PORTLAND - Neighborhood fireworks are putting some combat veterans through an emotional wringer at the same time other are celebrating America’s freedom.
Ron Cook is a Vietnam veteran who volunteers at the Vancouver Veterans Administration medical center. He’s experienced more combat than he'd like to remember.
Cook came home with a Purple Heart and post-traumatic stress disorder, which he now eases through a support group called the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
“I interact with alot of other veterans now which gives me a chance to enjoy some of the pleasant things and not just be alone and thinking about the war and the things that happened over there," he said.
On the week around the Fourth of July, while many enjoy blowing things up, Cook and millions like him are enduring repeated shocks to their system.
“You'll hear fireworks, then all of a sudden somebody sets off something that sounds like it belongs in a mine instead of somebody's front yard,” he said. “It can kind of set you on edge sometimes when you're not expecting it. I kind of want to get under the bed or something,” Cook said.
Psychologist Jed Grodin says Cook is not alone. Fireworks are often trouble for combat veterans.
“They can be significant triggers for people who have a diagnosis of PTSD,” he said. Grodin runs PTSD support groups for the Vancouver VA and says combat brings out primal responses in the body that are difficult to ignore.
“The body's nervous system is basically going to learn that loud noises equal danger,” he said. “And when we learn those kind of responses in a highly dangerous environment, we learn them really, really well,” Grodin said.
He added that the spontaneous nature of neighborhood fireworks is hard for most who suffer PTSD.
"You might have a rapid heart rate, might start sweating, you might feel a big surge of anxiety. You might even respond instinctively by trying to take cover behind something or underneath something,” he said.
Tom Schaff says that response is part of him.
“It's instilled. It's built right into your brain,” he said pointing at the side of his skull. “And your body reflects accordingly,” he said.
Schaff served as a Marine in Vietnam and earned three Purple Hearts. He's lived through enough blasts to last a lifetime and fireworks don’t interest him.
“They affect my nervous system. And the big ones ... they shock me inside," he said. “They trigger off memories of times where I was in combat in the foxholes and the bombs and rockets going off and stuff. I really don’t like fireworks all that much," he said.
It’s a cruel twist of fate, many of the men and women who risked their lives to protect the very freedom we celebrate on the 4th of July are left to endure the day rather than rejoice.