On a hot July afternoon in 2010, a young man I’ll call Jason met me for the first time. He seemed quite uncomfortable in a therapist’s office. As a clinical psychologist practicing in North County, I see a wide range of clientele, including military veterans.
When I invited him to sit and tell me why he needed to see a therapist, he replied, “I don’t, but my wife says she’ll divorce me if I don’t see someone about what she calls my anger issues.”
He told me that without his wife, he might as well be dead, “although I already feel that way.”
I asked him to tell me more.
This young man had served four deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jason told me he had seen the brutal, bloody reality of war, things nobody should see.
“So of course I’m angry,” he concluded. “And then I heard those freaking fireworks the other night. For me, Fourth of July is not what it used to be.”
Long before I became a psychologist, I once worked at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim. I loved the fireworks. So I just assumed that veterans whom we honor on the July 4th loved fireworks just as much as I. So I asked Jason to explain.
“I’m not unpatriotic,” this young veteran told me. “But do people ever think how fireworks affect the vets that have heard real firing, real missiles, real crying and people screaming when the bombs go off?”
Jason recalled when President George W. Bush ordered the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, some derisively called it the “shock and awe from Texas.” Also a Texan, Jason said he “didn’t much like that.”
Jason told me that the shock and awe of fireworks hold no glamour for those who have served in combat.
“I just can’t take fireworks. Every time I hear them at Sea World, or my buddies hear them at Disneyland, we think of war. We go into action mode. When we realize we’re not in a war zone, we get angry. Is this so hard to understand?”
Jason suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder, which the National Institute of Health defines as an anxiety disorder that develops after exposure to terrifying events or ordeals, such as military combat. People with PTSD anger easily. The disorder contributes to suicide.
In 2010, Adm. Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, identified military suicides as a growing problem. The month Jason first came to see me, 39 active and reserve soldiers committed suicide. Total military suicides may be higher, since many soldiers mask suicides as accidents.
According to the Grand Rapids Press, a support group for Michigan veterans met before July 4th in 2008 to discuss ways to cope with fireworks. One veteran planned to block the noise by turning up his radio. Another would find a remote location, far from exploding fireworks. Others said they would use alcohol or drugs to “numb out” during the celebration.
Many environmental groups, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have raised serious concerns about the negative impact of gunpowder that propels fireworks, as well as accelerants and heavy metals that leave toxic residues in our waters, long after the shock and awe is gone. My concern is with the immediate negative impact on people like Jason, veterans who must “numb out” to cope with the fireworks we explode in their honor. Perhaps it is time to consider another way to honor our country in a way that does not further harm the men and women who give so much to keep us free?
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