In America, parades, fireworks, food and fun-filled gatherings on the 4th of July are a time-honored tradition. For some Americans, particularly combat veterans, Independence Day is anything but fun. When deciding how to celebrate America’s birthday this year, keep our veterans and active military members in mind.
It’s dark and quiet and the air is alive with anticipation. Suddenly, a shrill whistle splits the night and the sky lights up with bright flashes and trails of color. The sound of explosions continue for several minutes and while you watch in awe and feel only patriotism and pride, somewhere close by, a combat veteran is pacing, agitated, panicked, trying to remember where he is. He cringes with every “bang” and instinctively ducks and covers when the flares briefly light up the room, then fade, just in time for the next “boom.” With his chest heaving, heart racing and mind lost in a memory an ocean away, he struggles to calm down, fights to avoid his deeply ingrained training (locate, identify, and neutralize the danger) and desperately grasps for anything, everything, to help him come back to the present and escape the hell of his past.
PTSD Is Common In Combat Vets
He is not alone, and the experience described above is not uncommon. It could happen to the lady you sit next to in church, the gentleman who works at the desk across from you or the young woman or man you pass on the sidewalk every morning while walking your dog. It could be your neighbor, your gardener, your teammate or a family member. It could be anyone. The research isn’t exact, but an estimated 7% to 20% of the 2.5 million plus veterans and troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are believed to have developed post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
PTSD causes sufferers to re-live or re-experience traumatic situations via flashbacks, panic attacks or fugue states and it’s characterized by strong emotional reactions, symptoms mirroring severe mental illness (including depression, suicidal ideation, social anxiety, etc) and personality/behavioral changes. Triggers vary for each individual, but typically, environmental encounters that are sensorily similar to those occurring in the traumatic event can set off a PTSD episode.
Combat veterans aren’t the only people who can suffer from PTSD; anyone who has survived a traumatic incident, such as a car wreck, sexual assault, physical abuse or even a life-threatening medical scare, can develop it. The episodes are involuntary, and the sufferer can’t just “snap out of it” or decide not to have it. When the trigger occurs, the veteran or individual in question can be mentally thrown back to a time or place he or she would rather forget, like the death of a battle buddy, a firefight, mortar blasts, an IED explosion or other horrible and painful experiences.
Helping Veterans This 4th of July
“I can handle the situations I know are going to happen. If you tell me you’ll be setting off fireworks from 7 to 9 pm, I can mentally prepare for that,” says Wimbo, who has spent 3 tours in Iraq. “It’s the random explosions and unexpected flares of light and bangs that send me scuttling for cover or darting to my feet ready to fight. Even though I know I’m technically safe, my body instinctively responds and mentally, I go somewhere else.”
When planning your Independence Day celebrations, keep past and current members of our armed forces in mind. Be courteous and let neighbors know when you’ll be setting off fireworks, or consider attending a larger community show instead of hosting a small backyard event. If you’re a veteran, a good pair of headphones and some calming music can help, especially if you head to a calm, quiet area out of residential areas. If you have a Service Dog, check out these tips for Service Dog 4th of July Safety.
For veterans planning on celebrating at home, donning a yard sign can help you communicate with neighbors, friends and family in a non-anxiety producing way. You can order a sign from Military With PTSD (veterans receive a free sign with a $10.00 donation) or the one pictured above from Red Dog Gear.