After seeing the consequences of war, Petty Officer Daniel Carter returned to Bethesda with a newfound appreciation for freedom and patriotism, which he will celebrate on Independence Day.
Henrik G. de Gyor/The Gazette
Roughly 12,000 American flags line the streets of Bethesda this week, placed by The Jane Fairweather Team, a local real estate agent, in honor of Independence Day.
He spent two months on the USNS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship, treating injured prisoners of war and civilians from Iraq. He returned May 1.
"I think so many people came back changed. I think so many people came back with a new perspective on life. I know I did," he said.
He plans to eat dinner and watch fireworks on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. with a group of friends who worked on the Comfort with him.
"That's going to be neat. I'm real excited for that," he said. "Every year we say we're going to do it, and we don't."
But this year is different. Several of his friends have received military assignments in other parts of the country, so "it'll be the last time that all of us will be together," Carter said.
The 27-year-old works as a hospital corpsman in the pediatric clinic at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and lives on base.
A number of local sailors, including Carter, said this Independence Day is especially meaningful because of the recent U.S. war against Iraq. They also said Americans seem more patriotic this year, compared to previous years.
Carter said he has been enjoying the comforts of life in Bethesda, like air conditioning, going out with friends and having free time.
Military personnel "gave up a lot of little things that we take for granted. The Fourth of July is a great time for us to celebrate those things," he said. "For us, it's just cool to get back to those choices."
He missed friends and family when he was away. "I think everybody's phone rates went up when we got home. ... You don't know what you're missing until it's gone," he said.
Capt. Charles Blankenship of Poolesville said he is thankful to be home, after spending almost six months as the commanding officer of the Comfort's medical operations.
He plans to attend a neighborhood block party and watch fireworks in Poolesville on Friday.
"It's a good time for people to sit back and reflect on what's happened in the country, and actually in the world, since Sept. 11," he said.
As the holiday approaches, Blankenship said Americans should continue doing what they have always done, but maintain a heightened awareness of their surroundings. If Americans stop enjoying their freedoms, "then the terrorists have beat us," he said.
Cmdr. Sandra Thomas-Rogers, who served as a nurse on the Comfort, said the holiday has extra meaning for her this year.
"I think this year, it'll be much more special," she said. "We still have troops over there, and I want them to come back."
The Germantown resident, who works as the director of the nurse internship program at the National Naval Medical Center, plans to watch fireworks in Gaithersburg with her family on Friday.
"I think it's patriotic, or a symbol of patriotism," she said.
She plans to travel to Disney World in Orlando, Fla., with her family and a friend on Saturday. It seems fitting because Disney is a worldwide symbol of American culture.
Thomas-Rogers said she has noticed an increase in patriotism this year, perhaps because of the war. "As you go around, you see flags everywhere ... There's nowhere you can go and not see flags," she said.
Jeffrey Canter of North Bethesda, a hospital corpsman, plans to watch fireworks at Arlington National Cemetery or the reflecting pool between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Friday.
"Where else, but among the defenders of our nation to celebrate our independence?" he said.
Three of his sons plan to fly from Southern California to Washington, D.C. to spend the holiday with him. They have never seen the nation's capital before. "They are really looking forward to it," he said.
Canter was assigned to the National Naval Medical Center to help fill the gap after many employees there were deployed on the Comfort. He is serving as a physician's assistant in the center's neurosurgery clinic.
A civilian view
For all the majestic visuals that Independence Day represents -- from the fireworks to the flag-waving to hamburgers on the grill -- the most important thing on many civilians' minds may be completely out of sight on Friday.
For many civilians, Independence Day will elicit reflection on the soldiers and troops fighting for America halfway across the globe, and the thousands of people who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"This particular Independence Day I'll reflect on the kids who are fighting overseas," said Lance Wright, of Washington, D.C. "I've always felt the Fourth of July represents a time of reflection. That's the very nature."
Wright sat on a metal bench outside of Barnes & Noble in Bethesda on Friday. While the heat made it feel like summer, the start of summer for many goes hand-in-hand with fireworks and "Stars and Stripes Forever."
Steven Lanting, 12, of Bethesda, will be flying over the Atlantic Ocean this Independence Day. He and his family are moving to Belgium on the Fourth, and have an evening flight. He said he hopes to get a sneak peak of the fireworks from his window seat.
"We think of our country more [on July 4]," Lanting said. "It will give us more reason to celebrate."
While Lanting sees the Fourth as a reason to party, Wright can't help but feel differently. He'll partake in some grilling in his back yard, but he is not going to get caught up in the patriotic fervor.
"Independence Day for me always prompts a certain degree of ambivalence. Independence for me and my ancestors really didn't exist," said Wright, who is black.
Paul Lederer affirmed Wright's sentiments. Lederer, of Chevy Chase, was born in Canada. "I've been here 57 years and I'm still a second-class citizen," Lederer said. "It's something that we as a country should reconsider."
Lederer's thoughts on Friday will be with those fighting for the United States, but he won't dwell on it just because it is Independence Day.
"I'll think about [the troops] no more than I would have because I felt just as strongly about them before," Lederer said. "I thought about it before Sept. 11. I have relatives in Israel, they think about that every day."
Katina Manos of Chevy Chase said the Fourth should be no different from any other day. She said Americans should spend Independence Day reflecting upon just that, how lucky they are to be independent.
"I bet a lot of people are going to think about [the war in Iraq and Sept. 11] because it is Independence Day," Manos said. "It's sad what happened, but people are making a big deal about it. People don't realize how fortunate we are. Our country is more fortunate than others. There are so many worse things going on in other countries."
Carlos Gonzalez is going to spend Independence Day as he usually does, relaxing around the pool.
"I'm not going to be too patriotic because people tend to be overzealous," Gonzalez said. "Independence Day should be a happy day. It shouldn't be thought of as a deadly atmosphere. It should be a happy idea that you are free. But I'm definitely going to be reflecting."
-- Michael Becker contributed to this report.