It’s the evening of July 4th, and I just stepped out onto my back porch and watched a fireworks display at the baseball stadium a few blocks away. The lights and booms don’t do much for me anymore, but as I get older, I am doing my best to be a good citizen and try to put my brain on what exactly this all means. Especially when we’re at war.

Dad and Josh, 1974

Dad and Josh, 1974

I am a fat, lazy American (those snickerdoodles I was stuffing down my hole while watching the fireworks weren’t helping any). I am 1,000 miles away from my children, voluntarily, on a mini-vacation with my wife, setting up a second home where we hope to spend vacations over the next few years. I’ve bought more consumer-crap creature comforts over the last three days than most people buy in a year. And to top it all off, I work in advertising, where I spend my professional life convincing people to buy stuff they don’t really need, and half the time probably don’t even really want.

At the same time, I recognize that there are over 100,000 men and women in uniform serving in war zones overseas who would give just about anything to be serving up a hot dog to their kids and tossing a ball around, watching those fireworks that I’m too lazy to attend, even though they’re about a 3-minute drive away.

Josh, Mom & Dad - 1979

Josh, Mom & Dad – 1979

So if there’s anyone in this country who better goddamn well stand up and show respect for the people who make America the land of opportunity that it is, it’s me, and I know it.

I have countless friends and family who are current or former active-duty military. My dad retired from the Air Force after 26 years. I grew up on Air Force Bases among hundreds of other brats whose folks did the same. My cousin Tim was in the Army for something like 8 years. My uncle was a Marine. My grandfather was in the Army Air Corps and the Naval reserves. Dozens more of my current friends are in the Guard or Reserves.

All of them have at one time or another volunteered to die, if necessary, so that I can peacefully munch cookies outside my second home until I decide to come in and stick Scarface in the DVD player and continue my non-combative lifestyle (well, unless you count spousal arguments, but that’s not the combat I’m referring to). That’s a heavy thought, no cookie puns intended.

Dad's retirement in 1996 after 26 years in.

Dad’s retirement in 1996 after 26 years in.

I’ve never served in the military, and unless Soviet paratroopers start parachuting in from the sky a la Red Dawn, I’m never going to. And there are millions of guys like me out there, and we all fall into one of two categories:

1) Ones who actively, consciously recognize and appreciate the sacrifices you military folks make.
2) Ones who don’t.

I suspect the second group is the more populous of the two. Please put me in the first.

But what’s that, other than lip service? I’ve struggled personally over the years with how to best show my gratitude to those braver than me who took on the sacrifice of military life. I don’t feel guilt for not serving (someone’s gotta do the private-sector stuff, after all), but I’ve certainly felt like I owed them all something that I didn’t really know how to pay back. And I still don’t know how to pay it back.

Cousin Tim Malson, US Army

Cousin Tim Malson, US Army

What do you do for someone who takes on RPG fire so that my children can choose from six different kid’s meal options at TGI Friday’s? What do you say to someone who maybe comes back with PTSD and down one limb just so I can get pissed off every time I’m driving behind someone who’s going 5 mph under the speed limit?

Grandpa Dale Fridell, Army Air Corps

Grandpa Dale Fridell, Army Air Corps

Is a “thank you” enough? I’ve heard that it is. I’ve heard that an unsolicited “thank you for your service” means a lot. But really? I say “thank you” every time I pull away from the drive-through bank teller, for Christ’s sake. Is that really sufficient? The soldiers can have the floor and I’ll respect their answer, but right now, I don’t know. Doesn’t sound like enough to me.

I don’t know what an outsider should do to recognize the commitment, suffering and sacrifice that he himself never has to make. I have, though, convinced myself that it’s my firm responsibility to imagine, as vividly as I can, the most painful of those sacrifices. The family separation, the missing out on day-to-day life with your family that almost all civilians take for granted, and the fear of perhaps never seeing one’s family again and never getting to say goodbye to them. The latter seems worse to me than the violent death itself that so many of us think of as the only, or at least the primary, danger of wartime service.

The dying part, whether instantaneous or slow, never seems to be the worst part, when I imagine it. Plenty of things seem worse. Never getting to tell your Mom and Dad what a great job they did raising you and how much you love them. Never getting to watch your kids grow up and never getting to say goodbye to them. Worse yet, knowing some stranger may have to knock on your door and tell your wife that her husband is dead. Tell your kids they have no father anymore. And rob them of the chance to say goodbye to you. Knowing you won’t be there as they grow up and need a Dad, every step of the way. No graduations, proms, first dates, lost teeth, confirmations, Christmases, birthdays, weddings.

Uncle George Fridell, USMC

Uncle George Fridell, USMC

No conversations. No chats. No dinners. No hugs and kisses.

Worst of all, no goodbyes.

Even now, the booms and blasts continue outside my patio door. I have to admit, they sound different, feel different, than they did when I started writing. I don’t know all the answers — I’m not even scratching the surface yet — but I think that’s a step in the right direction.

All over the U.S. right now, there are chumps like me looking up at the explosions, tired of the blasts and the booms, saying to themselves, “Jesus, I just want to go home.”

And all over Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s a whole other group of Americans thinking exactly the same thing.

Here’s hoping the former can take time to think about the latter at least one time this year.