MILWAUKEE — The week before the 4th of July and the week after is a tense time for military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, some of whom might be startled by the celebratory fireworks.
“Some of the veterans I treat say it’s ironic that we have a holiday celebrating the freedoms they helped fight for, but parts of it can be terrifying for them,” Catherine Coppolillo said.
Coppolillo is a psychologist at the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Milwaukee. She works on a team counseling mostly combat veterans with PTSD, a condition that develops after exposure to severely traumatic events.
“Combat veterans have been in places where they’ve experienced life-threatening gunfire, and fireworks can mimic that sound, and the effects for them can be instantaneous: a feeling of anxiety and replay of feelings when someone is shooting at you,” Coppolillo said.
The on-guard mode veterans feel can ruin the fun of public events, especially if they’ve had negative experiences in hostile crowds in the war zone.
“The state of hypervigilance can be frightening,” Coppolillo said.
According to the government, 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have PTSD.
It can be especially troublesome for those experiencing the random fireworks displays leading up to and after main holiday presentation in towns and communities across the nation.
“Veterans I talk to say if they are prepared and they can see the fireworks (coming), it is better than being at home hearing an M-80 exploding outside your window,” Coppolillo said.
She said some veterans remove themselves altogether and get out of town, or find ways to relax and get away in the basement and put on a movie when the displays start. Others tackle it in different ways to be able to enjoy fireworks with their families.
“One said if he focuses on his kids and their wonder of the fireworks he can get through it,” Coppolillo said. “Others use a friend or a significant other to help them get through it.”
Symptoms can appear immediately or years after the traumatic events. Survivors may face years of trauma through memories, disruptive dreams, and other symptoms.
Due to the stigma surrounding mental health and psychotherapy, some go untreated, which can result in depression, severe anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide.
The VA has programs to help veterans live full active lives with PTSD, anxiety and an array of mental health issues through yoga, music, art and equestrian therapy and other tools to manage the symptoms.
“It is very hard for them, because the meaning of the holiday is near and dear to their hearts. Many of them made serious sacrifices for that ideal, so to not be able to fully participate in that holiday can be tough,” Coppolillo said.
While the Milwaukee VA Medical Center handles veterans enrolled at the location, they have a 24/7 emergency department for all. The Veterans Health Administration also operates a Veterans Crisis line at 1-800-273-8255.