Health & Medicine

Fireworks on Fourth can trigger PTSD for vets

Almost 40 years after fixing B-26 bombers during the Vietnam War, Cleo Downs was terrified when his neighbors began lighting fireworks in their Elk Grove cul-de-sac.

“I actually left the house and went out there crying before they decided they wouldn’t set them off anymore,” Downs, 84, said of the incident two years ago.

The retired Air Force veteran said loud noises provoke panic attacks and flashbacks to his time in Southeast Asia. Those attacks, which cause him to scream and cower, can last up to 10 minutes before he regains composure.

The noise “just tears me to pieces,” he said. “Even thunderstorms rattle my tree.”

While many civilians and veterans alike look forward to lights and sounds of Fourth of July fireworks, some Sacramento area veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as result of their service may not be around when the shows start.

When triggered, PTSD sufferers may re-experience traumatic memories or nightmares and may avoid situations that can cause those flashbacks, said Tanya Aaen, program coordinator for PTSD at the Veterans Affairs’ Northern California Health System.

The condition isn’t exclusive to combat veterans. Eight of every 100 people suffer from PTSD in the U.S. at some point – 5.2 million Americans in a given year – according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

But for veterans who fought for the country’s freedom, not celebrating Independence Day can seem almost unpatriotic .

Jonathon Rich, a community college student who served as an infantry soldier in the U.S. Army from 2007 to 2012, has mixed feelings about Friday. He wants to celebrate, but the smell of sulfur and the sounds of explosions bring back unpleasant memories from his tour in Iraq.

Rich discovered he had PTSD while on leave in 2010, during a July Fourth fireworks show in Hagan Community Park in Rancho Cordova. “I was the only one that ducked down and crouched,” he said. “That’s when I realized I was different.”

Experts say PTSD can develop immediately following, or decades after, a traumatic event.

Neighbors in Rich’s apartment complex have started celebrating early, with illegal fireworks. He jumps when he hears the noise from M-80s and bottle rockets, which resemble the mortar fire he faced on many nights overseas.

His friends want him to go out Friday. But he plans to stay home, where he most likely will drown out the noise with a movie playing at full volume.

PTSD “puts you in the middle,” said Rich, 29. “Here you are being a negative Nancy. It makes you feel unlike everyone else.”

Christopher Cobbett, 29, a Marine Corps veteran whose PTSD is also triggered by fireworks, urged veterans with the condition to be understanding of the July Fourth tradition.

“They’re just trying to celebrate the things that you fought for,” said Cobbett, who served two combat deployments in Iraq from 2007 to 2011. Cobbett is a student assistant at the Sacramento State Veterans Success Center.

It’s important to be mindful of who’s around before setting off fireworks, Aaen said.

“Frequently, it’s the surprise fireworks after large displays that will catch them off guard,” she said.

Cobbett agrees that those planning to light fireworks should be sensitive to veterans who may be near.

“It doesn’t ever hurt to talk to them if you see that they’re uncomfortable,” he said. “But, don’t assume that just because they’re a veteran, they’re a time bomb. We’re all tougher than that.”

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