When National Guard veteran Jessie Medvan was stationed in Taji, Iraq in 2004, she often heard mortar and rocket fire hitting the camp. She got so used to the sound that one time, a couple rockets hit 300 yards from where she was sleeping — and she just went back to sleep.
But she also lived in constant fear of those rockets hitting her. What if they came into her trailer late at night while she was sleeping? Or hit the fuel point 50 yards away from the building she worked from?
“It felt like we were sitting ducks,” she said in a phone interview. “I was just always waiting to get hit.”
Medvan, who is now an organizer with Veterans for Peace of Western PA, returned from her deployment with PTSD. One of the symptoms: she couldn’t stand fireworks. The sound took her right back to that feeling of sitting there, never knowing if the bombs would hit her next.
“There are certain kinds of fireworks and explosive things that people set off on the Fourth of July that sound exactly like a mortar hitting far away,” she said. “When I first came back, I would avoid them if I could. Or I would have to be really drunk, which was easy, because all I did for 7 years was drink constantly.”
This Fourth of July may be worse than previous years for people — and pets — who struggle with fireworks-related anxiety. Pennsylvania completely rewrote its fireworks law last October to help pass the state budget. Now, consumers can purchase a wider variety of fireworks, including “firecrackers, Roman Candles, bottle rockets, and similar fireworks that contain a maximum of 50 milligrams of explosive material,” according to the Pennsylvania State Police website. Previously, only novelty fireworks like fountains and sparklers were legal.
Dr. Sonya Norman, Director of the PTSD Consultation Program at the National Center for PTSD, says the biggest problem with this new law isn’t more fireworks going off. It’s the random timing of those fireworks, as opposed to the set schedules of professional displays.
“A key part [of many PTSD triggers] is that it’s unexpected,” she said in a phone interview. “If you’re walking down a quiet street and a car backfires, that might be more triggering than fireworks on the Fourth of July.”
“If anyone could buy fireworks and shoot them off at any time, there could be more opportunities for people to have that unexpected experience. Because they don’t know, is it a firework, is it a gunshot, are they in danger?”
Odysseus Fox, an Air Force veteran who served in Iraq in 2011, echoed this sentiment. “What I wish people would stop doing, is having afterparties,” he said. “Like on the fifth of July, getting rid of all the leftover fireworks. Or on the third, testing them out. Because when I hear fireworks on the Fourth of July, I expect that. But other times, loud noises are a little unsettling, like ‘what the hell was that?’”
Nonprofit organization Military with PTSD has responded to this issue by creating yard signs that say “veteran lives here — please be courteous with fireworks.” According to its website, the organization has distributed signs to thousands of veterans.
But this solution isn’t for everyone. For instance, veterans may not want to announce their PTSD to everyone who drives by. And some may not realize they have an issue.
“There’s a lot of people that have PTSD and moral injury who are in different phases of either being in denial or coming to some realization about it,” said Medvan. “They’ll just sit there and be triggered.”
That being said, no one I spoke with wants to put an end to fireworks. “You can’t really say, ‘don’t set off fireworks,’” said Medvan. “You also can’t really even say, ‘if there’s veterans in your area’ — because there’s vets everywhere.”
And in fact, many veterans enjoy fireworks. “It’s a source of pride for them,” said Norman. “They love the Fourth of July; they love going to see fireworks.”
What Medvan does want to see is more people learning about veterans’ issues. That way, they can advocate for things like fixing the VA healthcare system, so more veterans can get proper care to treat things like PTSD.
“Not only are they equipped to handle our physical issues, but they know how to handle our mental issues, which are so different from the general population,” she said of the VAHCS. “That’s why the privatization of the VA is such BS.”
Thanks to the VA, Medvan no longer hates fireworks, as long as she can see them and make the connection that they’re fireworks. “I still don’t go out of my way to be like, let’s go see these fireworks,” she said. But she also doesn’t avoid them like she used to, especially since she has two young children, and she wants to “keep it normal for them.”
For anyone who wants to take advantage of Pennsylvania’s loosened regulations, Norman simply says to “be thoughtful of the people around you.” This is sound advice no matter who lives nearby, because fireworks can affect more than just veterans. They also cause anxiety for some people with sensory processing disorders as well as many dogs.
“You could ask your neighbor, or warn your neighbor, ‘hey, we have these fireworks, and we’ll do them at this time,’” she said. “Don’t assume if there’s a vet on your street that it’ll be extremely distressing. Talk to them.”