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Yard signs help warn Fourth of July revelers of combat vets' PTSD

By HOWARD ALTMAN | Tampa (Fla.) Tribune (TNS) | Published: June 24, 2015

VALRICO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — For Russell Cook, a combat-wounded Army veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, the barrage on his overloaded senses begins with fireworks explosions in his Florida neighborhood as the calendar turns to July.

“It’s hell,” said Cook, who laments that July 4th celebrations often don’t end for days. “It’s like I was back in the worst part of combat, with bullets flying and bombs going off.”

Cook is one of more than a quarter-million men and women who have traumatic stress disorder from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

No one knows how many have a hard time dealing with fireworks, but an Indiana-based nonprofit has come up with one way to help those who do: red, white and blue lawn signs reading, “Combat Veteran Lives Here. Please Be Courteous with Fireworks.”

The lawn sign was the creation of Florida veteran Jon Dykes and distributed by the nonprofit, called Military with PTSD.

“We posted it to our Facebook page on July 1, 2014, at 1:30 p.m.,” said Shawn Gourley, who with her husband, Justin Gourley, a Navy veteran with PTSD, created the organization. “It had a total of 21 million views last year.”

Gourley said the organization has sent almost 1,100 of the signs so far.

During his first tour in a combat zone at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Cook, now 33 and a medically retired staff sergeant, suffered traumatic brain injury from four roadside bomb explosions. His bases were routinely hit by mortar fire, and he and other members of the 501st Military Intelligence Battalion came under frequent small arms and machine gun fire.

It wasn’t until he returned to Germany, where his division was headquartered, that he realized how much the war had affected him.

“I was sitting at an outdoor cafe, and there was a backfire of a vehicle,” said Cook, who lives with his wife and three children. “I jumped to the ground, and people around me were staring at me.”

Cook suffers from headaches and back and ankle problems, in addition to his brain injury and PTSD. It's worse during the Fourth of July holiday.

“Last year, I pretty much shut myself in,” Cook said. “I had to put headphones on and keep myself as stress-free as possible. I couldn’t be next to windows and see the flashes and the sounds. They take me back.”

This year, Cook is hoping for a little piece of mind with the lawn sign.

“I don’t want people not to shoot off fireworks. I have no problem with people celebrating, and I don’t want to tell them to stop. I just want them to be responsible.”

By responsible, Cook suggested, “keep it to the Fourth, not the week leading up to it and the week after.”

Clyde Jensen, a financial planner, lives across the street from Cook. He doesn’t know Cook that well, but when he was told about the sign, Jensen wholeheartedly agreed with the sentiment.

“Of course we should respect his wishes,” Jensen said. “He sacrificed a lot for us. If fireworks bother him, we should respect that.”

Former Army combat medic John Crane once enjoyed the annual light shows on the Fourth.

“I loved everything about fireworks,” said Crane, 30, of St. Petersburg, Fla., who served a tour in Iraq. “I used go out to the pier, and my Dad, who worked at the Vinoy hotel, sometimes would take me to the towers to watch the fireworks.”

He especially enjoyed the ones that would fire from a tube like a mortar and explode in brilliant colors overhead.

A few days before deploying, Crane and his wife went out to the pier to watch the 2010 Fourth of July display. It was the last time he would enjoy anything like it.

On the way out of Fallujah, where he had gone to help residents with their medical issues, the lumbering tan armored vehicles in which he rode was hit by a rocket-launched grenade.

“It blew the armored plating off the truck,” Crane said. The force of the blast was so strong his brain shifted, creating a 9 mm cyst.

About a month later, a soldier in his unit, Neftaly Platero, turned on his own men, wounding one and killing two, including Crane’s best friend, Pfc. Gebrah Noonan. During Platero’s trial in Baghdad, mortar rounds hit the airport where it was being held.

Crane said the cumulative affect of his experiences caused his PTSD. Now, instead of enjoying fireworks, he gets sullen and snappy, and he and his wife seclude themselves inside.

“We turn the music up real loud so we can’t hear it,” Crane said. “But I can still feel the concussive blast.”

Worst of all are the fireworks he used to love the most.

“The mortar fireworks are the ones I'm most nervous about,” Crane said. “First, there is the ‘pumpf’ noise of the shell coming out of the tube, then there is the shrill noise of the mortar flying through the air, and then when it goes off, the concussive force is like a true-to-life mortar round.”

Like Cook, Crane saw the red, white and blue sign on the Gourleys’ Facebook page and ordered one. He said he has yet to put it up, but when he does, like Cook, he hopes people are respectful.

“I don’t really know my neighbors,” he said. “I’m not sure what their reaction will be, but there is no need to blast them off all night long or for days after the Fourth.”

Carrie Elk, a psychotherapist who treats combat veterans with PTSD and other service-related mental health issues, thinks the signs are a good idea in concept for those with untreated traumatic stress issues.

“I like the sensitivity and awareness that they bring to people who are around the veterans who may not otherwise think about the effect of fireworks,” said Elk, founder and director of the Elk Institute for Psychological Health and Performance in Tampa, Fla.

“It gives people an opportunity to be respectful and considerate to the veteran, but at the same time, it bothers me that a veteran would feel that avoidance is a solution. It is a good means to an end, but not a solution to handling PTSD.”

PTSD, according to Elk, is unprocessed or fragmented trauma memory that can be triggered by a wide variety of experiences.

“Any elements, including smells, sights and sounds that were stored during the traumatic event are stored as sensory memory, which means when you have similar external stimulus, the memory reactivates the original sensory experience.”

As a result, Elk said, people such as Cook and Carroll who still have unprocessed trauma “see, hear, feel and smell the explosions, which trigger in them a fight-or-flight response.”

If sales at the red-and-white striped tent at a gas station about a mile from Cook’s house are any indication, the Army veteran is in for a long siege.

There are about $3,000 worth of fireworks at the tent, run by Galaxy Fire Works, according to salesman Ronald Hudson. The most expensive item is a box of 36 shells fired from a tube, just like a mortar. Those sell for $119, Hudson said.

“We have about $50,000 worth of fireworks,” Hudson said, adding that sales began June 14 and will run through July 6 or 8.

Even glimpsing the tent sets Cook on edge.

“When I see it,” he says, “I know what’s coming.”

©2015 the Tampa (Fla.) Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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