Since the American Revolution, it’s been military veterans who have fought to win and preserve the independence the United States celebrates on July 4.
And few traditions are more closely associated with Independence Day than fireworks, whether the big public displays by Macy’s and countless municipalities, or with the Roman candles, firecrackers and cherry bombs set off in backyards and trash cans as less formal, unscheduled demonstrations of patriotism.
But for military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, those celebrations of American independence, particularly the kinds that rattle a neighborhood unexpectedly, can be traumatizing in themselves.
Ironically, perhaps, PTSD experts say fireworks can trigger flashbacks or other unpleasant or traumatic experiences among those who have earned the right to celebrate the Fourth of July on Wednesday.
“I know veterans who spend that whole day or weekend working in their basement,” said Eric Golnick, a U.S. Navy veteran and CEO of VFR Healthcare, a Paramus-based company that provides services for the New Jersey and U.S. Departments of Veterans Affairs. Referring to the explosive flash of fireworks, Golnick added, “it can bring up some very bad memories.”
Many pet owners are all too familiar with the disquieting affect of fireworks on their dogs, cats and other animals. The Atlantic County SPCA drew local attention in a Facebook post to a movement by veterans, their loved ones and other advocates to minimize the potential for July 4th holiday trauma.
A photograph posted on the page shows a man standing in front of a sign reading “Combat veteran lives here. Please be courteous with Fireworks.”
Such signs have been produced since 2015 by an Indiana-based group called Military with PTSD, founded in 2010 by a former U.S. Navy lieutenant, Justin Gourley, and his wife Shawn. Justin was diagnosed with the disorder following his service on the U.S.S. George Washington, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier — commissioned on July 4, 1992 — that was deployed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gourley recalled an early manifestation of PTSD while home for a barbecue just days before July 4th in 2004 or 2005, when a neighbor set off some fireworks unannounced.
“It just kind of threw me into a mode where I wanted to batten down the hatches, like I would have done aboard ship,” Gourley said. “It was an embarrassing thing for my family to see.”
The Gourleys, Eric Golnick and others familiar with the phenomenon do not oppose fireworks displays or individual use. As military families, they have expressed their patriotism in deed, not mere words.
But what they do ask is that neighbors give veterans a heads up about home fireworks, so that they’re not taken by surprise. Advance notice that can minimize or avoid post-traumatic stress.
“It’s not that we want to rain on anybody’s parade,” Shawn Gourley said. In fact, Gourley added, “I always encourage neighbors to ask a veteran to come on over and set off fireworks.”
If the vet is averse to the controlled celebratory explosions, he or she can politely decline, yet stand forewarned of the impending cacophony, he said. If the vets is not against it, Gourley added, the neighbors can do some friendly celebrating together.
Golnick applauded the strategy.
“What we run into a lot with veterans with PTSD, it’s a disease of isolation, so that makes sense on a whole other level,” he said.
Not everyone is sympathetic to veterans on July 4th, or the fireworks courtesy signs created by Military with PTSD.
“As a combat vet myself, I’ve had – to say the least – a strong reaction to these signs,” wrote Chris Hernandez, editor of BreachBangClear.com, a website for paramilitary enthusiasts. “After careful consideration, I can only conclude that these signs are pathetic, self-defeating crap.”
But the state and federal veterans affairs departments both recognize the hazards that Independence Day can present to former troops during the holiday.
“Recognizing your triggers ahead of time can help avoid bigger problems down the road,” the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs web site states on a page specifically about July 4. “Common symptoms experienced around July 4th may include: light sensitivity to fireworks and sparklers, especially at night.”