Army veteran Cody Bolkenstyn remembers when his vehicle exploded in Iraq. And for him, hearing the sound of fireworks on the Fourth of July can put him back into that moment.
“It’s hard to control my breath,” he said. “In that instant I feel like I just got blown up or shot and then I kind of come back to reality really quick.”
Bolkenstyn isn’t alone. An estimated 23 million veterans in the United States experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder every year. The sounds of unexpected explosions around Independence Day can trigger those feelings for some veterans, especially those with active combat experience.
Thomas Demark, a psychiatrist at the Kansas City Veterans Affairs Medical Center who specializes in treating PTSD, says his office sees an increase in calls during the days before and the weeks after the Fourth of July.
“PTSD itself is a condition that … waxes and wanes based on stress and triggers, and the loud, unexpected noises are definitely a trigger,” he says, though responses vary greatly depending on the individual.
For his part, Bolkenstyn emphasized that he loves the holiday and goes to see fireworks displays. He said those big, organized shows don't tend to bother him. Instead, it’s the scattered and hard-to-predict stream of bangs throughout the day.
The noises can exacerbate anxiety, panic attacks, or even cause a flashback to combat.
“Sitting outside and just not knowing where it’s coming from — you don’t know if its a gunshot, you don't know if it’s an explosion — that can really be heart-stopping,” Bolkenstyn said.
The sounds still make Cedric Pomphrey uneasy, 40 years after the Vietnam War.
Pomphrey lives at St. Michael’s Veterans Center in Kansas City, Missouri. During his first few years out of the service, he said, on July 3 he would pack up his things and retreat into the woods to get away from the noises.
Pomphrey recounted his experience while sitting in an American-flag-painted chair outside of St. Michael’s, with veterans of all ages comparing the sounds of fireworks. M-80s sound like automatic gunfire, they said, while the big displays sound like missiles.
"You never knew when it was coming,” Pomphrey said. “And the fact that the fireworks now truly sound like bombs. If you’ve ever been in a combat zone where bombs were falling, the ratatat, it bugs you.”
>At St. Michael’s, setting off fireworks or explosives of any kind is prohibited, mandated by the lease residents sign before moving in, said Director Susan Engel.
Joel Bailey, the director of Heroes Home Gate, a transitional housing facility for homeless veterans in Kansas City, Missouri, said he notices that behaviors change around the holiday.
Usually, he said, residents sit on the porch reading books and smoking. But in the days before the Fourth, he said, more of the men stay inside away from windows, wearing headphones or watching movies in their rooms.
Demark suggests limiting fireworks to the Fourth, to cut back on the unexpected sounds before the holiday.
Bolkenstyn also urges people to talk to their neighbors and see if they have any veterans on their street, and letting them know when they’ll be lighting off fireworks.
Sophia Tulp is a KCUR news intern. Follow her on Twitter @sophia_tulp