Guest Opinion | Don't forget veterans when setting off Fourth of July fireworks

By Joe Stone

We're coming up on firework season again this year. Whether or not we are going to be allowed to shoot them off this year, though, will largely depend on the weather and our lack of rain.

As a veteran, I love taking my family out to watch and light off fireworks on the Fourth of July because nothing says freedom and fun like colorfully exploding gunpowder. Am I right? Unfortunately, for some of our combat veterans and anyone who may have suffered through similar circumstances, this can be a really tough time. For most folks, these unexpected explosions and noise are nothing more than a minor nuisance ' and really that's all it is. Except that it isn't ' for a lot of us.-á

Now, I know some of you right now are rolling your eyes and thinking, "Oh jeez, here we go. It's another veteran crying about fireworks. Just suck it up and move on already.GÇ¥

Please just hear me out. It's not necessarily the fireworks on the Fourth of July that's bothersome for most, but the unexpected noise and explosions you hear going off on the days and weeks leading up to it and in the days following.

For someone who spent time in a combat zone, these sounds are eerily familiar and can put our anxiety through the roof. We can spend the majority of the year symptom-free, but when these things start exploding randomly and unexpectedly, it can trigger anxiety attacks in the worst way. For me, the concussive mortar shells that folks get from the reservation are the worst.

During my first combat tour (I've done three), we had incoming mortar shells fall on us daily ' often multiple times a day. And this hell lasted through the duration of a year-long deployment. Ever since then, every loud and abrupt sound triggers my anxiety, even when I know I'm safe. When most people hear fireworks randomly, they turn toward them, but not me. My first instinct is to close my eyes, turn away from the sound and get as low as possible. It's embarrassing ' especially when my reaction is inappropriate. People laugh because they don't know why you are reacting the way you are. My kids even used to laugh at me because they didn't understand, either. Now that was really embarrassing.

When a sound triggers my anxiety, a few things happen physiologically. My heart rate and blood pressure skyrocket, vision becomes focused and almost tunnel-like, other noise gets pushed into the background and muffled as my ears search for the sound again. I become keenly aware of my surroundings and what they call "hyper-vigilant.GÇ¥ My senses are in overdrive, my muscles tense and ready to move, my mind is racing, I scan my surroundings for cover and concealment, also looking for entry and exit points, and I search for my rifle that is no longer there. All of this happens while I stand there, perfectly safe and perfectly still. The worst part is that even when I know that things are okay, that I'm relatively safe, that someone slammed a door or dropped something, or maybe just lit off a firework, it still takes time for my body to calm down and for the anxiety to dissipate. I can't just make it stop no matter how much I want it to.

That's the worst part. Depending on the situation, this reaction can last minutes and sometimes an hour or more and is extremely exhausting because you can't escape it. And because we are embarrassed by our reaction, a lot of times we try to get away from those around us. Sometimes that means physically removing ourselves from the situation or finding some other means to distract us from what our body is doing. For some, that means turning to a bottle of booze or, worse yet, some other mind-altering drug. Even though this is all a normal reaction for someone who's experienced the horrors of living in a war zone and is only a survival mechanism, it doesn't mean it's easy to deal with.

Some say that we should get used to this and that we've been away from that stuff for years. I'm sorry, but this kind of thing is something, even years later, that you just don't get used to. You don't unlearn how to react to a horrible situation. You may learn to handle it better, but it never quite goes away.

Some argue that we are all a product of our experiences and that because we (except draftees) made the choice to join the military that we must suffer the consequence. You are absolutely right, and I agree, but remember these veterans ' regardless of the politics involved or how they enlisted ' offered themselves up for our country to do what others wouldn't and said they were willing to die if it meant protecting our way of life. That is one of the most honorable things someone can do.

The bottom line is, I love the Fourth of July and fireworks just as much as the next guy. We all do. I'll be out there setting them off with my kids this Fourth of July too, but remember that the Korean War vet next door may not enjoy them as much. They won't ask you to stop shooting them off and neither will I, because we all understand that we use these fireworks as a symbol of our freedoms. We'll be damned if anyone takes that away.

As a personal favor, I only ask that as we get closer to Independence Day that you give your veteran neighbors a courtesy and let them know what you are doing beforehand. If possible, try to limit them to the Fourth of July so that we can also enjoy this holiday.

Joe Stone is a disabled U.S. Army veteran who served for 15 years with deployments to Egypt, Guantanamo Bay Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan. Stone is currently working in the aerospace industry and is a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and Disabled American Veterans (DAV). Stone is an advocate for veterans rights and creating PTSD awareness by sharing his own experiences and struggles.


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