Veterans reflect on how Fourth of July fireworks can trigger PTSD, severe anxiety

Severe anxiety, flashbacks and nightmares are all symptoms of PTSD, according to the Mayo Clinic

LA CROSSE (WKBT) — For those who haven’t been in the military, fireworks on the Fourth of July are a celebration and a time to enjoy the view. But for veterans, the pyrotechnics sometimes can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder.

At an event at Riverside Park on Friday, no veteran was willing to say outright if they suffer from PTSD but many reflected on how fireworks can propel severe anxiety.

“When you have no clue where it’s coming from that really starts bringing back memories and thoughts about where you’ve been,” said retired Marine Sgt. Maj. Mike Wagoner.

Large fireworks displays are not all that troubling because they’re predictable, but the smaller fireworks in a neighborhood setting can be difficult to deal with, Wagoner said.

“That really triggers something too fast sometimes,” he said.

Severe anxiety, flashbacks and nightmares are symptoms of PTSD, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Retired Army Capt. Francis Schmitz, who served in the military for 20 years, said he knows someone who drops to the ground immediately after hearing fireworks because of severe anxiety.

“Some of the people that maybe had been in the military and had been in serious combat environments when something unexpectedly goes off it creates a PTSD response,” Schmitz said.

Statistics from the National Center for PTSD say that 11% to 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, who served during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, suffer from it.

About 12% of Gulf War veterans suffer from PTSD, and an estimated 30% of veterans of the Vietnam War suffer from PTSD, according to the Army’s website.

According to a 2019 study published by the NIH, veterans of the Korean War and World War II probably were  underdiagnosed and undertreated for PTSD and other related issues because PTSD did not become a formally recognized mental disorder until 1980.

Fireworks can trigger a neurological response in those with PTSD, said Dr. George Lough, who has been a psychotherapist for more than 40 years.

“It triggers the nervous system to go into a state of fight, flight, freeze response so the person feels like they’re in a survival situation,” Lough said.

Veterans dealing with PTSD should not feel ashamed and could get help by talking to supportive people and contacting a mental health professional, Lough said. Pets also can be a source of assistance for someone dealing with symptoms.

“The main thing is for the person to not feel ashamed,” Lough said.

If you or someone you know is a veteran in crisis, the military crisis line can be reached at (800) 273-8255 and then press 1.

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