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Fourth of July can be 'a real stress' for combat veterans, 'scary' for pets

Jonathan Roberts • Jul 2, 2019 at 7:00 PM

He didn’t expect to come home from Iraq with post traumatic stress disorder.

In fact, when Matthew Hopkins enlisted in 1988, the term PTSD was barely a decade old. Now, after subsequent tours of duty in Bosnia and Afghanistan, Hopkins finds himself fighting a new fight — one that an estimated 24.4 million Americans struggle with daily.

And though Hopkins says his PTSD has gotten better, Independence Day still presents a challenge that’s not easy to overcome.

“I’ve suffered from PTSD; just about any soldier who’s seen combat suffers from some form of PTSD. For me (on the Fourth) it's the fireworks. It’s gotten better, but still, if you’re not expecting it ...” Hopkins said with a pause.

But the loud noise of large fireworks isn’t the only thing that can trigger a veteran’s, a police officer’s or a shooting survivor’s PTSD.

Hopkins says that certain sounds, like small firecrackers going off in sequence, can be a trigger. It can also be the smells, bright flashes or even vibrations from a large firework, such as a mortar, something Dr. Andrew Presnell says makes a one-size-fits-all solution to prevent PTSD triggers nearly impossible.

“I think (how to prevent PTSD triggers) is a difficult question to answer, because not everyone is the same, but there are some individuals who feel fireworks and loud noises like that are reminders of traumatic events,” said Presnell, the PTSD program manager at the Mountain Home Veterans Affairs healthcare system.

Hopkins echoed that sentiment, and both he and Presnell believe the best way to be considerate of your neighbors is to just ask.

“If you have any kind of relationship with (your neighbors), ask them how it affects them,” Presnell said. “Mental health is full of unsatisfying answers, but for a lot of them … just reaching out to them and letting them know ‘Hey this is what we’re about to do,’ that can be really helpful.”

“Warnings help some, because you know you can either go inside or not be around it,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins also recommends veterans avoid two things: doing drugs or alcohol and being alone.

“Make sure that you’re not doing something that may lower you inhibitions, because that can affect you as well,” Hopkins recommended. “If you’ve been out drinking and somebody sets a mortar off next to your house, it can trigger you right then and there.”

“Make sure if you’re a veteran this holiday that you’ve got people around you that care about you so they can help you and if you don’t, call someone,” Hopkins continued.

Of course, for those in crisis, preventative measures mean little, and if you or someone you know is in crisis, Presnell recommends that — depending on the level of crisis — you either go somewhere quieter or, if it’s a major crisis, go to an emergency room or call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, and press ‘1’ if you’re a veteran.

“I want everyone to have a great time and enjoy the Fourth of July, hell, that’s what we fought for, but if you’re going to set off some major fireworks, at least let everybody around you know so you don’t have any major issues,” Hopkins said.

Animals can be affected too

According to Tammy Davis, director of the Washington County/Johnson City Animal Shelter, staff members often see an increase in stray and runaway dogs around the Fourth of July, and she feels fireworks play a big part in causing it.

“I believe fireworks play a huge part in dogs becoming frightened and trying to escape, becoming lost and ending up here at the shelter,” Davis said.

Davis recommends that anyone going to a fireworks display leave their dog at home, because fireworks are “very scary for them, and all they want to do is run away and find a place to hide.” At home, however, she says outdoor dogs should have a place they feel secure and see to it that their pet can’t escape, but that it would be ideal to keep them inside.

Should they escape, Davis says the first thing you should do is call your local shelter or animal hospitals. Having your pet microchipped or giving them a name tag can also go a long way in ensuring you’re reunited with your pet, with microchips upping the chances of finding them by more than 50%, according to Davis.

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