By: Peter Sessum
As the fireworks were going off around the neighborhood right before the Fourth of July I was asked if they bothered me and I had to think about it for a minute. I can honestly say that explosions don’t bother me anymore but they used to.
Civilians assume that the veterans response to fireworks it is a reaction to the horrors of war. For some people that is exactly what it is. An explosion, for some people, is what started the worst day of their life. I met a Vietnam vet that was the sole survivor of an ambush. His jeep was overturned and while he was unconscious the enemy killed everyone else in the convoy and that haunts him to this day. Surviving the Tet offensive or multiple IEDs in Baghdad would also make one adverse to explosions. But there is another reason why some vets flinch when explosions go off and it took me a while to figure out what it was.
When there is a bang, pop or boom, the typical civilian has only a few things that they think it might be. For most people a loud noise is either thunder, fireworks, a balloon or someone dropping something. Even a car backfiring is rare these days. Most people might jump because the noise startles them.
It is kind of messed up that a civilian can be startled by a loud noise but if a veteran is he must have PTSD and could snap at any moment. When I still had Afghan dust on my boots I would flinch a little when there was an unexpected loud noise, but I would be fine while at the firing range. It took me a while to figure out why and I think I have the answer.
It had less to do with fear and more to do with instinct. In training, we drill certain situations so much that they become second nature. When a vet flinches it isn’t because he is reliving a traumatic moment but reacting on instinct. When I was freshly back from overseas, that instinct to react was strong. As time passed, fireworks had less and less effect.
It is kind of like popping a balloon while Usain Bolt is tying his shoes. He might take off running because that is what his instinctive response is. He would be embarrassed when he stopped and realized that he had run 10 feet because of a balloon popping, but that instinctive response would be so strong after the Olympics that it would be second nature. Even though he would be running, it wouldn’t be a fear response to run from the sound, it would be a reflex response to given stimuli.
When that veteran’s reaction seems to be an overreaction to the given situation it is because it takes a lot more time to realize that the noise is not a threat. When a civilian hears a loud noise there are only a few things that it could be. For a veteran, there is a large database of sounds that must be ruled out before realizing it is nothing.
Here is your cautionary tale: A friend had told me that when she was walking out of a building she realized she did not have her rifle and went back inside frantically looking for it. It took her friends reminding her that she didn’t bring a rifle into McDonald’s while on leave for it to dawn on her. She was embarrassed but having a weapon was second nature. To combat that, I carried my pistol when I got home.
So there I was, at the mall, no shit. I was minding my own business when I heard a loud noise behind me. Instinctively, I started to turn to face the threat. I was sweeping with my free hand in case there was a barrel about to be pressed into my back. I had taken about a third of a turn when my mind had gone though all the possible scenarios and it clicked that it wasn’t a deadly threat.
In that time I had lifted my shirt, unsnapped my pistol and was pulling upward but hadn’t cleared leather when I froze. I turned my head a little more and saw a kid unhappy over a popped balloon. I swiftly secured my pistol and pulled my flannel over it and range-walked out of the area. It happened so quickly that no one noticed but I didn’t want to hang around just in case. The last thing I wanted to do was draw down on a kid in Nordstrom. When I got home I unloaded my pistol and didn’t carry for a few months.
Now, unexpected explosion noises do not faze me. It has been long enough that an overreaction would seem out of place in my current lifestyle. This is not the case for all vets. Not liking explosions is one of those things that can impact any veteran. Not just the trigger pullers.
While IEDs usually only hit those that break the gate, troops that guard the gates are targets for suicide bombers and everyone is impacted by rocket and mortar attacks. The biggest POG on the large airbases can have nightmares of the rocket attack that hit the chowhall in Kandahar. I remember sharing a bunker with some supply kids while in Khowst. That one is an interesting story.
So there I was, on FOB Salerno, no shit. I was minding my own business, playing a bit of Halo to pass the time when I heard a loud explosion. I felt the concussion wave through the tent. My immediate reaction was to throw my controller and yell, “God dammit!”
I knew right away it was rocket attack and was more upset about the interruption in my life. The Marine chopper pilots were sprinting to their birds and everyone was leaping out of their way while heading to the bunkers. I instantly regretted looking outside the tent because then people knew I was in there. So I had to grab my helmet and vest and head for the bunker 10 feet from my hooch.
I don’t want to seem like I am casual about dangerous situations, it just seemed a little pointless when we had two large tankers filled with jet fuel about 50 meters away. If those went up we might see the flash and that would be it. That type of unfinished bunker would have just channeled the explosion and cooked everyone inside. But it made people feel better to crouch inside so who am I to deny them? Maybe that is why it seemed like a great sacrifice to offer my spot inside the bunker.
I have been on bases that have been rocketed but I don’t consider myself to have survived a rocket attack. I knew some people who like to talk about how they survived a rocket attack when it didn’t even wake them up. I don’t count those. Especially when there are people that been in an actual rocket attack where they have been injured and their friends killed.
The rocket on Salerno hit an open part of the airfield and no one was hurt. The biggest casualty was my video game and that really isn’t all that traumatic for me.
So please, give vets a break. If they react to a sudden loud noise, most likely they will be embarrassed about it. For many it will be about an instinctive response and not being scared of thunder. However, for some, it is a reminder of the worst day of their life and they shouldn’t be teased about that.