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For some PTSD combat veterans, Fourth of July fireworks are painful reminder

VALRICO — As the night sky erupts with flashes and booms in celebration today, Russell Cook will probably be nestled away in his bedroom as George Strait blares from his headphones.

The combat veteran will take his medication, practice deep breathing and try to remember that he is safe. He'll do whatever he can to block out the wailing and roaring of the fireworks.

Cook, 33, served two tours in Iraq. But even at home, his post-traumatic stress disorder brings him back to the war — back to the barracks where he'd drop to the ground and make himself as small as possible to avoid flying shrapnel.

Fourth of July fireworks, for Cook and so many others with PTSD, present a new kind of problem: What's a combat veteran to do when the sky is exploding for an entire night?

The answer came in the form of a yard sign. "Combat veteran lives here," it reads. "Please be courteous with fireworks."

The sign in Cook's front yard was delivered by Military with PTSD — a nonprofit group that functions as a support network for combat veterans.

This sign, Cook said, is a conversation starter. Since he returned from the war, Cook has become overwhelmed with crippling social anxiety. The sign affords him the opportunity to answer questions and open up to his neighbors.

Courtney Oberry lives next door. It wasn't until she saw a post on Facebook that she realized fireworks were an issue for her neighbor.

"I had no clue he was even going through this," said Oberry, 37.

But she gets it. Her husband is an Army veteran. For him, sudden noises like the backfire of a car engine can take him back to Iraq.

It's important that people be empathetic and respectful, Oberry said.

Cook isn't asking that the fireworks stop altogether. This holiday is a time to celebrate, and he said he understands that. But it's called the Fourth of July, he added. Not the fifth or sixth or seventh of July.

"People might think the sign is taking from people's right to celebrate," Cook said. "I try to let them know that's not what it's for."

At least with the holiday, Cook said he can take the time to prepare himself for the commotion. But it's the thunderous bangs on arbitrary days, the times he can't brace himself, that bring out the worst of his symptoms.

"It kind of detracts from the reason we even celebrate the Fourth of July," said Cook, who was in ground surveillance for the Army, retiring as a staff sergeant in 2011. "It's the birth of our independence."

Veterans avoiding fireworks and other loud and sudden noises isn't anything new. It is, however, being discussed more frequently, said Deborah Beidel, who runs a free PTSD clinic that has treated hundreds of veterans.

Beidel is also a psychology professor at University of Central Florida, where she studies the disorder and how it can be treated.

"This is a war that's been characterized by bombs and explosions," Beidel said. "The event that happens is obviously horrific. That image is burned into a person's memory, (and) anything that triggers that memory can recreate that situation."

On the Fourth of July, conversation is key, she said, so that the veteran can have as much notice as possible and take the appropriate measures to prepare themselves.

"Think about the fact that when you hear fireworks exploding," Beidel said, "all of the sudden you're back reliving that traumatic event.

"You're back in Iraq looking around at your friends that have been killed by the bomb blast."

As the fireworks boom, Cook said he'll stick to his country music as a distraction. He's thinking about buying noise-canceling headphones.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Michael Majchrowicz at mmajchrowicz@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. Follow @mjmajchrowicz.

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