FARGO, N.D. - Sam Floberg will hunker down at a quiet place in Minnesota's Lakes Country this Fourth of July. That's because the whoosh of fireworks brings the war in Afghanistan rushing back for the combat vet.
On Thanksgiving Day 2006, Floberg was near the end of a routine patrol with his squad from the Grand Forks-based 1/188th Air Defense Artillery when "all of a sudden, rockets started flying past my head."
As the gunner in the unit's trailing Humvee, "I was like a target," the Fargo, N.D., man said.
Two rocket-propelled grenades zipped by his head. A third RPG was stopped by the vehicle's armor. Then a fourth RPG penetrated the cab, killing the driver and severing Floberg's right leg.
Floberg, who was discharged in 2009, said he went to WE Fest, a country music festival in Detroit Lakes, Minn., sometime after he came back from the war zone.
The fireworks at the end of the show set off a fight-or-flight reaction.
"I ended up locking myself in a truck for awhile," Floberg said. "For me, it took awhile to get used to fireworks again."
Therapy has helped considerably. But there are still times when he's startled, and "that's when hypervigilance kicks in," he said.
Floberg's situation is shared by many veterans who suffer some degree of post-traumatic stress from their wartime experiences. It's a cruel irony of this most patriotic and firework-filled holiday.
Independence Day celebrates freedom and the soldiers who protect that freedom. Yet the crackle of firecrackers, the boom of star-bursting rockets can send the minds of some former soldiers reeling back to faraway war zones.
Some courtesy helps
For Brad Aune, a former Marine and North Dakota Army National Guardsman, almost any day could promise an attack at Forward Operating Base Warrior, near Kirkuk, Iraq.
He was the first sergeant for Fox Battery of the 1/188th Air Defense Artillery when the unit was there in 2004 and '05.
"Almost every day we'd get some kind of mortar or rocket on our FOB," the Fargo man said. "There was quite a bit of stress with that. If you heard some sort of unexpected noise, it was not a good thing. Your brain gets kind of programmed that way."
Sounds that could be gunfire, a cannon shot or mortar can still get him to flinch, he said.
Aune doesn't avoid fireworks. He said his children let him know when they're going to fire some off. And he thinks it would help some veterans if their neighbors would do the same.
"I would never tell my neighbors not to shoot them off around me. That's their right. I fought for their right to do that. We have freedom to enjoy.
"I would appreciate, if my neighbors were going to shoot them off, they would tell me," Aune said. "Just courtesy. Just realize that some people are affected by it."
'It never goes away'
Dennis White of Fargo is commander of the Cass County Disabled American Veterans.
It's been decades since he was a 19-year-old serving as an engineer in the Vietnam War.
He's OK with fireworks when he knows where they're going off, but when "I can't get a straight line on it, it definitely puts you in a defensive posture."
Other loud sounds can affect veterans, too, he said.
"It immediately puts you on heightened alert," White said. "I'm 67, and it never goes away. There's a lot of PTSD out there, a lot of it."
At the Fargo Veterans Affairs medical center, psychologist Margo Norton leads the Post Traumatic Stress Recovery team.
In the last eight years, the VA has worked with almost 1,000 veterans from North Dakota, western Minnesota and northern South Dakota with symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
So far this year, the VA has seen more than 100 new cases of veterans with PTSD, she said.
"It's kind of ironic. ... The Fourth of July is meant to celebrate our freedom and meant to celebrate the people who sacrifice for that, and some of those very same people have a very difficult time with the way we celebrate, because the noises do very much sound like combat," Norton said.
"Absolutely, it can take them back. It's something that most of them will work on over the course of their treatment," she said, which includes gradual desensitization to loud noises and learning how to cope with their startle responses.
When it comes to fireworks, some veterans try wearing earplugs, blackening windows, seeking out quiet rooms, barricading themselves in the basement or avoiding family events altogether, Norton said.
Treatment can take just three to four months. Or it can take a year or two as a veteran works through different treatments, or drops out, then returns.
"They experience a crisis, and they come back. We're there when they need it," Norton said.
'An unexpected boom'
Eric Marts, a Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, served as a master sergeant and first sergeant for Bravo Company of the 2/136th Infantry Combined Arms Battalion.
The Moorhead man is blind because of a traumatic brain injury after numerous concussions suffered while in combat in Iraq.
"IEDs, mortar rockets, RPGs, Bravo Company kind of received it all," Marts said.
In 2006, a blast went off under a vehicle in which he was riding, and he lost vision in his right eye. He convinced superiors that because he shot his rifle left-handed, he could still be effective.
The next massive explosion rolled his Bradley fighting vehicle. Then he started losing his remaining vision. He was sent home in July 2007.
Now, his constant companion is his guide dog, Corporal Deacon.
Marts said if he knows there will be blasts at a family Fourth of July celebration, he can handle it.
"The issues I will have, being not able to see, ... is if it comes to me unexpected. If I'm outside with my dog or something and there's an unexpected boom, I'll be honest, that can startle me. I know it's Fourth of July, but still, I jump," Marts said.
Other noises affect Marts, too. He can't see lightning, so the crash of thunder may catch him off guard. The heavy boom of a dump truck's gate swinging closed or train cars hooking up at night grab his attention. He also lives next to a shooting range.
"I get to hear gunfire all the time. I'm in just one heck of a spot," Marts joked.
Despite all that, he wishes he could watch the fireworks. And even though he knows there will be moments of unease, Marts hopes others fully enjoy the holiday.
"Happy birthday, America! That's the main point."
Signs of PTSD
Here are some signs of PTSD, shared by psychologist Margo Norton of the Fargo Veterans Affairs medical center.
- Intrusive memories: Thinking of a traumatic event pulls you mentally away from what you are doing. There can also be nightmares or flashbacks.
- You avoid things that remind you of the experience or talking about it.
- Negative emotions or emotional detachment: You numb all your thoughts and feelings, often with the exception of anger, which sets off a fight-or-flight response.
- Hypervigilance: Sufferers have extreme reactions to situations and can have sleep problems.
Veterans can call the VA for help at (701) 239-3700. To learn more, visit www.ptsd.va.gov.