Marine veteran Jared Bolhuis detests the Fourth of July, a holiday that can evoke battlefield horrors with its celebratory reenactments of war: rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air.
Bolhuis is not alone. In 2014, a social media post on the subject of vets and the Fourth was shared widely. The post was simple: a photo of a veteran holding a sign that said, "Combat veteran lives here, please be courteous with fireworks."
In its story on the post, USA Today sought perspective from Barbara Van Dahlen, a Washington, D.C. area psychologist and founder of Give An Hour, which provides free behavioral health counseling to troops, veterans and their families.
“The sensitivity here is that if you know that your next-door neighbor served ... and you're planning to have a fireworks display in your backyard, it's probably the thoughtful thing to do to let them know," the psychologist told USA Today. She said emotional reactions to loud noises or sounds that bring memories of traumatic events can be very common among both veterans and non-veterans. The concern is not that the veteran might react violently, she said, but that he or she could experience "a very painful, stressful, emotional experience remembering a firefight or a buddy who was killed."
PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is sometimes called the signature medical issue of the post-9/11 wars. The impact on the mind of the horrors of war can leave PTSD sufferers with inescapable flashbacks to traumatic events, emotional numbness, sleeplessness, anger that is hard to control.
The group Military with PTSD has joined others in trying to raise awareness about what it calls “an unintended consequence of Fourth of July fireworks.”
My own awareness was raised during interviews with Bolhuis and others for my book, Home of the Brave, which is about a grassroots effort in the western Colorado town of Montrose to help military vets reintegrate into civilian life.
Weeks into his deployment in Afghanistan in 2008, Bolhuis was on the road with his unit. A 120-mm mortar exploded five feet from his truck. The concussive wave knocked Bolhuis out. Less than a month later, a 500-pound bomb exploded 40 feet from his truck. Again, Bolhuis was left temporarily unconscious.
Eventually, Bolhuis’s injuries forced him to retire at the age of 24 from the Marines, where he had hoped to make his career. As a civilian he continued to serve warriors, including a stint in Colorado helping to establish the Welcome Home Montrose project, now known as the Welcome Home Alliance for Veterans.
Bolhuis was diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury, or TBI. The advanced armor that soldiers wear and in which their vehicles are wrapped means they can survive onslaughts of bombs and bullets that would have killed fighters in earlier wars. But under attack, the most crucial organ is knocked against the skull and left bruised and battered. Civilians know the mildest form of TBI, a concussion, from playground and sports field accidents. More severe injuries can result in changes in personality and affect thinking and moods for long periods. The most severe TBI can result in death.
Imagine Bolhuis in his apartment in Montrose a few days after the Fourth in 2014. He’s taken the cocktail of drugs prescribed to treat his PTSD and TBI. Suddenly, he hears a knocking. Bolhuis’s medications can make him feel loopy, and he was already unnerved by the fireworks show to which he’d been unwillingly treated earlier in the week. Like something out of Poe, the tapping on his door wouldn’t stop. The more the insistent, unknown caller rapped, the less inclined Bolhuis was to answer. He hunted for his shotgun. He set it within easy reach, but did not put shells in the chamber.
“Even under the most high anxiety situation I’ve been in since I’ve been back, I fell into the military training on weapon safety.”
Bolhuis called the police and gave them details as he might have briefed a fellow soldier supporting him on a battlefield. He told the dispatcher he had a gun, making it clear it was unloaded. He’d taken prescribed medication that was influencing perceptions already addled by brain injury, he added. He was a veteran, he summed up.
“I was keeping constant situational awareness to all parties involved. I wanted everybody to have as much information as possible.”
He stayed on the line as two officers set out in a police car and neared his home. By the time they arrived, the visitor, whoever he or she was, had disappeared. Bolhuis told the dispatcher he was leaving his gun inside and going out to meet the police.
He made another military-style report to the cops. If they were impressed by his calm, they didn’t show it with their reaction: they told Bolhuis they were taking him downtown.
He was arrested on suspicion of prohibited use of weapons and spent the rest of that night in jail. He had never been arrested before. He was mortified, an emotion that would linger long after he was released.
Bolhuis hired a lawyer. He prepared for his court hearing, not knowing what to expect and fearing the worst.
The case took three months to wend its way through the legal system. In the end, a judge weighed the facts. Yes, Bolhuis had violated statute. But he was the one who called the police and provided them with what evidence they had. The judge threw the case out, saying Bolhuis never should have been brought before him.
Bolhuis blames himself, not the police, for his night in jail and for the months on edge that followed. It is the cops’ job to enforce the law, and they often put their lives on the line doing it, he says.
He also says he wouldn’t mind if his fellow Americans laid off the fireworks in deference to their vets.