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Independence Day without fireworks is a reprieve for vets

For many of us, a Fourth of July celebration isn't the same without whistling, screaming explosions illuminating our nighttime festivities.

In fact, last week we received a spirited phone call from a St. Helens resident who was angry, upon learning earlier this month, fireworks organizers were short of volunteers and funds, leading to the determination fireworks would not be set off this Fourth of July.

Apparently the resident wasn't alone in having not read The Spotlight article published in April that foretold of the demise of this year's Fourth of July fireworks festival (see "St. Helens fireworks future up in the air," April 18); even city of St. Helens staffers, according to an email sent out from City Hall on June 12, were surprised to learn late in the game that Independence Day in St. Helens would be devoid of fireworks this year.

For veterans who have served in hot military zones, however, this is undoubtedly a welcome reprieve.

As quoted in a 2008 Spotlight article regarding veterans benefits in Columbia County, then-44-year-old veteran Jeff Sook, who had completed two tours in the Middle East, said the sounds and sights of the Fourth of July upon his return home resembled all too closely a war zone.

"I didn't like the Fourth of July," he said. "You could hear the [fireworks] drop down the tubes, like the mortar tubes, and I just sat in my room."

Veterans across the United States, where the population of those who have lived through combat has increased drastically over the past decade, echo Sooks' comments. Consider the scene for a moment: A veteran who has spent the last year amid death-dealing explosions of artillery and arms, and who has post traumatic stress disorder from the ordeal, is spending an evening at home when a neighbor sets off a series of firecrackers.

As Dr. John Mundt, a psychologist at the Jess Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune last year, "If you are lighting off a firecracker in your neighborhood, there's a very good chance that there is a veteran within earshot."

As Mundt continued, "To someone with PTSD, it can sound like small arms fire."

We don't expect the community to halt the centuries-old tradition of lighting off fireworks and explosions to commemorate our independence from England in 1776. In fact, an abundance of literature points to the first Fourth of July celebration, as Congress had authorized, occurring in 1777, six years before victory had been declared in the American Revolutionary War. It has become a deeply embedded component of our history and traditions and is significant as part of our national identity.

But there are costs associated with our fireworks displays, and we believe it is each community member's responsibility to be aware of those costs.

Beyond the emotional toll on war veterans, fireworks pose environmental questions; fireworks contains heavy metals and sulfur-coal compounds and there is also physical litter left behind that slips into storm water systems for transport to our rivers. They are also a considerable stressor for pets.

And, of course, there is the monetary consideration, which should be weighed against other community needs at a time of shrinking budgets for charities that support programs, such as community food pantries. Outside of the cities, in rural areas, they pose fire hazards.

Many of these challenges rest on the shoulders of residential fireworks users, even more than the regulated commercial operations such as the city had hosted in the past and plans to host again on the opening day of the Maritime Heritage Festival.

Take the time this Fourth of July to consider the effect of your celebrations on your neighbors, and ask yourself how to best demonstrate your patriotism. Perhaps, instead of explosions, we can extend to the veterans who live on our street our gratitude and spend more time in quiet contemplation about the significance of living in a free society than in our quest for distracting sensory delight.

Above all else, be safe.