Fireworks and PTSD

Ah yes, the 4th of July, Independence Day in America. A good excuse to have a cookout, drink some alcohol if you are of age, and enjoy fireworks (or even produce fireworks). All three things I mentioned are the highlight of Independence Day for some of us.

The fireworks, unfortunately, are actually the lowlight for one very important sector of the population—military veterans and gun violence survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[1] To make matters worse, our nation doesn’t do enough to help military veterans and gun violence survivors who experience PTSD as a result of the fireworks.

In the words of a veteran of the United States Marines who put up a fireworks courtesy sign on a previous Independence Day, “It’s the loud noise of the fireworks that can be a trigger. It sounds a lot like a bomb or explosions.” In other words, these fireworks remind people with war-related PTSD of the awful, even deadly, memories of being in combat in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Korea. They also remind many gun violence survivors of awful, even deadly, memories of they or their loved ones and/or themselves being shot at. The fireworks that are fun for some of us make the lives of others a living hell for a night.

What makes this injustice especially awful for me is that the United States makes a big deal of supporting our troops and gun violence survivors alike (as we should), yet we don’t seem to pay attention to the needs both groups on Independence Day. If we really had actions to go along with the “support our troops” or “support gun violence survivors” rhetoric, shouldn’t we, as individuals, be more sensitive to those who experience PTSD as a result of the fireworks?

My question, of course, is a rhetorical one, because the answer is, “Yes, we should be aware of these things!” But how can we, as individuals or as a society, take measures to be sensitive to the needs of people with PTSD?

I humbly offer a few suggestions for individuals, and a potential suggestion for state governments to consider.

One suggestion for individuals is to simply not set off fireworks if you can’t do so legally! The professionals are best at setting off fireworks and doing so safely, anyway. In addition, by refusing to set off fireworks you will lessen the amount of distress you cause to any military veterans from war-related PTSD or gun violence survivors from PTSD related to gun violence.

Another suggestion is more involved and costly, yet also potentially useful: if you have a family member or friend who has PTSD that gets triggered by the fireworks, consider searching for a 4th of July destination that is devoid of fireworks (not just firework shows, but fireworks from individual citizens). I have no idea how easy it is to find a 4th of July destination that has no fireworks, but the mere gesture of searching for a place without fireworks to help your family member or friend is extremely kind. Furthermore, if you are successful in finding such a destination for your family member or friend unless you are looking at international destinations, you would make the person’s life so much better.

My final suggestion is one for government. Namely, maybe state governments should consider hosting fireworks-free 4th of July celebrations in destinations far from fireworks (like maybe state parks, depending on location). Such celebrations would be fun, yet at the same time provide refuge for military veterans with war-related PTSD, gun violence survivors with PTSD, pets, babies, and people in general who don’t react well to fireworks (because there are actually many people and animals who don’t react well to the fireworks).

All of these suggestions are better than the status quo, which is one where we set off fireworks without thinking about those who are harmed as a result of others’ celebrations. Hopefully, individuals and/or governments will start to follow these suggestions, and in the process show that we truly “support our troops” and “support gun violence survivors,” including those with PTSD.

Note: Next week, I will publish my post on Friday instead of Tuesday.


[1] While my focus is on Independence Day in the United States, the issues I express here are also relevant to people with gun violence-related PTSD around the world.

The Forgotten Injustice of the American National Anthem

On Independence Day next Tuesday, many Americans will bring out American flags, talk with pride about the nation’s heritage, and proudly belch out the American national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

I was especially proud to sing our national anthem in the years after 9/11, when I was too young to understand the full meaning of the song, but also old enough to realize that the song was to many people a symbol of defiance towards terrorists who tried to destroy the nation’s identity. But these days, I have trouble singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at all, let alone singing it in public.

Before people call me unpatriotic, just as many called NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick unpatriotic for his refusal to stand during the American national anthem, please hear me out. I too am a believer in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” even if those ideals did not extend towards African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants, people in the LGBTQ+ community, and others for many decades after that phrase was first used. But the fact is that, if the United States of America wants to carry out a universal, inclusive, and just vision of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” our current national anthem is not a representation of such a vision.

In making this claim, I point to an oft-forgotten part of “The Star-Spangled Banner”—the third verse:

“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave…from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”

These two lines from the third verse make it sound like the author, Francis Scott Key, was celebrating the death of African American slaves.

To add historical context to the verse, African American slaves who fought for the British were offered freedom in the War of 1812. Hence, the British served as a “refuge” for slaves, since they seemed to offer slaves what they wanted—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

However, slaves fighting for the British did not give Francis Scott Key what he wanted, which was the preservation of the United States of America. Once the British-allied slaves got killed, on the other hand, the United States stood a greater chance of having a preserved country.

Between the lyrics and the historical context of the lyrics, it certainly seems like this portion of the song celebrates the death of slaves trying to free themselves from slavery. Since it celebrates enslaved death instead of freedom and life, the American national anthem is not a song that celebrates an inclusive, universal, and just version of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Many of us forget about the injustice of the song (the third verse in particular) because we only sing the first verse. However, we should not let ourselves forget about any part of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This song refused to extend the vision of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” towards a whole group of people (slaves, particularly slaves fighting for the British), and everyone who sings this song should be mindful of that fact.