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PTSD and Fireworks


June is PTSD Awareness Month and today is PTSD Awareness Day.  A comment I saw on facebook the other day made me want to say a few words about combat PTSD and fireworks as we head into the fireworks season.  The comment was an innocent one made by someone trying to understand PTSD, but many took offense by it.  It went something like this:

"I would think that vets would expect that there would be fireworks on the 4th of July and so they wouldn't be surprised by them."

Many people think that combat vets with PTSD don't like fireworks because they get startled by them.  It is true that getting startled, especially by something that sounds like gunfire, is a trigger for PTSD, but that's just a little part of it.  According to Mental Health America, "For people with PTSD, it is very common for their memories to be triggered by sights, sounds, smells or even feelings that they experience. These triggers can bring back memories of the trauma and cause intense emotional and physical reactions, such as raised heart rate, sweating and muscle tension."

For many combat vets being triggered not only causes panic attacks, but it can also trigger a full-blown flashback of combat.  Flashbacks can be small and last only an instant, with their aftershocks lasting minutes, hours or days, or they can take someone back into combat for hours where they are reliving all the pain, stress and emotion of being in combat.  They may be seemingly alert and act out the combat thinking they are actually there, or they may be huddled up in a ball reliving it like a really intense dream... either way, reality is gone and they are back at war with all the pain, fear and anger that accompanies it.

Combat PTSD can be triggered by so many more things than fireworks, but this time of year is dreaded for many vets.  They know the fireworks are coming.  They probably once enjoyed fireworks as much as anyone else.  They don't want their family and friends to miss out on the festivities on their account, so often times they'll try to "get over it" or "man up" and face the fireworks.  Men and women who saw combat are not weak, but they see their aversion to fireworks and their PTSD in general as a weakness.

Every year my husband thinks he'll be fine to watch fireworks.  Every year he psychs himself up, telling himself that he's being ridiculous and that we are safe at home.... that this is not war.  Guess what?  As soon as he catches the first glimpse of an aerial firework in the distance, as soon as he hears the first neighborhood firecrackers, as soon as he smell the gunpowder, his PTSD is triggered.


Tracers
Source: Baltimore Sun

Getting startled by fireworks is bad, but the startling is really just a small part of it.  In his mind, aerial fireworks become tracers in the sky, the sounds of fireworks become artillery or machine gun fire, firecrackers become gun shots, the smell of fireworks becomes gun powder.  It doesn't matter if he knows that it is the 4th of July, or New Year's Eve or whatever the occasion may be.  It doesn't matter if he sees someone light the fuse.  It doesn't matter if he doesn't want to be "weak" and he tells himself he's being "stupid".  Combat PTSD is combat PTSD and triggers send you back to combat in your mind and body.

Because my husband and I both advocate freedom and I really, really love the 4th of July and fireworks we don't place combat vet signs in our yard on the 4th of July.  We don't expect our neighbors to be quiet as they celebrate the 4th, although I do think people need to be respectful with their fireworks, combat vet or not... we all know THOSE people who shoot off noisy fireworks all hours of the night for weeks on end.  Come on, people.


If it's possible we go camping during fireworks holidays.  We get out of the city where we don't see, hear or smell fireworks.  This works for us.  There is no way to completely avoid fireworks.  It's only June 27th and I went to bed listening to them last night, but we do what we can to avoid the bulk of them.  When you live with combat PTSD there are triggers on a daily basis and although you can learn to cope in a lot of ways, there are certain triggers you learn to just avoid completely if you can.

Yes, startling a combat vet is a bad idea, but I hope this helps you to understand there is a little more to it than that where fireworks are concerned.