Before he went to war, Lito Santos enjoyed the July 4 holiday just like everybody else: the crowds, the exploding fireworks, the ooos and the aahs at the blossoming colors in the night sky. Iraq changed all that for the veteran.
When he returned in 2005, U.S. Army Sgt. Santos was minus his right leg, amputated at the hip from an improvised explosive device (IED). He will spend this Fourth, like all those since, inside. The sights and sounds of the Fourth of July have new meaning for a wounded vet.
"Before, they were just fireworks," said Santos, 28, of Winter Park. "Now they are a reminder of a time or a place you really don't want to be."
For combat veterans such as Santos who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, the loudest, most American of holidays is a time of mixed emotions. It's pride and patriotism, but also guilt and trauma.
"It's one of those days you don't want to celebrate because your friends are gone and you are not," Santos said.
There is the deep, personal understanding of what the Fourth represents: the price paid for freedom in the lives and limbs of men and women who have fought for their country. But with that understanding comes a sense of grief, loss and the feeling that nothing will be normal any more.
Marine Corps Lance Corporal Lyndon Oritz remembers the pleading of his little sister and nieces that he go with them to the Fourth of July fireworks after he returned from Iraq in 2005. And how he couldn't do it. All he wanted was to be alone, inside, away from people and noise and things he could not control.
"The first Fourth of July I didn't go out of my house," said Ortiz, 26, of Kissimmee. "I was isolated and I stayed home and I didn't go around crowds that would put me in an uncomfortable situation."
The problems for veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress extends beyond loud noises, said Bryan Batien, a counselor on the psychology staff of the Orlando VA Medical Center. Under normal circumstances, it takes up to six months for veterans to adjust to life back in the States. That includes being around crowds, unlearning the survival instinct of not trusting anyone, and recognizing the triggers that bring back bad memories.
For those suffering from post-traumatic stress, the process can take much longer, Batien said.
"I have veterans who have spent the Fourth of July locked in their closets. It's not a time of celebration for some of them," he said.
But for other returning veterans, the Fourth remains that reminder of the origins of this nation and the importance the military has played in its history.
"Celebrating in the ways we do for the reasons we do gave me a greater appreciation," said Mike Strickler, a public affairs official with the Veterans Administration who served in Iraq in 2004. "Our military heritage is so much a part of who we are as Americans.
The Orlando VA center recently added 35 mental health counselors and 10 support staff to help returning veterans adjust to life back home and deal with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, Strickler said. But before they can learn how to cope with things that evoke memories of war, they need to remove themselves from situations that trigger negative responses, Batien said.
"Do what you have to do to keep yourself safe and know that this doesn't have to be how life is," Batien advises.
That's a hard thing to do this time of year when explosions and loud sounds aren't confined to public fireworks displays. There are individuals shooting off fireworks and whistling skyrockets in neighborhoods throughout Central Florida. There is no warning and no way to prepare.
"I think people need to be considerate of the fact we are living in your neighborhoods. We live right next door to you," Santos said.
Santos said he will spend this Fourth with other combat veterans. They will be somewhere far away from loud and unexpected explosions.
"This Fourth of July is one I will get away and hang out with other vets. You try to stay in your comfort zone where you can control what's happening around you," he said.
Like Santos, Ortiz has not been to a Fourth of July fireworks celebration since he returned eight years ago. This year might be different. His wounds have healed and he's been in a treatment program for post-traumatic stress for the past year.
"I've been thinking about trying it this year," Ortiz said. "It would be a milestone in my recovery."