Independence Day for the United States is a holiday celebrated with barbecues, national colors and outdoor adventures. The night sky across the country never fails to be lit up with flares and sparkles, a consistent “boom” sound expected as soon as the sun goes down.
For some people, however, the loud bomb-sounding fireworks aren’t as much celebratory as they are triggers to memories of combat and gunshots experienced while serving their country.
According to the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 10 percent of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have post traumatic stress disorder.
Some 15 percent of veterans who served in the Vietnam War were diagnosed with PTSD; the rate for Gulf War veterans was 12 percent.
PTSD is a stress disorder triggered by a terrifying event, according to the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms can include flashbacks, anxiety, nightmares and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.
“ (For) veterans that do suffer from PTSD, explosions can be a trigger form more prevalent during Fourth of July because of the loud noises and flashes of light,” said David Silveira, director of behavioral health for the family medicine residency program at Mercy Medical Center in Merced.
Jorge Hernandez, director of behavioral health services at Golden Valley, said PTSD happens to people who have experienced life-threatening situations. Hernandez said the body is responding to a memory that has been triggered.
“Anything can be a trigger associated to the incident that caused the trauma,” Hernandez said.
A statement released by Ohio-based Phantom Fireworks said the unexpected “booms” from fireworks can be startling and cause anxiety, reminding veterans of combat or situations in which they heard gunfire.
Hernandez said there are signs that veterans can post in front of their homes advising neighbors, “Combat veteran lives here. Please be courteous with fireworks,”
“Be aware and be empathetic,” Hernandez said. “If you see a neighbor who has a sign outside, maybe don’t fire fireworks there.”
Any veteran can obtain a sign at no cost by visiting www.militarywithptsd.org/involvedwithus/registration.
Silveira said the public can help by being mindful of where they set off fireworks. They also can warn veterans around the neighborhood of plans to launch fireworks. Going to public fireworks shows, instead of having private events, can help decrease the amount of noise.
Veterans may find they’re better able to manage their anxiety by setting off fireworks because doing so allows them to be in control of the noises, Silveira said.
It can be helpful to have a plan, such as going away camping or to a secluded place, Silveira said. Wearing headphones can help drown out loud noises and help suppress the triggers.
“If we can avoid traumatizing anybody, then we can succeed in our mission,” William Weimer, vice president of Phantom Fireworks, said by phone. “These are people who put their life on the line and sacrificed themselves for freedom. Without them, we wouldn’t be celebrating Fourth of July, especially with fireworks.”
Not all veterans suffer from PTSD or are triggered by loud noises such as fireworks, including Merced resident Ernie Conners, who just had his 40th anniversary of retirement from serving.
“(Fourth of July is) always one of those I really enjoy,” Conners said. It means a lot to me and my family. I think of the 22 years in uniform, Vietnam and the colleagues I lost there.”