This Independence Day, Americans all over the country will attend barbecues, block parties, and city-wide celebrations. A good number of military veterans won’t be participating, and may even feel a sense of dread as the day approaches. Why is it that those once willing to lay down their lives for freedom would refuse to join in the revelry commemorating the same?
(Fireworks display at U.S. Embassy in Germany)
The answer has nothing to do with patriotism, or love of country, this group is rolling in both. It’s really much simpler – and more complicated.
Fireworks and crowds are two of the most common triggers of post-traumatic stress symptoms caused by wartime service, even in veterans who have never been diagnosed with the disorder, and have no other issues.
While perhaps not surprising, the general population isn’t often aware of these triggers. Psychologically driven, real physical symptoms accompany the reaction – the veteran knows full well that “it’s only a firecracker,” but the autonomic responses of rapid heartbeat, increased adrenaline, and even hyperventilation could be beyond the vet’s control.
“The brain has programmed itself to prepare the body for fight or flight,” says Trauma Coach Ken Pennock, founder of Traumanon, a service which offers coaching and counseling services to veterans with post traumatic stress. “Reprogramming is difficult, but not impossible. It’s important to remember that if something is broken from the inside, it has to be fixed from the inside.”
A quick search of Facebook shows some common methods of coping, with avoidance of fireworks and crowds being the most common. Some even plan annual trips out of town, far away from large celebrations, but others have found simple yet effective ways of coping with the sudden noises of fireworks, such as lighting the displays themselves.
“I will sit where I can see the operators, so no surprises, just family fun,” says Donald T., USMC, Vietnam.
While the fireworks at most gatherings range from “safe and sane” to “dumb and dangerous,” please be sensitive. A brief warning before lighting off is only polite. Don’t try to provoke an outburst – a lit firecracker behind a vet isn’t funny, and the joke won’t end well.
Yancy is an Army veteran, and the author of Northwest of Eden, a true account of his experiences as the second in command of an emergency room in Western Iraq in 2007-2008.