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Jim Can’t Sleep

July 9th, 2019 by dk

Jim asked that I not include his last name. Maybe that’s because he volunteers for charitable and political organizations around town and he doesn’t want to attract possibly unpopular attention. Maybe it’s because former combat veterans tend to avoid any appearance of weakness. So my topic today is Jim — just Jim.

Jim has a problem. It recurs each summer. His condition hasn’t improved during decades of discomfort. Every June and July, he has trouble sleeping.

Fireworks remind him — too vividly — of being an infantry rifleman in the Army in 1971. “I turned 21 in a jungle near Hue, Vietnam,” he told me. “Explosive sounds, bright flashes of light, even the smell, are accurately replicated by fireworks.”

Jim doesn’t understand why people are so fascinated with blowing things up, except possibly because they’ve never been close to the real thing. No video game, movie or fireworks display will ever approximate the terror of an explosion that could cost someone’s life or limb.

“When I’m awake, I can convince myself that the situation is safe, that there is no danger,” Jim continued. “However, if chaotic noise and light awakens me, then there are terrifying moments when I am disoriented, struggling to identify the danger. Those are the worst moments imaginable.”

Jim has tried different strategies to get away from the holiday hubbub. Six weeks is a long time to go without a good night’s sleep. But there’s really nowhere to go, where you can sleep with some assurance that you won’t be woken by a startling boom.

Camping offers no respite. Desolate place attract some who are determined to get even more carried away with their midsummer revelry. People assume that lighting a few illegal firecrackers is a victimless crime. But they haven’t met Jim. Or they have, but they haven’t met Jim’s pain.

Efforts are underway to curb our sudden sonic celebrations, because they might upset nearby dogs and cats. That’s a fine first step, but let’s take that lesson a bit further.

Mid-June has become a time when Americans toast the successes of grads and dads. We should follow that rhyming rhythm with a new couplet for early July: consider the concerns of pets and vets. Loud noises and bright flashes may be unsettling beyond what any “thunder shirt” can calm.

Most of us want to find appropriate ways to “support the troops.” Maybe it’s time we stop doing something that re-traumatizes them. In our age of excessive political correctness, how is it that we don’t consider “trigger warnings” for memories and feelings that involved actual triggers? Jim doesn’t know how many other veterans suffer similarly, but it’s probably more common than we think.

Jim didn’t want me to use his whole name, but he is more than willing to share his whole experience. His question to his neighbors is direct, drawing on his infantryman training from 50 years ago: “Is blowing stuff up that important? Is it more important than I am?”

Jim won’t sleep well this week, but maybe we shouldn’t either. With a little more empathy, we could all sleep better — including Jim.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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