Fourth of July's fireworks, loud noises can be a ‘cruel irony’ for veterans with PTSD

Mark Rountree
The Leavenworth Times
Dr. Chad Neal, a mental health professional at the Eisenhower VA Medical Center, visits with Donna Bacon and Kim Brown. Their husbands experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and particularly struggle during Fourth of July celebrations.

Fourth of July activities often include fireworks, loud noises and large crowds – the very things that may disturb some military veterans who are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Loud noises can trigger PTSD symptoms,” said Dr. Chad Neal, a mental health professional at the Eisenhower VA Medical Center.

Fourth of July fireworks can sound like explosions or gunfire, he said. Loud noises can cause a veteran to remember a traumatic experience during their service career.

“We often hear complaints of nightmares, anxiousness, irritability, distress and more from veterans around the Fourth of July activities,” Neal said. “This holiday is really tough (for veterans) because of the loud noises. If they are exposed to those loud, surprise sounds, it can be very upsetting.”

Veterans may experience hyper-awareness and become overly vigilant and guarded during Fourth of July festivities.

More:Why do we celebrate Independence Day on July 4? And when did fireworks become a tradition?

Neal said a vast majority of veterans with PTSD have a difficult time with crowded situations.

“Many times, crowds don’t feel safe to veterans,” he said. “(Veterans) have a high vigilance, they become watchful.”

Many local communities are planning Fourth of July festivities, and all of them will include a fireworks display.

The rules for when and where fireworks are allowed vary by community, but the personal use of fireworks typically increases in the run-up to the holiday.

Donna Bacon said her husband, Bill, a Vietnam War veteran, experiences PTSD, and it is especially difficult around the Fourth of July holiday.

“He doesn’t sleep. He thinks he still has to stand guard,” she said. “Those big booms still bother him.”

Kim Brown said her husband, James, also a Vietnam War veteran, struggles with PTSD, particularly during Independence Day celebrations.

“The Fourth of July is a nightmare for him,” she said.

More:Fireworks restrictions vary across Leavenworth County

Not all veterans who are exposed to combat or other traumatic military experiences are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Approximately 30% of Vietnam War veterans experience PTSD over the course of their lifetimes, and approximately one in five service members who have returned from deployment operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have symptoms of PTSD, according to a press release from Swords to Plowshares, a nonprofit organization that assists military veterans.

Neal said it is a “cruel irony” that during the celebration of the nation’s most patriotic holiday, veterans sometimes have the hardest time enjoying it.

He said people should consider not shooting off loud fireworks in neighborhoods.

“If you are going to do it, keep it very contained in time and let your neighbors know that you will be doing it,” he said.

He said veterans experiencing PTSD can access a free app on their smartphones called PTSD Coach, which includes coping mechanisms for PTSD.

Veterans in crisis and those concerned about them can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1) to talk with qualified responders or visit veteranscrisisline.net