Fourth of July fireworks can be torture for veterans; can trigger 'flight or fight' response

Posted at 9:32 PM, Jul 01, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-02 00:32:53-04

The 4th of July holiday celebrates America’s freedom, but many of the vets who fought hard to protect that freedom won’t be able to enjoy the celebrations. The loud fireworks can trigger post-traumatic stress.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 10–15% of Iraq and Afghanistan vets suffer from PTS.  

Former Army Sergeant Todd Vance is one of them. In 2004, he was involved in a fierce fight for control of Mosul, Iraq. Vance served with the 3rd Stryker Brigade 1-23 Infantry Battalion “Tomahawks.”  

“It was quite a wakeup call to what combat really is,” said Vance.

The San Diego native showed us a picture of his unit, taken shortly after they had completed a risky rescue mission.

“The faces we’re making there is when we found out we had to go back in.  We weren’t too happy about that,” laughed Vance.

The gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades that rang in his ears sounded a lot like fireworks.  

When Vance came home and attended a fireworks show in Mission Bay, he said he had a full blown panic attack.

"I couldn't breathe, my throat was tight, chest was tight. My body was sweating profusely. I had to leave,” he said. Basically, his body went into "fight or flight" mode.

“I just ran to the car… I closed all the doors, turned on the music.”

Vance is not alone.  

Dr. Sonya Norman, Director of the PTS Consultation Program at the VA, says many vets will jump in the shower or go to the movies to avoid the sound of fireworks.

“If you’re not having a good day – don’t go [to see fireworks],” recommends Vance.    

Both he and Dr. Norman emphasize that post-traumatic stress is a temporary condition.

“It's not something you need to live with," said Vance. "You need to fix it."

The Veterans Crisis Line is 800-273-8255

Vance runs a veterans support group called P.O.W., which stands for Pugilistic Offensive Warrior Tactics.  His group uses MMA-style fitness.