On what was arguably the most patriotic holiday of the year, some who have done the most in service to their country had an uncomfortable choice to make: isolate, or risk trauma.
The boom and flash of fireworks – especially the illegal ones – accompanied by the acrid smoke that follows can traumatize a combat veteran suffering from PTSD.
This year, many Sacramento residents took to social media reporting that illegal fireworks use was the worst they’d ever seen. West Sacramento veterans John Cox and Gordon Grewe had to agree.
Cox and Grewe, who served tours of combat duty in Vietnam in the Army and Marines, respectively, were enjoying cold beer at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8762 on Friday, and shared their experiences of the holiday.
Grewe had been asleep late July 4 when his neighbors began shooting off firecrackers and mortar-style rockets.
“I figured that I was in a firefight – the mortars sounded exactly like incoming,” he said. “And then the fireworks, some of them sounded like AK-47s.”
He jumped out of bed yelling ‘in-coming!’ before coming to his senses and realizing what was going on. He brushed it off.
Both men downplayed the tolls combat takes. To them, it’s just another piece of war baggage that veterans carry.
Grewe and Cox stoutly defended Americans’ right to celebrate independence as they saw fit – but they conceded that for some, particularly veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have served multiple tours in combat zones, the effects might be more shattering than for others.
While not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD, for those that do, the effects can be hard to shake.
“It does not fade,” Cox said. “We could be in here and if someone drops a pan, we’ll jump.”
“…The best advice is just get over it,” he added.
William Collins, a clinical psychologist for the U.S. Department of Veterans, said that kind of advice is not uncommon in military culture, where the phrase “suck it up, buttercup” is the standard. The trouble is, that attitude can stop veterans from seeking the help they need.
PTSD, like other mental illnesses, carries a stigma as a form of weakness. The science behind the syndrome suggests otherwise.
When people are exposed repeatedly to danger or trauma, the amydala, the part of the brain that triggers the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, tends to hijack the brain, overriding rational thought and causing it to operate in crisis mode all the time, according to information on the ‘Strength of a Warrior’ organization’s website.
Collins compared PTSD to a Pavlovian response to danger: when the danger is accompanied by certain noises, sights and sounds, the amygdala is primed to associate those things with the need for swift action. Later, although the danger might be gone, the stimuli still triggers flashbacks, anxiety, bad dreams, and angry outbursts.
In discussion about the use of illegal mortar-style fireworks on social media this week, some Sacramento residents expressed the opinion that it’s only one or two nights and people should just relax and get over it.
But for a veteran suffering from PTSD, something that triggers trauma can lead to days, weeks or even months of distress, Collins said. Respect and mindfulness for veterans whose experiences still haunt them should factor into decisions on how to celebrate the holiday, Collins said.
Whatever those decisions turn out to be, Collins suggested the relatives, friends and neighbors of veterans take a moment to check in with veterans who might be struggling – not just on July 4, but regularly.
For their part, Cox and Grewe encouraged veterans to drop in to VFW Post 8762, whether they want help with getting VA benefits or just to enjoy the welcoming atmosphere and camaraderie.
They don’t think people are going to stop using fireworks any time soon, and don’t ask them to – but being aware of the veterans around you is never amiss.
“A lot of people in the community have no idea how many veterans live next to them,” Grewe said.
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