Independence Day is fast approaching and Americans all over the country are preparing to celebrate with the customary launching of fireworks. The holiday marks the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and the cessation of the original Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain. Yet for many patriots, the national holiday leaves something to be desired. Military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in particular may avoid the frivolities, as the cacophony of fireworks may trigger harrowing memories.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can occur in anyone for a wide variety of reasons ranging from combat experience to sexual abuse. PTSD can manifest itself during a traumatic event when the body’s automated response is to flood areas of the brain with stress inducing hormones. These hormones will incapacitate segments of the cerebral cortex, resulting in the processes responsible for storing the event going haywire. Thus, when an individual with PTSD is triggered, the memories from the event are for all intents and purposes re-lived.
The deafening explosion of fireworks common during Fourth of July reminds many veterans of the time they served. It is extremely difficult for many veterans to escape the noise simply because almost everyone who participates in the American pastime fails to account for the fact they are subjecting tens of thousands of people to mental trauma. Not every veteran struggles with this problem, but for many it is a harsh reality they will have to cope with every year for the rest of their lives.
Knowing when and where fireworks displays will occur can help veterans deal with the stress, and, in some cases, it even becomes possible for them to enjoy the night and celebrate their patriotism with everyone else. The situation becomes more complicated when people begin launching fireworks days before the holiday and continue to do so for weeks afterward. In those instances, the sudden unexpected explosion of a bottle rocket in someone’s backyard can trigger memories in a PTSD sufferer with repercussions that will last for hours or even days. Sergeant James Roberts, a retired Army veteran, spends every Fourth of July indoors, but the potential for the echo from a firework to trigger one of his latent memories is always present. “I’m always on edge,” Roberts said. “It’s like having a constant shot of electricity continuously running through your body.”
There is currently no research suggesting fireworks may be a trigger to veterans with PTSD, but military psychologists believe the subject is no laughing matter. Some veterans, including Samuel Verdeja, request sessions with their therapists following the holiday because they remain haunted by the resurgence of trauma. “Even after the holiday is over, I still have nightmares about the sounds,” Verdeja said. Laura Meyers, the program coordinator for PTSD treatment at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, tells veterans not to be ashamed if they exhibit symptoms and instructs them to communicate with family and friends in efforts to make the holiday as painless as possible.
Every Fourth of July, thousands of veterans suffering from PTSD may be triggered from the seemingly harmless detonation of fireworks. While some of these individuals are able to distinguish the sound of fireworks from incoming artillery fire, their ability to do so does not always halt their impulsive responses. This year, perhaps some people will take note and be considerate of their neighbors before setting off fireworks.
By Sam Williams