The Fourth of July is supposed to be a happy occasion, where people get together for cookouts, set off their own fireworks or attend a fireworks show and celebrate America’s independence.
But for some combat veterans, hearing the booms created by fireworks can trigger a variety of emotions.
They may have been exposed to horrible and life-threatening experiences, including being shot at, witnessing a fellow military member get shot or seeing death.
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Those events can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, where they are taken back to what they endured during a war or other type of conflict.
About 11 to 20 out of every 100 veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom have PTSD in a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Orlando Munoz, 38, of Seymour, is among that group.
For the past two years, the Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran has placed a sign in his yard around the Fourth of July that reads “Combat veteran lives here. Please be courteous with fireworks.”
It’s not that he’s against fireworks. In fact, he plans on attending tonight’s fireworks show at Freeman Field in Seymour.
He doesn’t want pity, either. He just wants people to be aware that shooting off fireworks at certain hours of the day can affect people with PTSD.
“It’s the Fourth of July weekend. It’s a happy moment for a lot,” he said. “Unfortunately, that happy moment can trigger very sad moments for others.”
Three years ago, near the Fourth of July, Munoz was at home when he heard two big bangs from fireworks. That affected him because they came at a time of day when he didn’t expect to hear them.
“Unfortunately, it was about three days of no sleep just because of that,” Munoz said. “Every time I closed my eyes, I heard it, and I got up. I remember I could not control my diabetes because I started drinking Coke, a lot of it, just to stay awake because it scares you to go to sleep.”
Last year, when he was at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Indianapolis, he saw a picture of one of the signs about being courteous with fireworks around combat veterans. He visited the website militarywithptsd.org and ordered one to put in his yard.
Military with PTSD is a nonprofit organization that educates veterans, caretakers and civilians about the effects of PTSD on the veterans, in the family and on the community as a whole.
Following the motto “Seeing it from both sides,” the Evansville-based nonprofit places a special emphasis on past and present members of the armed forces and their caretakers and family members through peer-to-peer support, one-on-one mentoring and suicide crisis intervention.
“I have known of veterans that have committed suicide because of PTSD,” Munoz said. “That is sad because you come to fight a war at home when you’re finished fighting one out there.”
PTSD can occur after a person has seen or heard about a traumatic event or it happens to themselves, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That includes combat exposure, child sexual or physical abuse, a terrorist attack, sexual or physical assault, serious accidents and natural disasters.
During a traumatic event, the person thinks his or her life or others’ lives are in danger, and they may feel afraid or feel they have no control over what is happening around them.
Many people have stress-related reactions after a traumatic event. If those don’t go away over time and they disrupt your life, you might have PTSD.
Munoz discovered he had PTSD about three years after he served overseas.
After graduating from high school in Puerto Rico in 1995, he came to Indiana to live with his brother in Lake Station near Gary. He went to college for a semester before deciding to join the Army.
He didn’t know any English, so the Army sent him to the Defense Language Institute at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Munoz went through basic training before heading off to duty stations in Japan and Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
He later left for Iraq, where he served as a truck driver who delivered water and food to the front lines.
“You see pretty much everything,” Munoz said of being near the front lines. “There are plenty of things that I honestly don’t like to talk about. There are people that I speak to, especially spiritual leaders, because it helps. But you open wounds every time.”
What people see about war on television isn’t the picture of real war, Munoz said.
“It’s greater than that. It’s uglier than that. Whoever tells you that they go to war and they are not scared, to me personally, they are lying to you. You’re pretty much scared 24/7,” he said.
“Once you go over there and you notice that there are kids and there are women, they don’t want to hurt you, and they don’t have the blessing to be Americans. Sometimes, we take that for granted,” he said. “It is not their fault that they are in those type of countries. They have to endure the real face of war, and that’s what you see on a daily basis.”
After spending a year in Iraq, Munoz returned home and worked for the Department of Homeland Security.
Then while working for the Social Security office in Indianapolis, he started having some reactions.
“I didn’t pay too much attention to it until they were continuous,” he said.
Munoz decided to go to the Veterans Affairs hospital to find out what was wrong. It wound up being PTSD.
“I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t know that PTSD existed. I never heard of it,” he said. “For me personally, I actually didn’t believe it. I just said I was having these nightmares. I call it nightmares, but they are reliving episodes that really happened. I call it a nightmare because the fact is it is a nightmare.”
Munoz received an evaluation and applied for disability retirement. Multiple times, he was turned down, but his doctor kept telling him to not give up.
Finally, he was approved and participated in a medical board hearing, leading to him receiving health care and medication through Veterans Affairs.
Munoz said he visits that hospital three or four times a month. During those visits, he has heard stories from other veterans with PTSD, including some with extreme cases.
He said it’s unfortunate that some men and women who serve their country return home and have to deal with PTSD.
“You come to another battle, and it’s a totally different battle,” Munoz said. “PTSD is very real. I didn’t think it was that real, but it is real. I came out of war close to more than 11 years ago, and to this day, it’s real.”
It’s unclear why some people develop PTSD after a traumatic event and others don’t.
Munoz said he wishes it would go away. His doctor and the medical board both have said it might, but they don’t know for sure.
“I look to deal with it the best way possible,” he said. “God has always been there for me, and I have good family support. That support does mean the world to me.”
For information about post-traumatic stress disorder, visit ptsd.va.gov.
For information about Military with PTSD, visit militarywithptsd.org.