For most Americans, July 4th means barbecues, parades, and fireworks. But for combat veterans who have fought for the country whose independence that holiday is meant to celebrate, those fireworks can mean stress, anxiety, and in some extreme cases, hospitalization.
For these combat veterans, the fireworks trigger post-traumatic stress episodes, which can send them reeling. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, an estimated 250,000 veterans of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It's hell," Russell Cook told The Tampa Tribune. "It's like I was back in the worst part of combat with bullets flying and bombs going off," he said of the July 4th fireworks set off in his neighborhood.
One nonprofit is trying to ease veterans' suffering on America's birthday. Military With PTSD, an Indiana-based nonprofit started by Shawn and Justin Gourney, has been distributing signs that read, "Combat Veteran Lives Here. Please Be Courteous With Fireworks."
The sign was originally designed by retired U.S. Army Staff Jon Dykes last year. When Military with PTSD shared a photo of the sign, with his consent, on their Facebook page, it was viewed over 20 million times in the space of a week. Many veterans clamored for mass production of the signs for the 2015 Independence Day fireworks season. The nonprofit only managed to fundraise a mere $3K between December and May and printed about a thousand of them to send to veterans who had requested them. But once these veterans started to photograph the signs and post them to social media, the demand for the signs increased by several orders of magnitude. Military with PTSD is struggling to keep up with demand while providing the signs to veterans for free. "We had to keep it free because morally I just couldn't charge people even though they wanted to pay," Gourney said. They've managed to distribute approximately 2,500 signs, more than double the original order.
The big municipal fireworks displays are not the problem for most veterans struggling with combat-related PTSD. Veterans can mentally gird themselves for those events since they are restricted to a specific time and place. And they have sufficient forewarning to avoid them altogether if they wish. The real problem are the fireworks that are set off in neighborhoods at random times, "when you're sitting on the couch, listening to the five o' clock news and all of a sudden, fireworks go off right outside your window. Those are the ones that startle the veterans, get your anxiety up, make you flash back… It's very difficult on them," Gourney explained.
But it’s not just courtesy that the veterans are hoping to attract by posting these signs on their lawns--it’s conversation and community. Gourney told me about one veteran who had displayed the sign in his front yard who was then approached by a neighbor who let him know when they would be setting off fireworks and then invited him over for a holiday barbecue. “This veteran was so excited that they invited him over,” she said. Far from encouraging the veterans to be anti-social, the signs have created an opportunity for vets to engage with the neighbors. “We’re trying to keep them home, trying to keep them in their communities, not running away where they feel forced out of their homes.” Gourney said that many veterans, including her husband during previous years, go camping to escape the fireworks and PTSD episodes.
" This is a real opportunity for the community to step up..."
The veterans who go off in search of pastoral solitude are merely trying to avoid the fate of men like Michele Smith's husband. In a note posted to the nonprofit's Facebook page two years ago, Smith wrote about how four days of random firework explosions landed her husband in inpatient lockdown at the hospital.
"I vowed after last year that if I had to temporarily move him to a hotel in the middle of a city where fireworks were not allowed, I would do it because it was like torture for him. It was so hard watching him try to maintain his calm and use all his coping skills (and meds of course) and still continue to get worse and worse each day. He also re-injured himself physically twice that week, when he hit the ground 'diving for cover,'" Smith wrote.
This was not the worst fireworks related PTSD experience Gourney has encountered. She mentioned the death of a Kansas man, who had been shot by police during what might’ve been fireworks-triggered PTSD episode. On July 4, 2014, Icarus Randolph, 26, a former Marine, was shot and killed by police in Wichita after his family called the police for a “welfare check” because the veteran was becoming increasingly agitated after being triggered by what police later characterized as “illegal fireworks” nearby.The police claimed that Randolph charged at them with a knife, an account that Randolph’s family disputed.
In addition to warning them about fireworks, Gourney had another suggestion for how people can help veterans deal with July 4th — give them movie passes. "A lot of veterans do movies on those nights," she explained, to help them avoid the fireworks.
Ultimately, helping veterans dealing with PTSD goes beyond not setting off explosions near their homes though that's a good start. It's about engaging with them, learning about their experiences, and bridging the gap between military and non-military populations. "This is a real opportunity for the community to step up and for the veterans to be able to step up and be a part of the community," Gourney.