Fireworks trigger problems for vets with PTSD

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - When Americans celebrate the nation's independence with fireworks, that can spell big problems for some of the men and woman who fought to ensure our freedoms.

A new campaign aims to increase awareness of the reactions many combat veterans have to exploding fireworks.

Local vets say they cope with that every year.

"I hear fireworks, and unfortunately my perception has been biased to those of combat," vet Joe Acosta told Eyewitness News. "Is it a gun shot? Or is it fireworks?" Acosta served in Vietnam and Desert Storm, and now he's the team leader at the Bakersfield Vet Center.

Acosta says for combat vets with post-traumatic stress disorder it's a memory issue.

"It's a memory trauma that gets relived again," Acosta explains. "It's a survival instinct, it becomes an autonomic response." It's the unexpected booms and lights that trigger serious reflexes and reactions.

"That reflex makes me jump, starts my heart racing, increases my adrenalin," Acosta said. And, he says that happens in a tenth of a second.

For Gulf War vet Charles O'Hara, it's about the same.

"The bottle rockets, that's pretty much my major issue," O'Hara said on Friday morning. "You get really anxious, antsy, get really aware of your situation. It's just not a good feeling."

That feeling is shared by a veteran in Florida, Jon Dykes. A shop in his area made him a sign to put in his yard, reading "Combat veteran lives here. Please be courteous with fireworks."

Dykes put a photo of himself with the sign on his Facebook page, and the idea's taking off.

"I saw it on Facebook yesterday," O'Hara said. "I think it's a good idea."

People buying fireworks on the Fourth thought over what they'd do if a vet put a similar sign in their neighborhood.

"I'd take it into consideration," Alejandro Gurule said. "Probably go to some other place, and try to (set off fireworks). I'd take it into consideration out of respect to them."

Angie Jett said she understands the issue, and wonders what a vet could do to deal with it. "Maybe if I was him, I'd try to go somewhere remote," she thinks it would be hard to ask an entire neighborhood to change.

Both were picking up fireworks at the Beardsley School Music Boosters booth on Airport Drive. Jim Young's the band director, and he hopes the "safe and sane" devices they sell don't cause problems for vets.

"You hope not," Young said. "I mean, some of them are loud, making a lot of noise, but they're not exploding, and that type of thing."

Acosta agrees it's the devices that explode in the air that cause problems for the vets with PTSD. "It's the illegal ones in the neighborhood that get purchased, are the ones that set us off," he said.

And he says those exploding fireworks cause problems for a lot of vets. "I can sincerely say we're talking in the thousands." Acosta thinks it's about 90 percent of combat vets he works with in Kern County. And, he also likes the idea of the warning signs.

A Website for the support group "Military with PTSD" says they hope in the future to have similar signs available for any vet wanting one.

Acosta says that sounds great. He wants respect for vets, and more awareness of this problem. "Why can't we do it for the person who put their life on the line for our way of life?" he asks.

Combat vet Charles O'Hara says every Fourth, he just stays indoors to avoid the explosions that instantly make him feel like he's back at war. He also likes the idea of more understanding of the impacts combat vets suffer from fireworks.

"Even though you might enjoy them, be aware of your surroundings, your situation," he urges. "And if more veterans -- like this gentleman in Florida -- put up more signs, please be respectful."