On a nice night a few weeks ago, Matt Veil and his girlfriend went downtown for dinner. They sat at a table on the sidewalk outside the Dash-In as traffic sailed down Calhoun Street.
As the two were eating, the sounds of an explosion spread across the cityscape.
Tha-thump-thump, pop, pop-pop, tha-thump.
“As I’m almost under the table, my girlfriend’s asking me exactly what’s going on in my head. And I can’t really give a response because it was just instinctual,” said Veil, 29.
He dropped to the ground to avoid the blast – one created by fireworks from the TinCaps’ game at Parkview Field, a half mile away.
“It echoed down the buildings, and it just made an eerie sound,” he said. “The sound reminded me so much of mortar fire or heavy artillery fire.”
The exploding firework snapped Veil, an Iraq war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, back to the combat zone. His pulse quickened, his breathing became short and shallow.
“It’s almost like you just got back from a full run. Your body is completely engaged,” the former infantryman said.
Among combat veterans, Veil’s reaction to fireworks is not unusual. Drs. John Ott and Michael O’Rourke, psychologists at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Fort Wayne, said they often encounter veterans with PTSD symptoms triggered by both big pyrotechnics and little firecrackers.
“If they hear noise that sounds like some kind of firing of a weapon or something like that, they’re not trained to stand there and think about what to do,” Ott said.
“It’s like memory in the muscle.”
Because of these stressful reactions, many veterans steer clear of traditional Fourth of July revelry and opt for a quiet time, free of fireworks, spent with their family and friends.
The irony of avoiding such a patriotic holiday is not lost on Veil.
“I fought for people to have their freedom in this country, but then they’re utilizing this freedom in such a way that seems almost detrimental to my existence,” he said. “I haven’t found a way to go back and enjoy just the loud explosion, the flashy lights.”
In some cases, professional displays like the ones at Parkview Field and the Three Rivers Festival are not a problem for veterans. It’s the out-of the-blue blast from an M-80 that can catch many off guard.
“If I don’t see the burst in the air, and just the sound hits me, that has a tendency to drive my reactions through the roof,” Veil said. “My hypervigilance gets kicked into full gear.”
For Adam Cornewell, a former special ops airman, the rumble of a powerful firework can reset his clock back to a life-changing moment.
While serving in Iraq, he was at a checkpoint at the Baghdad airport when the shockwave of a mortar round knocked him to the ground and left him with back and brain injuries.
“The little ones don’t get me as bad,” said Cornewell, 34. “The big ones get me every time.”
Nonetheless, he went to see a large-scale fireworks show last year.
“I can watch them fine. I hate the sounds,” he said. “I throw some headphones on and blast them as loud as I can. That way I don’t hear a thing.”
According to estimates from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD affects nearly 31 percent of those who served in the Vietnam War; up to 10 percent in the Gulf War; 11 percent in the Afghanistan war; and 20 percent in the Iraq war.
The VA defines PTSD as a condition that occurs after someone goes through a traumatic event like combat, an assault or a disaster. Symptoms can include anxiety, flashbacks and hyperawareness.
“Most people have some stress reactions after a trauma. If the reactions don’t go away over time or disrupt your life, you may have PTSD,” reads the website of the VA’s National Center for PTSD.
Ott said the goal for veterans in therapy is to get to where they can attend a Fourth of July celebration and not be bothered by large crowds, flashes of light, reports of fireworks and smells of gunpowder.
But that goal is not easy to attain, he said.
Cornewell and Veil remain at the point where a firework blast can prompt symptoms that last hours. While Veil has not found tools for coping, Cornewell said deep breathing and Bible study have helped him calm down and find inner-peace.
The current drought has led many cities and counties in northeast Indiana, including Fort Wayne and Allen County, to impose burn bans that outlaw the use of fireworks, which, in theory, should cut the number of stray Cherry Bombs and Black Cats that are set off in the region.
“In a perfect world, the lighting off of fireworks and all the booms and pops that go with them, I think, would be restricted to, you know, Fourth of July,” O’Rourke said.
“But obviously, you’ve got folks that set them off days before, days after.”
Despite Fort Wayne’s ban on fireworks, they can still be heard routinely throughout the city. As of last week, city police had taken 304 complaints of fireworks.
By the same time last year, they had received 281 complaints; 2011 saw a total of 803 fireworks complaints, police records show.
Veil and Cornewell, both city residents, know that fireworks are not going away, but they want people to be respectful of veterans and be aware that one might be in the area before setting off a firecracker.
“Be mindful of your surroundings,” Veil said. “Be considerate.”