Military vets and fireworks: It's a complicated relationship

Author Shauna Springer (second row, far right) marches with military veterans in the 2018 Fourth of July parade in Danville, California.

Shauna Springer, the chief psychologist for Stella Center, is one of the nation's leading experts on PTSD and trauma. Known as "Doc Springer" in the military and veterans' communities, she has worked with hundreds of veterans over the past decade. Her latest book, "Warrior: How to Support Those Who Protect Us," published on May 18. The views expressed here are her own.

(CNN)Marine Corps veteran Brian Vargas is still triggered by the sound of fireworks.

A Purple Heart recipient, Vargas has endured over 200 medical procedures since his return from Iraq.
"There's just some sounds you'll never forget, like the sound of 5.56 and 7.62 rounds impacting all around you," said Vargas, now the manager for the Veterans Educational Transition Services Office and Veterans Resource Center at City College in San Francisco.
"The sound waves of fireworks are so triggering to many veterans," Vargas said. "The impact of the emotional distress spills out into our lives, causing flashbacks and anger. We check and re-check our locks and stay up all night."
    While the Fourth of July can be likened to one of America's biggest street parties — at least in pre-pandemic times — our celebration of the sacrifices made by our nation's warriors can cause intensely painful trauma reactions for some who fight our wars.
    Shown here are the Vietnam Veterans of Diablo Valley and Springer (far right) in the 2018 Fourth of July parade in Danville, California.
    That's why the military community has a love-hate relationship with fireworks. That is, many either love them, or hate them, depending on their past experiences ... and sometimes, they love and hate them at the same time.

    Fireworks can trigger painful and peak life memories

    For Vargas and others, the trauma reaction caused by fireworks may last many years, even decades, in some cases. At some level, it seems wrong to honor the sacrifice of our warriors in a way that can cause them emotional pain.
    Could displays of fireworks be a bit like the elites who picnicked during the Civil War — five miles from the danger, watching the bloodshed as though it were just sport? Yet, like many things, the relationship between stimulus and response is complicated and variable.
    Fireworks can also trigger memories of peak life experiences in the military. They include:
    The "rush" of being in combat. Those who serve in the military are trained to fight. That is their job. They excel at it and they love doing it. Major Scott Huesing, the author of "Echo in Ramadi," reflects this truth. As he went to war, he recalled that "deep inside, I was excited to go because I was finally getting what every US Marine is trained for — war."
    Awe. Have you ever felt the thrill of watching the Blue Angels or seen a sortie of F-16 fighter jets fly just overhead? Have you ever felt the primal thrum of a controlled explosion? Witnessing America's war capabilities at close range creates a deep sense of awe for many who serve.
    Self-sacrificial love. The trust between those who would give their lives for each other defies description. The closest description I've heard has come from the award-winning documentary films of Sebastian Junger. In the movie "Korengal," US Army Specialist Miguel Cortes said this: "We're closer than a family would be. ... I would throw myself on a grenade, and the guys know that I would, without hesitation."
    Fireworks can become linked to a range of positive feelings and experiences.
    Fireworks fill US Navy veteran Mike Slattengren, who served in the Vietnam War, with patriotic feelings. "I remember seeing tracers at night-time when I was in Vietnam, and it was a good memory," said Slattengren. "Fireworks remind me of this — they make me feel happy."
    Slattengren noted that he served in a Naval Air Station, away from the intensity of close-range combat. "I think it was different for those who were in the jungles of Vietnam in infantry roles," he said.

    For other veterans, it's complicated

    Our nation's warfighters leave the military with a complicated array of feelings as well as altered identities, with negative and positive experiences often intermixed.
    Take a breath: How the simple act of meditative breathing helps us cope