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Veterans Health Administration

4th of July, PTSD, Wedding, Helping Out: Vet’s Full Agenda

Soldier in uniform

Melvin Shick, volunteer driver

America’s birthday can trigger anxiety in Veterans

fireworks display

Boom! Crackle! The sky lights up with a series of colors and flashes, then the roar of “oohs and aahs” from the crowd. Fireworks on the Fourth of July can be thrilling for Americans, but not for some of its heroes — Veterans coping with PTSD

“It’s upsetting to most Veterans with PTSD. It’s something they try to avoid,” said Dr. Jeffrey Fine, Director of the PTSD program at VA New York Harbor Healthcare System (VANYHHS). Dr. Fine said the reaction “can range from a startle to a full-blown anxiety attack and flashback of combat.” That’s why, he explained, many Veterans keep noise-canceling headphones on hand. Over the years, “some Veterans have acclimatized and have learned how to successfully minimize their reaction to fireworks, TV and sudden noises.”

Clinical Psychologist Dr. Wendy Katz, also of VANYHHS, treats many Veterans with PTSD who dread the Fourth. “The flash of light, firecrackers, can sound to them like mortar attacks.” They are often also embarrassed by their exaggerated startled reaction in front of friends and family. “I worked with one Veteran who took cover with his young son at this kind of celebration,” said Dr. Katz. “It’s very complicated for them since it’s supposed to be the birthday of freedom.”

Families can help ease the anxiety, said Clinical Psychologist Dr. Michael Kramer, a PTSD specialist at VANYHHS. If a Veteran has a strong negative reaction, he can have the support of his family and friends by anticipating a possible reaction and preparing for it. For example, if it is discussed, they can plan on where they will stand when they go out, make a point to stay close to exits and come up with a back-up plan if the Veteran has a bad reaction.” Dr. Kramer also recommended that patients avoid going out to see fireworks “if they predictably have strong negative reactions to fireworks, loud noises, and crowds.”

Dr. Fine agreed. “It’s a matter of personal choice about how much a Veteran wants to risk having to deal with a bad reaction, balanced with the reluctance to isolate themselves from the center of action.”

Large family

Veteran Melvin Shick (kneeling in front) and family gather to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Melvin Shick will be celebrating the Fourth of July with fireworks and family. And memories — of other, distant fireworks.

Army Veteran Shick served two tours in Iraq as a combat engineer and is now receiving treatment from the VA for PTSD and borderline Traumatic Brain Injury. Despite his ordeals and injuries, Shick is planning for a celebratory Fourth of July when he says, “There is no other place to live than America. This is the land of the free. I fought for this land, to keep it free from terrorists. That’s what will be on my mind on America’s birthday.”

Shick is getting married later this year to fiancee Kelly who played a big part in his return and recovery. While Melvin was waiting to be medevaced out of Iraq, she contacted personnel at the VA Medical Center in Butler, Pa., to help prepare for his return to the States.

“I have no regrets. We did our job.”

— Veteran Melvin Shick

The Butler coordinators and case managers for the Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom programs helped prepare for Melvin’s return to home life, not always an easy or automatic transition for many returning combat Veterans.

“I still need to work on things,” Shick admits, his PTSD symptoms still a part of his daily life. “After my first tour, I knew I would get agitated real quick and be a lot more restless than I was before.”

Shick credits his treament at the Butler VA with his rapid recovery. “They take care of me. I used to be very uncomfortable around crowds and people I didn’t know.”

He talks about his continuing need for “situational awareness.” “Other combat Vets will tell you this. We always want to know who’s around us. We feel we always need to stay alert.”

Even with his steady recovery, Shick is still nervous in shopping centers and large crowds. “You think people are looking at you.”

Today, following an eight-week course at Butler VA, Shick is planning on enjoying the Independence Day holiday because, “Every day I was away from America was well worth it. My dad was in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Army. I had to do what I knew all those brave Veterans had done before me.”

“I have no regrets. We did our job.”

Shick is positive and outspoken about his treatment at Butler VA. He works closely with his primary care physician to make decisions about his care. “The doctor really listens to you. He’ll work with you and help you come up with different suggestions.”

His treatment plan represents the latest in Veteran-centered care called PACT — Patient Aligned Care Team. PACT emphasizes partnerships between medical staff and Veterans for a team-based approach to care.

“They take care of me,” Shick points out.

Eager to repay the VA for his caring treament, and wanting to show other Vets that they matter, Shick volunteers his time 20 hours a week at the Butler Medical Center working as a driver for the Disabled American Veterans.

As a patient in a Community Based Warrior Transition Unit, he is able to remain on active duty and live and work at home.

“I love being able to help other Veterans,” Mevin says. “I encourage others, Veterans and non-Veterans, to volunteer at the VA. It is a great experience.”

Related links:
  National Center for PTSD
  VA Butler Healthcare