Ever since my stint in Iraq, there are now two holiday celebrations I dread because of the fireworks -Fourth of July and Near Year's Eve.
Myself and many other soldiers returned from war with an unwelcome parting gift known as post-traumatic stress disorder. It was called "shell shock" in the past and a host of other names over the years. The end results differ for everyone who suffers from this. Holidays or celebrations that involve fireworks can trigger symptoms that shake one to his or her core. In my case, it is the shakes.
I know the barrage of loud pops and booms going off all around are merely celebratory fireworks, but they send me back to those days when the booms were the harbingers of death, not sounds of celebration. All that's missing from those days is the wail of the siren announcing incoming rounds to all on base. When the siren sounded, all we could do was huddle in the tiny bunkers topped with sandbags and wait for the all-clear.
That happened a lot in my time over there in 2004-05. But it wasn't until my first Fourth of July, and later New Year's Eve, at home that the force that is PTSD slammed into my life. I already had some of the symptoms. My hands shook constantly. My left hand was the worst. I am artist on the side and left-handed. For years after I couldn't control a drawing pen. I couldn't draw or paint until recently. Holding a wrench or other tools could be a trying experience as well. And that was my job - a mechanic - during and after my time in the war. But my heart and health can no longer take it, so I write and draw instead.
I anticipate this New Year's Eve with a sense of dread for the way my body will react to the sights and sounds of fireworks blasting all around me. My heart will jackhammer, my breathing will become shallow and rapid. My hands and body will begin to shake with each loud boom. And just like those days of war, I'm helpless to control my body's response.
So I drank to numb it. Sometimes it worked. But all that booze exacts a price of its own. This year I won't be drunk. I have been nearly booze-free for close to a year now. I said nearly because I'm not perfect and it has come back from time to time, but nothing like it was after I got back from Iraq. I'm only human.
Writing this column is very difficult for me as well, but it does seem to help. For me, this is a deeply personal thing I share in the hope that others spared the horrors of war will gain a better understanding of how PTSD continues to impact our lives.
Fireworks aren't fun for me. When I hear them explode in the wee hours of the morning I begin to shake, low crawl, hide under beds or in a corner, or scream with each concussive blast. It's not pretty. I know I am not alone in this response and that my body's response doesn't mean I'm weak or a wimp. But still I dread this bi-annual ordeal.
As PTSD suffers go, my symptoms are not the worst and I am one of many soldiers left with this scar.
On behalf of all of us, I ask you to pause and reflect on how your New Year's or Fourth of July celebration may be causing unintended suffering for your neighbors.
Maybe take the big booming stuff far away from your neighborhood where it won't give fits to war vets or the animals in the neighborhood that suffer from it, too.
Alaska has the most veterans per capita of any state. As a matter of respect, I ask people to consider how this pyrotechnic celebration stands to affect them. Refrain from shooting guns and lighting off what are really small bombs in the neighborhoods of the Valley.
By the time you read this, I'll already be a nervous wreck from spending the night before with my "friend" PTSD. I will shoulder this curse for my lifetime. It's taken its toll on me in ways I am still counting. It isn't something I'd wish on my worst enemy.
It's scary for me to reveal my scars. I dread writing about PTSD as much as I dread enduring the fireworks, but it is my way of taking it by the throat and taking back control for myself.
I came home, but my war never ended. Now the fight continues deep inside of me against an unseen enemy. I am proud of serving this nation, but I am not proud of what this curse has done to me.
Wasilla resident Daniel D. Grota retired from the U.S. Army after more than 21 years of service.