of the guys overseas, I can’t think of them as a collective mass any longer. I think of my husband and my brother, and all the other Soldiers I’ve met in their unit. They are not numbers or uniforms. They have faces.
My brother got on his laptop camera one day, making me grateful to see him all the way in Afghanistan. He made great efforts to tell me the awards he’d received were not a big deal. Then one by one, he held up certificates and medals for me to see, running his finger along the pages to point out certain words. The video was fuzzy and the camera jolted in and out of focus, but I could see his smile through it all. I marveled at how the little boy I knew had grown up and turned into a Soldier. When he got home, he didn’t know how to respond when he was thanked for his service. It made him uncomfortable, he said. He considered it his job, and he did his job. I don’t think it even requires patriotism to feel a swell of pride knowing we still have an Independence Day because 1% of the population is doing what the other 99% can’t or won’t do.
When my brother was little, he would ride in the 4th of July parade. My dad is a firefighter, and that meant 15 minutes of pseudo-celebrity for us once a summer. We would sit on top of the fire truck in the scorching midday sun, and my dad would steer the huge engine down the road. Lights would flicker, we’d wave our hands and our flags, and Dad would yell up at us to put on headphones when he turned on the wailing sirens and horns. Later that night, we would always watch the fireworks set off. We’d lie down in the grass or on a picnic blanket, and comment on how great that one was, pointing, laughing. My brother would twirl the double cowlick in his hair and glow. His birthday is the 4th of July. In his mind, the whole day-the parade, the candy thrown, and the fireworks-was for him.
And in a way, it is.