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Fireworks can trigger nightmares of combat

Hundreds of thousands of veterans who have PTSD suffer every Fourth of July as fireworks bring back the fear.

Independence Day, or as most think of it, the Fourth of July, evokes images of burgers on the grill, family gatherings, and of course fireworks.

While just about every kid and most adults look forward to sparklers and poppers in the street, and even a few more powerful, and often illegal, exploding rockets overhead, there are often people in each community for whom fireworks are not only a source of stress, but a trigger mechanism that brings back the terror of being in combat.

These individuals often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) states that loud blasts and flashing lights can sometimes induce panic attacks. PTSD is characterized by emotionally re-experiencing traumatic events. For combat veterans, such feelings are triggered by the sound of an explosion or gunfire, or even certain sights and smells, according to the Institute of Medicine.

Symptoms of PTSD may include:

  • Extreme vigilance and arousal
  • Nightmares or insomnia
  • Negative changes in mood
  • Intrusive thoughts of the trauma
  • Avoidance or social isolation

PTSD and fireworks are of such concern that both the Veterans Administration and the Marine Corps Community Services caution neighbors of veterans that unexpected loud noises can be a trigger. 

“Although not every Veteran may be affected, many individuals are stepping up to raise awareness of those who might be,” MCCS warns.

Hollister residents and Army veterans Bernie Ramirez and Adam Mendolla, who both served in the 9th Infantry, 3rd and 5th Cavalry in Vietnam near the Demilitarized Zone, have been clinically diagnosed with chronic PTSD. Both have been undergoing treatment for years.

Bernie Ramirez and Adam Mendolla both served in the same Army unit, but at different times, in Vietnam. Both have been diagnosed with chronic PTSD. Photo courtesy of Bernie Ramirez.
Bernie Ramirez and Adam Mendolla both served in the same Army unit, but at different times, in Vietnam. Both have been diagnosed with chronic PTSD. Photo courtesy of Bernie Ramirez.

Ramirez told BenitoLink he came back from Vietnam in 1970 and had his first traumatic episode of PTSD in 1980. He said he didn’t understand what was happening to him and contemplated suicide. He said veterans who suffer from PTSD should simply leave town, if possible. If they can’t, he said all they can do is wear noise cancellation headsets or turn up their televisions or music as loud as possible.

Ramirez said every year he tries to get the word out on Facebook or by talking to people to remind them that there are veterans who might be affected by the fireworks. He displays a sign in his front yard saying, “Please be courteous with fireworks. A combat veteran lives here.”

Many veterans like Bernie Ramirez who suffer from war-related PTSD often put signs in their front yards asking neighbors to be considerate with fireworks. Photo courtesy of Bernie Ramirez.
Many veterans like Bernie Ramirez who suffer from war-related PTSD often put signs in their front yards asking neighbors to be considerate with fireworks. Photo courtesy of Bernie Ramirez.

“People don’t pay attention,” he said. “They just don’t care. They’re rude. They think you’re unpatriotic. It’s like a war zone.”

Ramirez said the frightening aspect of the fireworks is after the first blast.

“If you go to bed you can’t go to sleep because you’re anticipating the next blast,” he said.

“PTSD does not go away,” Mendolla said. “It stays with you forever. All we can do is try to control it. That is hard when you have fireworks going off and you’re not expecting it and it sounds like it’s right in your backyard.”

Both men were seeing a therapist each month until COVID struck.

“They just call you on the phone and that doesn’t help,” Ramirez said. “What helps is me being around Adam and other veterans and we just talk it out. There’s nothing else we can do.”

Both said, though, nothing really works when the fireworks start going off.

“Once you hear them, there’s nothing loud enough to drown them out,” Mendolla said.

The website Military with PTSD promotes placing signs in veterans’ yards that tell neighbors “Veteran lives here—please be courteous with fireworks.”  

According to the DVA, the number of veterans with PTSD varies by service era:

  • Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF): About 11%-20% Veterans have PTSD in a given year.
  • Gulf War (Desert Storm): About 12% Gulf War Veterans have PTSD in a given year.
  • Vietnam War: About 15% Vietnam Veterans were diagnosed with PTSD in the most recent study, the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS) in the late 1980s. It’s estimated that about 30% of Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.

According to the DVA, those with a family history or a predisposition for anxiety or depression, and one’s psychological temperament, may influence the development and expression of PTSD symptoms. When people know of fireworks displays in advance, they are not surprised by the explosions and are able to better prepare for them.

Adam Mendolla served in the Army's 9th Infantry along the Demilitarized Zone and has been undergoing therapy for years for war-related PTSD. Photo courtesy of Adam Mendolla.
Adam Mendolla served in the Army’s 9th Infantry along the Demilitarized Zone and has been undergoing therapy for years for war-related PTSD. Photo courtesy of Adam Mendolla.

The National Center for Telehealth and Technology and the Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD have helped in the development of two free apps to help people cope better with symptoms of anxiety, panic and PTSD. One app is called Virtual Hope Box and the other is PTSD Coach.

For local counseling, Shari Stevenson, of the county’s veteran’s services office, told BenitoLink that veterans who suffer from PTSD can call the VA Crisis Line at 800-273-8255.  The Santa Cruz Vet Center provides a counselor who comes to the Veterans Memorial Building in Hollister once a month. Contact Carolyn Carpenter at 831-464-4575.

 

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John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a BenitoLink reporter and an author. He has many years experience as a freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime that are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]