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Yes, fireworks really can traumatize military veterans

Nothing screams America quite like fireworks on Independence Day. Thousands will gather together all over our great nation to watch gorgeous displays of light splash across the night sky, possibly set to patriotic music or in the backyard with friends. Those songs that sing of rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air remind us of the wars our country’s military fought for freedom and justice. Yet many of our veterans will be avoiding those fireworks for reasons they may not even be aware of, and you can help them out.

I’ll never forget my first Fourth of July after returning from Afghanistan. I had been back for four months but still hadn’t really been able to sleep well at night. I purposely avoided going to the Army base for the fireworks or downtown because I just didn’t want to deal with the crowds, another element of the holiday weekend that is difficult for some veterans.

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Crowds were way too unpredictable and cramped for any real comfort level, and I definitely did not consider them fun at that point. I stayed home and actually fell asleep really early after coming back from a cookout with friends. When I woke up, I was under my bed. I was totally confused about my new location, but it didn’t take long to figure it out. I knew it was the fireworks.

Logically, I knew that it was America’s birthday and that I was safely in my home. Yet my mind and body were still in Afghanistan, doing what they knew to do in order to keep me safe. The fireworks went off, and I instinctively sought cover. Fortunately I went on sleeping, and no harm came to me or anyone around me. Reintegration comes differently for everyone, though. Dealing with post-traumatic stress looks different for people also.

This holiday weekend, be emotionally present for those around you who are attempting to overcome invisible hurdles in their lives. Before you start with the huge neighborhood parties with wine and cocktails and fireworks, take a second to look around for those veterans or military family members that may be adversely impacted by what others consider fun.

Make sure you have a quick conversation, email blast or Facebook post with those in your neighborhood concerning fireworks and a time for the festivities. Try to coordinate fireworks displays with other neighbors so that it can be all at once instead of dragging on into all hours of the night. You may think it won’t make a difference, but it could actually speak volumes for someone dealing with some difficult past experiences.

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For my veterans and others dreading this weekend and all of the revelry, I hear you, and I know your pain. It does not last forever. All wounds heal, but the scars will remain, so take your time. It took about five years for me to get excited about going to see fireworks again, and I still cannot watch any movies about the Afghanistan or Iraq wars — I just won’t do it.

Set your boundaries, and respect your own healing process. Most of all, seek help from your local veteran-focused nonprofit if you are ready to start making a drastic change in the direction toward your new normal.

This holiday is really about Americans coming together to achieve great things. In that same spirit, come together in your own communities to keep everyone informed on the festivities and fun fest. Our flag has gotten a little bit battered and bruised over the years, and the country surely is not perfect now, but it’s still our America.

That’s a cause to celebrate.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below:

Patriotic quotes
Image: miodrag ignjatovic/Getty Images

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