PSTD: Fireworks Remind Veterans of Artillery Fire

Soldier with PTSD
Soldier with PTSD

It’s the Fourth of July, a day set aside to celebrate America’s independence from Great Britain in 1776. From large cities to small towns, there are parades, street fairs, picnics, and fireworks. But for some veterans, the noise of fireworks can bring back painful, frightening memories of war.

Some members of the Armed Forces who have been in combat associate the exploding, popping, and whizzing sounds of fireworks with artillery used in battle. For veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the comparison is even worse. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledges that fireworks can trigger anxiety in those suffering from PTSD. VA doctors and psychiatrists say the results range from startling someone to full-scale panic attacks.

The large celebrations that combine fireworks with music, such as in New York Harbor and the Washington, D.C. display held on the National Mall, are not as traumatic for veterans. It is the smaller use of fireworks, often random and isolated, that are the most disturbing. The shrill, whizzing sound of projectiles, the popping that occurs when a string of firecrackers are set off in the street, are examples of the recreation of sounds made by incoming mortars and firearms used in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam. And just like incoming artillery fire, no one knows where the isolated firecracker is coming from or how often.

PTSD isn’t just triggered by the sound of fireworks following combat exposure. Anyone who has suffered a major trauma can develop it. After 9/11, there were many people who had either seen or survived the attack. They were afraid to be in enclosed places, those who lived near the airports were afraid of low-flying planes coming in for a landing. According to the National Center for PTSD, any trauma causing a person to feel threatened can lead to it. That doesn’t mean everyone who suffers a traumatic situation will develop PTSD. It’s normal to need time to deal with the situation, it’s something else when flashbacks, nightmares, depression, and isolation linger for months and years.

The National Center for PTSD has an extensive section within the Dept. of Veterans Affairs’ website. For those who need help getting through the Independence Day celebrations, whether it is fireworks or a car backfiring or anything else, phone lines to counseling centers and VA hospitals are open all night. What is important is for veterans to realize they are not alone in how they react to sudden, loud noises, and to not be afraid to get help.

Cynthia Collins, Correspondent

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs/National Center for PTSD

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