Health

For Vets With PTSD, Fireworks Aren’t Always Cause For Celebration

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In the days leading up to and after July 4th, revelers of all ages take to the streets and set off their arsenal of sparklers, firecrackers, rockets, and cherry bombs in celebration of America’s revolutionary birth. For more than a week, sparks of red, yellow, blue, and green light the night sky and neighborhoods and local parks across the country reek of gunpowder.

With each crackle and loud pop comes another opportunity to bask in the outdoors with loved ones and neighbors, an experience that builds a greater sense of community.

But some don’t find the annual festivities enjoyable. For veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the multicolor pyrotechnics and unexpected blasts can actually trigger their memories of combat and induce panic attacks. Shawn Gourley, the co-founder of Illinois-based nonprofit Military with PTSD, says that talking about the issue with others can pose an even greater burden because some veterans don’t want to intrude on others’ fun.

This year, Gourley and her colleagues are striving to make that conversation easier through the Explosion of Kindness campaign, an effort to raise awareness about the PTSD-fireworks link among civilians. In June, Military with PTSD distributed 2,500 signs across the country — each one reading, “Combat Veteran Lives Here; Please Be Courteous” — that veterans can post in their front yard. The effort, which has been in the works since last December, could potentially lay the foundation for a healthier relationship between veterans and their neighbors.





“Many veterans don’t want their neighbors to stop lighting fireworks; they just want a heads up. They’re not scared but it’s the unexpected explosions that cause the most issues,” Gourley, the wife of a veteran, told ThinkProgress. She said her organization launched the initiative after a photo a veteran posted with the sign in the Military with PTSD Facebook page garnered more than 21 million likes.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that between seven percent and 20 percent of those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq have developed PTSD. Symptoms include high alertness and an increase adrenaline, even in mundane situations, that’s triggered by unaddressed traumatic events. Experts say the pressures of transitioning from military to civilian life open up feelings of self-guilt that may have been suppressed on the field. When left unresolved, those ruminations can lead to thoughts of suicide, as experienced by 30 percent of respondents in a 2014 survey conducted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The same study found that 40 percent of veterans know a comrade who committed suicide.

These situations often unfold outside of the purview of civilians. A shallow understanding of the military experience and mental health issues impedes progress in integrating veterans with PTSD into communities, no matter the time of year. This information gap permeates all facets of veteran’s life post-duty. Half of the respondents in a 2014 Washington Post poll said that they have difficulty navigating what feels like a new world.

That’s especially true when vets experience times of hardship with which others may not be able to emphasize. In 2012, Francine Roberts, Psy.D. a New Jersey-based psychologist, said the most common misconception about PTSD-afflicted veterans is that they had violent tendencies. Social stigma of PTSD and its designation as a weak person’s disease discourages some servicemen and women from openly speaking about their condition and seeking treatment.

“Veterans isolate themselves from things like that. They may not want others to know they’re suffering from PTSD,” Gourley, a resident of Evansville, Indiana, said. “Some veterans don’t like people to know that they’re dealing with PTSD because they think people will be scared of them.”

Though he hasn’t received an official PTSD diagnosis, Thomas Bishop, a captain in the Army Reserves, says that sudden sounds — the closing of a door, for example — bring up memories of being in the line of fire and having to disable improvised explosive devices (IEDs) while on a tour of duty in the Mediterranean. Fireworks conjure the same thoughts, potentially throwing him into a panicked and depressed state. Such was the case a few years ago, when he said the inundation of explosions around him at a July 4th placed him in a helpless state. He had been home for a little more than a year at that point.

“These days, I don’t go near fireworks if I can help it,” Bishop, now associate research director at Media Matters, told ThinkProgress. “My friends didn’t even know what was going on that night. You pretty much go inside yourself. It’s a hard thing to deal with. At that point, I had thought that I had become acclimated to life back home and that situation showed me that everything wasn’t all the way good or bad. It’s hard talking to people who don’t know about the situation.”

In recent years, there has been growing awareness around veterans’ mental health issues. A CNN investigation found the delays in treatment at the Department of Veteran Affairs may have caused deaths, lawmakers and advocates have worked to improve veterans’ access to health services. An otherwise polarized Congress passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act — a bill that connects veterans with mental health services — into law. The Army also overhauled its mental health system so that psychologists and commanding officers can better collaborate in connecting troops with services while on duty.

But the changes haven’t been enough. The waitlist for the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA)’s patient care system surged by nearly 50 percent in spite of an influx of physicians and nurses who entered in recent years.

These circumstances haven’t stopped Gourley from advocating on behalf of veterans dealing with PTSD and other issues. Despite some initial pushback, she said that the Explosions of Kindness campaign has started some conversations between some veterans and their neighbors, both individually and during community meeting during which all come to an understanding that fireworks are good — when both parties can agree to limits on when and where they can be used.

“Veterans actually enjoy blowing stuff up. It’s just that a lot of them do well when they know where the fireworks will happen,” Gourley said. “We encourage civilians to host neighborhood meetings to educate others. That’s where we talk about getting veterans involved and so they can feel like they’re a part of the community.”