Blog Author: James L. Machado Workman, M.Div., BCC, LMFTA
Many Americans associate the Fourth of July with cook-outs, baseball, apple pie, and fireworks, but there are many veterans whose celebrations do not include fireworks. Fireworks can be particularly disturbing to veterans with a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that between 11-15% of the soldiers returning from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq have been diagnosed with PTSD and of those two wars, veterans of Iraq have the highest rate of PTSD diagnosis.
How Do Fireworks Relate to Battlefield Trauma?
What makes the veterans of these wars different from those of other wars is the higher likelihood of exposure to improvised explosive devices or IED’s. IED’s could be found in the most unlikely of places; among piles of trash, plastic explosives molded to the bottom of a bucket lying beside a road, or a simple cell phone strategically placed to explode under a passing military vehicle. Given the unexpected nature of these explosions that took many lives of their comrades, it makes sense that a veteran with PTSD would jump and look for safety upon hearing the unexpected explosion of a firework near their home.
How Do Veterans Experience Fireworks?
In the mental health field, these experiences and accompanying behaviors are clinically known as “re-experiencing” and “heightened arousal,” which are two of the criterion for a PTSD diagnosis. When a veteran with PTSD is exposed to the unexpected popping or booming of a neighborhood fireworks display it can cause that veteran significant distress. That is when any number of veterans begin to experience memories of combat or “intrusive thoughts” which lead to other more seriously destructive behaviors that clinicians refer to as “avoidance behaviors” like drinking or even substance use.
How Can You Help?
This doesn’t mean that these veterans would prefer that there be no fireworks on the Fourth of July but just that they know where and when these fireworks displays might take place. This gives the veteran a chance to avoid the location or at least know when to expect to hear those explosions. Many veterans with PTSD recognize their symptoms and know what to expect when events around them might trigger a stress reaction. Those veterans have sought out help from mental health professionals who have taught them skills for coping with traumatic stress. If you appreciate the many freedoms that we enjoy as Americans, please keep our veterans in mind on the Fourth of July and reconsider your decision to use backyard fireworks. If you or someone you know suffers from combat related PTSD and need the help of a mental health counselor or therapist, give us a call at Wake Counseling and Mediation at (919) 647-4600. At our practice, we have clinicians experienced in the treatment of combat related PTSD who can help you find the resources to cope with your symptoms and have a great Fourth of July celebration.
Blog Author James L. Machado Workman is a Marriage & Family Therapy Associate (MFTA) and Board Certified Chaplain.