Air Force Reserve Tech. Sgt. Julie Weckerlein, 445th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office non-commissioned officer in charge on April 29, 2010
Growing up in Northern Kentucky, my backyard was the spot to be every Fourth of July because my father put on quite a show. Immediately after the town parade, neighbors set up lawn chairs and coolers in our driveway. Every kid got a sparkler or two, and there was enough food and drinks to last a week. The adults got to go a little crazy with the roman candle fireworks and cherry bombs while the kids got to hang back and hope that maybe — just maybe — they’d finally — FINALLY! — be old enough to light a fuse.
It was loud. It was smokey. It was ridiculously fun. Nothing seemed more patriotic to me than those wholesome celebrations with friends and family and fireworks.
And it was a tradition I wanted to pass onto my daughter.
For the first few years of my daughter’s life, I created that experience for her.
But that changed during the summer of 2007.
I was in Iraq that summer, serving as a combat correspondent for the Air Force. It was the beginning of “The Surge,” and we hopped around from Sather Air Base and Camp Victory to various forward operating bases in the Baghdad area. No matter where we were, there were mortar attacks at least once every other day. Most of these attacks resulted in property damage. One left two Airmen who were standing outside for a smoke break severely wounded; I never did find out if they survived. Another attack killed a female Army sergeant who was sleeping in her hut not far from where I was staying.
And just a week before Independence Day, I was under a small tent on the banks of the Tigris River with my two news team members. We were there documenting the actions of a joint terminal attack control team attached to the 3rd Infantry Division. During our three days there, there was incoming and outgoing firepower. On the second day, a mortar landed just a few yards away from us, sending shrapnel into our tent, directly into the legs of my team’s broadcaster, severing an artery and creating intense damage that took a whole summer at Walter Reed to heal.
I was left with an ear injury from the blast, and an intense headache that lasted a few days. But at least all of us survived, and us two remaining members of the news team were sent to Afghanistan with a new broadcaster and a new mission.
One year later, in July 2008, I was in a vastly different location in a vastly different role.
I was back at home with my family. I was five-months pregnant and instead of following around dusty, sweaty soldiers, I was following around my four-year-old little girl. We were in a new house in a new neighborhood, and I was ready to embrace the all-American Fourth of July experience again.
So, we went to the county parade that day. Then we went home, where I prepared vanilla cupcakes with red, white and blue sprinkles to share with our new neighbors. We’d heard there would be a fireworks display in the cul-de-sac, and even though I had read about other combat veterans and their reactions to fireworks, I felt confident I wouldn’t have a problem. After all, I had handled the thunderstorms that spring just fine. I hadn’t had any drama or meltdowns since returning home. I had filled out the automated mental health assessment on my computer and submitted it upon my return. In my mind, Iraq was in my past. Those experiences were over. I chalked up those attacks as merely part of the deployment experience. I was safe and with my family. I was fine. I was fine.
I was not fine.
The neighbors started shooting fireworks at about 7:30 p.m., just after the sun had set. I was standing on our porch, holding the cupcakes, waiting for my husband and daughter, when the first flash illuminated the street before exploding with an eerie, hollow boom.
My reaction was instant. My knees went weak, and I started shaking uncontrollably. That first firework inspired others, and soon, the whole street was filled with flashes of light and loud booms. I dropped the cupcakes at my feet and immediately covered my ears, my eyes clenched shut. A wave of panic swelled up in my throat. I wanted it to stop. I wanted to run, screaming at everybody to just stop. I felt ‘the monkey on my back’ — that feeling of uncontrollable anxiety and fear one feels during their first attack, that initial feeling that can make or break you. In a mortar attack, it’s a flash and boom, and then it’s over, at least until the next round comes in. Training kicks in, and you respond to save your life and/or the lives of those around you.
But this was different. I wasn't an armed Airman dropping to the ground or running to a bunker now. I was a mom in my neighborhood with smashed cupcakes at my feet, feeling vulnerable and shocked. It was unrelenting. It was constant flashes of light. Constant sound. And soon, the smell of gunpowder permeated the air. A smell that never meant anything good to me a year before.
By this time, my husband had rushed out onto the porch with my daughter, her face illuminated with excitement. He was smiling, too, until he saw me. His face dropped.
“I can’t,” I said. “I can’t.”
Then I rushed past him into the house. I went to the kitchen, but realized it’s big window overlooked a neighbor’s yard where they were lighting some of the fireworks. I rushed into the living room with it’s thick, heavy curtains and turned on the television, full blast. My husband had followed me inside, but I shoo’ed him away, telling him to go out with our daughter.
I didn’t want her to miss the fireworks. But really, I didn’t want her to see me like that.
When not even the television could block out the noise, I headed to our windowless basement, to my husband’s hobby room. I turned on his sound system and put on the headphones. Then I wrapped my arms around my belly and sobbed.
Crying allowed me to release the nerves fueled by adrenaline. I knew it was good to get it out. But it alarmed me. My reaction surprised me. I had sincerely thought I was fine, that I had embraced the whole “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” mentality that I saw in my peers. But the truth was, I was harboring some serious hurt. I was angry that I couldn’t enjoy what I loved so much with my family. I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t control my reaction. I understood I wasn’t in danger, but I experienced a meltdown anyway. I couldn’t rationalize it away. I felt cheated that while others could celebrate America’s freedom with so much fun, I was curled up in a ball in my basement, crying while music blared in my ears. I couldn’t stand it. I was a veteran. I’d seen the cost and sacrifices for that freedom, and yet I couldn’t celebrate it! And these people outside hadn’t a clue!
Otherwise, they wouldn’t be driving me crazy, right??
It was that night I was forced to admit to myself that I wasn’t as strong as I thought, that I had issues that needed to be addressed.
I am blessed to have a supportive husband, who later joined me in the basement and let me talk. I’d always spoken about what had happened over there with him, but this night, I really poured my heart out, talking about the fear I felt over there, how the amateur fireworks brought those fears back.
At work a few days later, I talked about my Fourth of July reaction with my peers. As I shared my story, others opened up to me. The very same people whom I thought were so stoic and unaffected by their deployments ended up relating to me the most. It was cathartic to share and connect.
It was healing, too, because the more I talked with others, the braver I felt about admitting the issues I carried with me. And the braver I felt, the more I shared and the more I came to accept and find peace with what happened.
For Independence Day 2009, I was better prepared. I still didn’t go out with my family, but I could, at least, sit in my kitchen next to the window, listening to music and chatting with my friends online; the same friends who had deployed too, who had been there and done that, and who could heal right along with me, and celebrate our own special freedom to do just that.